On this day in 1918, production began at the historic Ford River Rouge plant.
At the height of production in the 1930s, more than 100,000 people clocked in at “The Rouge” regularly. Operating such a massive production complex required intricate coordination and planning. Besides assembly lines for building automobiles, the complex also included a massive power plant, 100 miles of railroad track and its own police and fire departments.
The Rouge is now called the Ford Rouge Center. The 600-acre site remains Ford Motor Co.’s largest single industrial complex. Now under revitalization, the complex will include one of the world’s most advanced and flexible manufacturing facilities, capable of building up to nine different models on three vehicle platforms. The Dearborn Truck Plant will become the centerpiece of the new Ford Rouge Center, the largest industrial redevelopment project in U.S. history and the flagship of Ford’s vision of sustainable manufacturing for the future.
Henry Ford’s plan in creating the Rouge was to attain complete self-sufficiency by owning, operating and coordinating all the resources needed for automotive production. At the time, Michigan was ideally suited for automotive production because many of the raw materials needed were located within Michigan, including forests, iron mines and limestone quarries. Ford also owned coal mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and a rubber plantation in Brazil.
Ford’s vision was never fully realized, as bringing all aspects of auto production under one roof — or at least within one complex — proved too unwieldy. Still, no other auto manufacturer came as close.
Ford’s massive production complex is located a few miles south of Detroit at the confluence of the Rouge and Detroit rivers. Originally, the Rouge was 1.5 miles wide and more than a mile long. The plant encompassed 93 buildings totaling more than 15.7 million square feet of floor space served by a network of 120 miles of conveyors. Equipment included ore docks, steel furnaces, coke ovens, rolling mills, glass furnaces and plate-glass rollers. Buildings included a tire-making plant, stamping plant, engine casting plant, frame and assembly plant, transmission plant, radiator plant, and a tool and die plant. At one point, the complex even included a paper mill. There was even a soybean conversion plant that turned soybeans into plastic auto parts.
To construct the Rouge, Ford began buying the property in 1915. Originally, the Rouge was intended to support America’s efforts in World War I. In 1917, a three-story structure, Building B, was erected on the Rouge site to build Eagle Boats, warships intended to hunt down German submarines. However, the war ended before the Ford Eagle Boats ever went into action.
The first land vehicles assembled in the Rouge were farm tractors. In 1921, production of the world’s first mass-produced tractor, the Fordson, was transferred from the original Dearborn plant to the Rouge. Production of passenger vehicles came with the production of Model A’s in the late 1920s. Other notable vehicles produced there include the Ford Thunderbird, Mustang and F-150 pickup truck.
The Great Depression didn’t halt production at the plant, but cost-cutting measures did make life harder for workers, which helped give way to the growing union movement. Ford resisted unionization attempts, and believed companies should deal directly with workers. However, auto workers wanted to work together to collectively bargain in order to negotiate better working terms with Ford.
The tension erupted in the famous Battle of the Overpass on May 26, 1937, when a group of union organizers led by Walter Reuther attempted to distribute union literature at the Rouge. Ford security and a gang of hired thugs beat them severely. It would mark a turning point in organization efforts, and Ford would eventually recognize union representation.
During World War II, production shifted to jeeps, amphibious vehicles, parts for tanks and tank engines, and aircraft engines used in fighter planes and medium bombers.
After the death of Henry Ford in 1947, ideas about how to best run an auto company began to change. Instead of having all production concentrated at one plant, new auto leaders — including Henry Ford II — began to develop a decentralized and more global approach. Rather than having all aspects of production in-house, automakers began developing networks of suppliers for their raw materials, and later, auto parts.
Production at the Rouge dwindled. In 1992, the only car still built at the Rouge, the Ford Mustang, was about to be eliminated and assembly operations in Dearborn Assembly terminated. UAW Local 600, which represents workers at the plant, worked with Alex Trotman — then president of Ford’s North American Operations — set out to keep the Mustang in production and to keep production in the Rouge. Together, the company and the UAW established a modern operating agreement and fostered numerous innovations to increase efficiency and quality. The company, for its part, would redesign and reintroduce the Mustang, and invest in modern equipment.
Tours of the Rouge are now offered as part of the Henry Ford Museum on Mondays through Saturdays.