America's industrial past is drawing tourists in increasing numbers
By REBECCA POWERS | Special to The Washington Post | Published: March 9, 2018
Trip-planning multiple choice: a) Mountains b) Sand c) Surf d) Factories.
If you picked the last vacation option, you've got company.
"We're finding a hunger," says Michael Boettcher, an urban planner and industrial-history buff. "Everyone has been to Disney World, and it's like, what else you got?"
In Japan, it's popular to take nighttime boat cruises past glittering industrial superstructures. In Germany's Ruhr industrial powerhouse region, bicyclists meander a landscape that has turned recreational. And in Canada, 1920s wooden grain elevators, dubbed the Five Prairie Giants, draw sightseers to the Manitoba plains.
The appeal? "It gives you a sense of where we've been and how that has made us who we are," Boettcher says.
On a gray November Sunday in Detroit, I joined an assembled group of about 30 people clustered in white hard hats as they awaited a tour of the city's vacant Packard auto plant. Pure Detroit, a Motor City-centric retailer and advocate, offers the excursions; Boettcher was the guide. At the sign-in booth, souvenir Packard Plant Tigers T-shirts were on display, the logo referring to the time a tiger got loose inside the abandoned plant during an ill-advised photo shoot.
For $40, visitors can walk the 1903 structures where workers once punched a time clock and produced voluptuous luxury cars. In its day, it was considered one of the most modern car plants in the world. Now, its oxidized, eerie beauty attracts explorers from distant points, including two from France on the day I ventured inside.
Packard tourists are getting a pre-redevelopment glimpse of the vast complex, which is now owned by international developer Fernando Palazuelo. His company, Arte Express Detroit, plans to invest $350 million into a proposed dramatic transformation, which is in progress.
For now, the sprawling space feels raw and unmanaged, a stark contrast to styled, branded tourist destinations.
The United States is dotted with industrial remains dating back centuries. In Massachusetts, the circa-1600s Saugus Iron Works, called the birthplace of the American iron and steel industry, is a National Historic Site. Alabama's Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, which produced pig iron beginning in 1882, is described as a web of pipes and towering stoves that stand as a "monument to the Industrial Revolution." Among its other current uses, metal arts classes are offered there. And in Seattle's Gas Works Park, a major, creative overhaul included converting a former boiler house into a picnic shelter.
Detroit's Packard Plant, visitors learn, was built in a cow pasture and became a mass-production operation, with 40,000 employees by 1940. Now, six decades after Packard shut down, it's slated for a new generation of mixed-use tenants, including an architectural firm, a public relations company and a barbershop. A brewery and restaurant is planned for one of the smaller buildings. The reinvention is expected to take 10 to 15 years, with the first phase alone requiring 260 new windows, Boettcher says.
As he speaks, his audience fans out in silent awe, snapping photos of crumbling concrete and graffiti that seems to be an effort to rewrite history, a story that includes cars that once attracted the eye of mobster Bugsy Siegel, who owned a 1933 Packard limousine. Packard cars are now museum pieces; five are on display across town at the Henry Ford collection in suburban Dearborn.
In the plant's administration building, arched doorways, dentil molding and detailing in the classic egg-and-dart motif remain. The lobby recalled my own experience as a reporter in an early 1900s-era building — one created by architect Albert Kahn, whose long list of Detroit designs includes the Packard Plant. The stone stairs I raced up and down on deadline were worn down by the feet of generations of newspaper people before me — physical evidence of time, place and work.
The decrepit structures are called "ruin porn" by industrial tourism's detractors. "I have a hard time hating the term," Boettcher says. "It's pithy. But there's so much to know. What's behind it. What made it that way."
Steven A. Walton, executive secretary of the Society for Industrial Archaeology (SIA), an organization that seeks to preserve the nation's industrial heritage, says sanctioned and preserved manufacturing sites tell us the "stories of our own mothers and fathers and grandmothers and grandfathers."
Walton, an engineer and professor of history at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan, says such places also provide an understanding of production. "Even in a gutted factory," he says, "bolts and stains and tracks on the floor, overhead cranes" show the division of labor, of "thousands of people working in a coordinated symphony."
Many such sites are being preserved to illustrate the former manufacturing way of life.
In the 1990s, the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area was created in eight counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania around Pittsburgh. Last year, a record number of people toured the area's four industrial sites, a spokesperson told me via email. The Rivers experience highlights the steel industry and also showcases historic graffiti and the work of guerrilla artists, who built sculptures in the abandoned structures during the era of abandonment. The impact of industry on the environment is also a focus.
