Windsor residents rejoice after mysterious hum goes silent

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The infamous and mysterious Windsor Hum appears to have faded out, leaving Detroit's neighbors across the river whistling a happy tune.

For nearly a decade, residents of Windsor and some of its suburbs complained of an annoying, throbbing, low-frequency rumble that invaded some people's ears and others felt in their chests.

Researchers ultimately blamed the hum on the U.S. Steel plant on Zug Island — and as operations at the Great Lakes Works blast furnace petered out in the spring, so did complaints. The University of Windsor's Colin Novak said he hasn't heard a peep lately from the hum or the people who hated it.

Researches ultimately blamed the hum on the U.S. Steel plant on Zug Island.

"We feel the source was the blast furnace," said Novak, a mechanical engineering professor who led a study on the hum in 2013. While U.S. Steel would never let him onto Zug Island to collect data, "the proof is in the pudding."

The hum was inaudible to some but infuriating to others. Novak, 52, said he noticed it often, more so at his office than at home. It was sporadic and short-term, most often heard in the evening, and he theorizes it was generated by the furnace running at warp speed, with maximal capacity making the metallic foundation shiver.

"There's no proof to back anything like that up," he cautioned, but in the absence of information from the company, it's the best explanation he can muster. Meghan Cox, a U.S. Steel spokeswoman, said Tuesday she had no comment.

Officially, the company said in April that the furnace at Great Lakes Works in River Rouge was "indefinitely idled," with job losses there and a hot strip mill in Ecorse estimated at more than 1,500.

Though it seems unlikely that an old, coal-fired plant with more than $2.2 million in EPA fines across the past five years would be reopened, geodynamics engineer Tim Carpenter of Northport warns that the fat lady has not necessarily sung on the Windsor Hum.

Carpenter is affiliated with a Facebook group called the Windsor/Essex County Hum, a clearinghouse for condemnation of a rumble some found incapacitating. "If the plant comes back on board, they may be hearing more noise," he said.

Carpenter, 75, said he believes the hum came mostly from Great Lakes Works and partially from a pair of basic oxygen furnaces further Downriver.

He based his findings on two universities' noise studies, various properties of climate and topography, and simple logic: "The two primary sources are gone, and there's an almost total lack of complaints on the website."

Carpenter's wife has family in Windsor, where he'd feel the Windsor Hum in his chest cavity, "not unlike the unlimited hydroplanes on the Detroit River."

But another family member told him, "I've heard that all the time. I thought it was the refrigerator."

Windsor artist Natalee Labiak, 48, said she and her late mother used to go looking for the source of the hum. She remembered standing on the seat of a parked Honda CR-V, her body halfway through the moon roof as she peered around her for clues.

"It was the detective gene in us," she said, coupled with their particularly acute hearing.

Labiak would hear the hum, associate it with the blast furnace, and speculate on what seemed like accelerated steelmaking: "Maybe the U.S. is gearing up for war."

Jay Henderson of south Windsor, conversely, wasn't always sure what he was sensing. He just knew it wasn't garden equipment.

"I'd ask my wife, 'What is that? Is that the Windsor Hum?'" he said. "We'd look around the neighborhood. We knew it wasn't anybody's lawnmower."

Henderson, 48, acknowledged that he hadn't heard the hum recently — but he hadn't given it much thought.

"My wife," he said, "will tell you that I don't hear a lot of things."

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn