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Thread: Motor City Midnight

  1. #1
    Cinderpath Guest

    Default Motor City Midnight

    Author’s Note: This is the essay, photos and complete captions in their entirety in the CTC Board Feb 2006 “Day in North America Issue” on 46 and 47. I am posting this to provide a better context of the photos-
    Enjoy- M. Ross Valentine

    Motor City Midnight

    Goin' to Detroit Michigan,
    Girl I can't take you.
    Hey I'm goin' to Detroit Michigan,
    Girl, you got to stay here behind.
    Goin' to get me a job,
    On the Cadillac assembly line.

    From the blues song: Cadillac Assembly Line - Albert King

    The pulse of manufacturing in the Motor City continues to roll; the speed however changes with the ups and downs of the economy. When one watches the news, the conclusion would be that the place is one of rusting, derelict, abandoned, factories. In reality it is an odd mix of extremely modern and new factories with the absolute latest in technology, next to....rusting, derelict abandoned factories. Detroit: an ever-evolving experiment in manufacturing, some successful, some failed, some simply tired and worn out. What many people don't realize is the vast amount of manufacturing that goes on in South East Michigan: there are still well over a hundred major manufacturing facilities in the area, supported by thousands of smaller factories. There is probably no greater concentration of large scale, heavy manufacturing in North America than the Detroit-Windsor area- even today. While the majority of this, is the curse of the cyclical nature of the auto-industry, another major industry here is one very few people know about: factory automation. There are factories that literally make factories here. Making things is in the blood.

    Detroit is in many ways vastly different than other big cities from a transportation aspect: rather than pass through the city on a destination to another big city on the East or West coast, freight in the Detroit area either originates here: new autos, auto parts, stampings, frames, engines, transmissions, castings, salt, steel, chemicals, containers, food stuff or terminates here: coal, coke, iron ore, coiled steel (some local, some imported), chemicals again, scrap metal, cement, lumber, auto parts, plastic pellets, produce, and just about every other kind of raw material you can think of. It all gets consumed, processed and transformed into a finished product, and in massive quantities, then shipped out again. Its been this way since Henry Ford offered a $5 a day wage: a place people come to work, amass fortunes, from all walks of life, from all parts of the planet. Or it is a place they try to escape.

    The three photos here were taken a less than a mile from each other, all represent the real, gritty, industrial side of Detroit, far from the lush green golf courses in Grosse Pointe or Bloomfield Hills that hosted the Ryder Cup. It’s the one not shown in tourist brochures, or where they want visitors to go during the Super Bowl. It is the capitalist place that still generates wealth, poverty, triumphs, struggles, music, literature, art, crime, and corruption and everything else. In many ways it is the lost Detroit few people in the suburbs know even exist. For a photographer, the appeal can’t be denied.

    Attachment 1348

    Despite there being a lot of rail traffic in the area, the geographic placement of Detroit lies north of the major east-west trunk lines between Chicago and New York, the city misses out on through traffic when compared with places like Cleveland. There is one exception however: Canadian Pacific. CP Rail trains, there are lots of them, utilize the route from Ontario, across Michigan, around Chicago, and then north again to the western Canadian provinces. CP recently moved the majority of its traffic from CSX on the former Pere Marquette to the shorter and more direct NS route on the ex- Wabash and NYC route to Chicago. In the scene above a CP Rail westward train is entering the limits of NS’s ever-choked Oakwood yard, while a NS local waits for the CP to clear. The Fort Street overpass affords a panorama of catalytic crackers, refining equipment, oil storage tanks, high tension lines, and a huge salt mine, right below the rail yard that is 1,140 feet below the surface and covers 1,500 acres, and over 100 miles of roads, and is also a rail shipper.

