Zug Island

Image: Zug Island in 1930. From River Rouge Historical Museum, http://www.riverrougemuseum.com/page2.php?view=preview&category=16&image=1415.

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Across West Jefferson Avenue in Delray lies the mysterious Zug Island. On Google Maps, it is a dark mass of land covered with heavy industry factories and black smog. In person, one can only view Zug Island from afar. The privately owned island is off limits to the public and there is little known about what occurs on the island. In contrast to Zug Island’s hazy present, the island had much more transparency in the past.

Located at the junction of the Detroit River and the River Rouge, the peninsula that would later become Zug Island was purchased by Samuel Zug in the 1850s as a potential investment. However, the marshy land made the land uninhabitable, and Zug allowed the River Rouge Improvement Company to turn the peninsula into an island in 1888 as a way to better connect River Rouge to the Detroit River.

In 1891, George Brady and Charles Noble purchased the island from Zug for $300,000 with plans of turning the land into an isolated industrial dumping ground for the booming manufacturing companies in nearby Delray. While searching for gas in the marshy grounds, Noble and Brady struck salt beneath their new property. A geological survey showed that the land beneath the island contained a wealth of limestone and salt. A well 1,620 feet deep was set up on the island to retrieve salt and limestone. Salt was used to create soda ash, used in manufacturing of glass, and other by-products used in manufacturing. The island’s location on two significant waterways, along with the rail lines and docks that had been constructed nearby as part of the International Fair, allowed ease of transportation and made the island a desirable location for industries.

Swift and Co. Salt Company, Delray, 1900. Image from River Rouge Historical Museum.

In 1895, the exposition building for the International Exposition and Fair of 1889 was torn down and replaced with the new Solvay Processing Company, a prominent soda ash producer. The plant was located across the River Rouge from Zug Island, but the company also bought wells covering 100 acres of Zug Island from which it extracted salt and then brought the raw material across the river to be processed into soda ash. Within a decade of the grand exposition, the entire fairground was cleared for salt mining interests. Zug Island became an integral but problematic part of Delray, physically separated from the community but emitting enough pollutants that its presence could never be forgotten.

While Zug Island is no longer a source for salt, petroleum coke and steel are still being produced on the island. With smoke stacks reigning high, Brady’s and Noble’s original vision of Zug Island as an industrial dumping ground has to some extent been realized. The island’s early uninhabitability made its use for industrial projects logical. But family homes in Delray, just on the other side of the canal, highlights the environmental impacts of mixing land uses in certain regions. Instead of seeking to use the land in ways that would be compatible with existing residents and with the landscape’s natural characteristics, people fundamentally and repeatedly changed it, turning it into an “organic machine” that poses risks to environmental and human health all around it.

Click here to see all narratives on Delray

Click here to see a timeline of events in Delray

Click here to see resources for further reading on Delray

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