In Dayton, Ohio, the Wright Co. airplane factory, built in 1910 for flight pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright, is now part of the National Aviation Heritage Area. Monthly tours are offered while the property remains under negotiation and restoration.
The Aviation Area's website includes a video statement from David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author of "The Wright Brothers." In the video, McCullough describes the importance of preserving manufacturing history.
"I'd like to be able to walk in here and see their airplanes being built in various stages," he says. "I'd like to see the tools that were used. The saws, the lathes and that sort of thing. I'd like to see where they had lunch. I'd like to see the whole world, the whole reality, the community at work."
McCullough says early airplane production was one of the most important developments of all time, one that changed the world. "Structures contain a story of importance to the country and the world," he says.
They also tell the story of our consumption.
As Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, a 2005 TED Prize winner whose work has focused on industry, said in his TED speech, seeing factories prompts us to consider "the collective appetite for our lifestyle and what we're doing to the landscape."
For families with children growing up in an era of 3-D printing production and working remotely from the comfort of a sofa, touring manufacturing sites might be as important as taking wildlife walks.
In another kind of environment — a man-made one that generated a soundtrack of clangs, hisses, grinding, knocks and roars — they'll hear the lingering silence of what once was.
Industrial structures are being reimagined as art galleries, event spaces, museums and parks. They're also being preserved as tourism sites that highlight early manufacturing. Here are some to consider.
• Carrie Furnaces, Rankin, Pennsylvania: Part of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage area, it includes a blast-furnace tour of the iron-making process that drove the Pittsburgh-area economy.
• Gas Works Park, Seattle: A former coal gasification plant was reimagined as a public park and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Landscape architect Richard Haag included the existing boiler house and exhauster-compressor as iconic features.
• Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, Elverson, Pennsylvania:This 848-acre site includes restored structures that were part of an iron plantation. The nearly self-sufficient community, a forerunner to company towns, operated from 1771 to 1883.
• Inglis Grain Elevators National Historic Site, Inglis, Manitoba: Circa-1920s slope-shouldered wooden grain elevators, dubbed the five prairie giants, represent the golden era of Western Canada's role as a global breadbasket.
• Quincy Mine, Hancock, Michigan: America's copper boom in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is revealed through several tours. Part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park.
• Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site, Saugus, Massachusetts: Home to working waterwheels, forges, mills and a 17th-century dwelling.
• Silo City, Buffalo: Tours to the top of these grain elevators (10 stories via stairs, plus a few ladder rungs) or at ground level, illustrate how malt was made from barley.
• Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham, Alabama: The site that produced pig iron from 1882 to 1970 is called a "monument to the Industrial Revolution" and is a National Historic Landmark. Sloss Metal Arts offers classes in casting, welding and blacksmithing.
• Washburn A Mill, Minneapolis: A museum beside the Mississippi River occupies the ruins of the 1874 A Mill, which was destroyed by a flour-dust explosion.
• U.S. Military Academy Foundry Preserve, Cold Spring, New York: This 1818 ironworks is a keystone of the American industrial revolution. The artillery it produced helped win the Civil War. Visitors now hike among its ruins. On the National Register of Historic Places.
• Wright Co. Factory, Dayton, Ohio: Wilbur and Orville Wright opened their aircraft factory in 1910. The building is part of the National Aviation Heritage Area, which includes the Aviation Trail.
• National Heritage Areas: The National Park Service has 13 National Heritage Areas whose primary themes are industrialization or technological advancement. Two are described above; Here are the 11 others: America's Agricultural Heritage Partnership, Iowa; Augusta Canal National Heritage Area, Georgia; Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, Pennsylvania; Erie Canalway National Heritage Corridor, New York; John H. Chafee Blackstone River Valley National Heritage Corridor, Massachusetts; Lackawanna Valley National Heritage Area, Pennsylvania.; MotorCities National Heritage Area, Michigan; National Coal Heritage Area, West Virginia; Ohio and Erie National Heritage Canalway, Ohio; Oil Region National Heritage Area, Pennsylvania; Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
If you go
E. Grand Boulevard at Concord Avenue, Detroit
One of the many relics of industry that dot the modern landscape, the plant is a physical illustration of the evolution of manufacturing. The sprawling, forlorn automotive factory is undergoing a massive redevelopment. While that is underway, tours of the onetime industrial powerhouse provide a picture of the setting in which workers earned a paycheck while building objects of desire and fueling America's economic engine. Closed-toe shoes and hard harts must be worn throughout the tour, and participants must be 18 or older. The tour starts at 1585 E. Grand Blvd. Tickets cost $40.
Powers is a writer based in Detroit. Her website is rebeccapowers.com.