    Attachment 1349

    Photos can be deceiving: while the photo appears to be quiet and calm, the fiery, foggy, glow comes from the howling blast furnace on Zug Island. Ahead lie the drawbridge and tower over the River Rouge into the depths of hell, for any outsider who has ever set foot inside a steel mill. Molten steel “Hot bottle” trains shuttle back and forth along here from Great Lakes Steel (now part of US Steel) blast furnace, to the other US Steel Mill a few miles to the south, every half- hour or so. Man made Zug Island is strictly off-limits to visitors, and its 102 year-old tenant railroad “Delray Connecting” remains somewhat of a mystery. Its 15 minutes of fame, well actually four, was when the island was the scene of a major battle in the 1987 film RoboCop.

    Attachment 1350

    With a navigable river, railroads and highways all intersecting in close proximity to each other, the chances of one form of transport holding up another are just part of daily life. Finally in the quiet of the night, the classic 620’ 1943 great lakes freighter “Manistee” shines her way though the Rouge River passing Conrail Shared Assets Area’s Bridge Tower underneath the gargantuan former Michigan Central drawbridge up to the Rouge Complex to deliver a load of Minnesota’s finest ore, that will someday be a part of somebody’s Ford F-150 pickup. All a part of the daily life of the Motor City.
    Last edited by Bob; 05-16-2006 at 04:06 AM.

  2. #2


    You'll notice that it says I edited the essay. I did, but only to put the photos where Ross indicated they should go. No text was changed...

    This is a very nicely done essay. I really like the detail in the descriptions he's posted. Much more than a simple caption, there's a story told in the words and pictures. Working together, the photo and words tell you the story that the author saw.

    I haven't been to Detroit, but I grew up in Pittsburgh, and they share a lot of the same "look and feel". The photos capture this well, and the description hints at what it's like. (I say "hints" since you can't really understand a blast furnace unless you've been there. It's a lot like the classic description of Hell...)

    I vote for approval.
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

  3. #3


    I keep going back to the ship photo, I find it fascinating. Was it raining or snowing when you to the photo? There seems to be some kind of mist or something in the beam of light. I guess that's what makes the light so visible.
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

  4. #4
    Cinderpath Guest

    Default Thanks Bob-

    Thanks Bob, and thank you for placing the photos where they belong-


  5. #5
    Cinderpath Guest


    Great Lakes Boats are a second love. I could post a lot of boat photos actually, this one turned out to be a favorite. The boat was in the mist creating the unusual reflection. It was a fluke it turned out- I shot it a ASA 800 at a 1/3 of a second. It was one of those moments when you push the shutter, then scratch your head that it actually turned out on the playback screen.

  6. #6


    Good stuff, as always. Send it top side with my ground in grease stained thumb pointing up.

    Martin Burwash

  7. Default

    Just outstanding! These photos really capture the 'romantic' side of industry. Lights, reflections, mysterious shapes, all very beautifully done. The text is well written and conveys a deep understanding of industry in the Detroit area as well as a certain journalistic flare that keeps the reader engaged.

    Print it!

  8. #8


    I'd been holding this one for a bit, hoping for a bit more feedback from the reviewers. I certainy agree with Martin that it's a great essay, but I also feel that if we simply say "looks great!" we're not really providing useful information on what makes it a great essay. Is it the photos, the text, how they fit together, something else that's not obvious?

    However, with all the debate over DINA, I'm going to release this one since it does have three yes votes and hope that it will add to the discussion.
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

  9. #9
    Lorne Miller Guest


    ...very nice work indeed, I've always been a fan of night've captures some very moody scenes with the first two shots, my son who also loves night shots is in absolute awe and sat there saying " fair, how did he do that?"
    ...again, my compliments on a very good job...


    Lorne Miller

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    Zanesville, Ohio


    I waited until I got my copy of the DINA issue, just to see was changed. The captions were actually fairly well edited, at least not as clumsily hacked as the rest of them seemed to be. I enjoy the photos very much, the big industrial grandeur of Detriot, in what seems to be a quiet moment. Nicely done, Mr. Valentine.
    Chris Crook

    pictures and yap

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