Fort Street Bridge Park

130 South Fort Street at the south pod of the Fort Street Bridge over the
River Rouge in southwest Detroit

In the early 1920s, Henry Ford began expanding his factory at the nearby River Rouge complex in Dearborn.  He wished to have his Great Lakes steamships deliver iron ore, limestone, coal and other such products to the huge steel mills he was building there.  To accomplish that, he made sure the humble River Rouge was suitable for navigation from its mouth to the River Rouge complex.  A very large turning basin was constructed there, one that can be seen from the Dix Avenue bridge over the River Rouge.  But if large ships were to traverse the River Rouge, there was a challenge that had to be overcome.  The Jefferson Avenue, Fort Street and Dix Avenue bridges crossing the River Rouge did not provide clearance for large ships.  Thus, bascule bridges were constructed for these thoroughfares.  I believe the design of these bridges was done by the Chicago Bascule Bridge Company and they were built by Bethlehem Steel Bridge Corporation.  The one they designed in 1922 for Dix Avenue is still in use today.  The Fort Street Bridge was its contemporary.

Bridges get old and need to be replaced.  The State of Michigan is responsible for the Fort Street Bridge.  In 2013, they contracted with the Toebe Company of Wixom to design and build a new bridge.  This was originally scheduled to be opened in 2014 but there were delays and this impressive new bridge did not go into operation until January 3, 2016.  This is a 278-foot-long bascule bridge with five lanes for vehicles along with footpaths on both side of the vehicle way; each of them eight feet wide.  The total cost of the new bridge was about $46 million dollars and it weighs 8.2 million pounds.

The former Fort Street Bridge bore the State of Michigan Historical Marker commemorating the 1932 Hunger March.  Of course that plaque was removed.  A small area at the south end of the new bridge, approximately one-half acre, has been designated the Fort Street Bridge Park.  It will be a park commemorating this very significant event in the history of the labor movement.  But it will also seek to emphasize the history of industry in this area of Detroit and Dearborn as well as the emerging concern with the environment.

The stock market crash of October, 1929 was followed by the nation’s most serious Depression.  Vehicle production in 1931 was one-quarter what it was in 1929.  Most auto workers were without work in an era when there was no unemployment compensation.  Those workers who held on to their jobs were earning, in 1932, about 40 percent as much as they did in 1929.  In early 1932, the state of Michigan closed the state’s banks since they were on the verge of insolvency, thereby wiping out the savings depositors accumulated.   There were few, if any, state of federal relief programs so many depended upon bread lines and soup kitchens such as the one the Capuchin monks ran—and continue to operate—at Bonaventure Monastery on Mount Elliott.

Many unemployed men gathered daily in Grand Circus Park where speakers tried to convince them to support radical changes that might put people back to work.  The Communist Party was very active at this time, arguing that capitalism was a failed system that primarily exploited workers for the interests of rich business owners.  One of their leading spokespersons, William Foster, came to Detroit, portrayed Henry Ford as a very rich man even in the Depression and pointed out that his tremendous wealth came from the hard labor of the unemployed who frequently  gathered in Grand Circus Park.  He made a dozen or so demands on Henry Ford, including the reemployment of all those who lost their jobs, the reestablishment of the 1929 wage rates and a demand that Ford pay his workers and former workers a grant so that they might buy coal to heat their homes in winter.  Very few, if any, auto workers were union members at this time, but for years, there had been sporadic efforts to unionize those who assembled cars and trucks in Detroit.

Two Communist organizations—the Detroit Unemployed Council and the Auto, and Vehicle Workers of America—called for a march on the Ford River Rouge complex for Monday March 7, 1932.  This was to demonstrate the solidarity of the unemployed and to deliver the demands William Foster annunciated to the representatives of the Ford Firm.  Detroit Mayor Frank Murphy granted a permit for the march and three to five thousand gathered on Fort Street in Detroit near this bridge.  They turned to their left from Fort Street onto Miller to approach the River Rouge complex.  When they got to the Detroit-Dearborn border they were met by the Dearborn Police force who attempted to turn them back using tear gas and truncheons to beat the marchers.  The police were not successful in turning back the marchers who continued approaching the River Rouge plant.

They advanced about another mile to the gates of the River Rouge plant on Miller.  Here the Ford fire department and security forces began spraying them with high power hoses.  It was assumed that this would be very effective since Monday March 7, 1932 was extremely cold.  The marchers apparently had success in using axes to cut the hoses.  At this point, the Dearborn police began firing into the crowd killing  Joe DeBlasio, Coleman Leny and Joe York and injuring another 22 with their gunfire.

With three marchers killed, the organizers called off the event and tried to lead an orderly retreat into Detroit where the police would not shoot them.  As this was occurring, the militant head of Ford’s Security Force, Harry Bennett, drove up to the scene.  The marchers recognized him and pelted his car with rocks.  He fired at them from his car and then the Dearborn police and Ford security forces joined in the shooting.  This led to the death of Joe Bussell and the wounding of about dozen more marchers.  After this, the violence ended and the surviving marchers returned to Detroit. This confrontation was extensively covered in the press so there are many graphics pictures of the bloodshed.  Three months after the event, an African-American man, Curtis Williams, died from his wounds.

Immediately, after the event the Ford public relations team effectively portrayed the event as an attempt by highly organized Communist group to forcefully take over an important symbol of the capitalist system.  For the most part, they were successful in this portrayal.  For the most part, the press strongly endorsed the views of the Ford firm, although Mayor Murphy was a dissenter who blamed Ford for the violence and strongly defended the right of the workers to march to the gates of the River Rouge plant to present their demands.

Lawyers for workers in Detroit demanded that a grand jury be called to investigate the Dearborn Police and Ford Security forces for using excessive violence that caused five deaths and about 60 injuries.  Supporters of the Ford management, on the contrary, argued that the leaders of the Communist group should be indicted for murder.  A grand jury was called but no one was indicted for the violence of March 7, 1932.  Indeed, the inquest laid some blame on the police and security forces, but also on the march organizers and the marchers.  It is quite interesting to observe that some 85 years after the event, a park is being established in Detroit to commemorate the struggle working people made to get jobs and wages.

The area just to the west of the forthcoming Fort Street Bridge Park is located very close to the Marathon Oil Refinery, a refinery that was retrofitted at a cost of $2.1 billion to process oil sands from Alberta.  In 2010, Marathon announced that they would purchase all the homes in this Oakwood Heights neighborhoods. Renters were paid a sum to move out if they wished and owners were offered considerably more than the assessed value of their residences.  Within a few years, about 90 percent of the residential structures were purchased by Marathon.  They are in the process of creating a green space in the former Oakwood Heights neighborhood.

Website describing the historic 1922 Fort Street Bridge:
Website describing the new Fort Street Bridge Park:
State of Michigan Historical Marker for the Hunger March: As of 2016, it had not been installed in the new park.  The Ford Hunger March marker was installed on the former Fort Street Bridge in 1992.
Use in 2017:  Area undergoing development as a park
Photograph:  Ren Farley; Summer, 2016
Description updated: January, 2017

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