Monday, May 19, 2014

On the Waterfront: the Detroit River

The city of Detroit is situated on the west side of the Detroit River. This river has great hydrologic, commercial, and ecological importance to the Lakes and the Upper Midwest.

First, the river connects the upper Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, and Huron) with Lake Erie to the south. This means that almost all the water from the upper lakes passes through this channel on its way to the lower lakes and, eventually, to the Atlantic Ocean.  The water flows southwest from Lake Huron via the St. Clair River to Lake St. Clair and thence through the Detroit River southwest and south past the city on the way to Lake Erie. (It is confusing, but one major water passage has two names.)

Second, the Detroit River today forms part of the most extensive inland deep-draft waterway in the world. The Great Lakes Waterway is also known as the St. Lawrence Seaway.  Ocean-going ships can penetrate from saltwater deep into the continent (all the way to Duluth at the west end of Lake Superior) and carry cargo without having to offload to smaller vessels. This is an immense economic benefit to reduce the cost of rehandling. Most other extensive inland waterways, such as China's canals, the Rhine, the Danube, the Volga, and the Mississippi north of Baton Rouge, are shallow-draft, meaning designed for barges and inland vessels. They typically only have draft of 6-9 ft. But, the Federal Navigation Project in the Detroit River has a project depth of 27 ft, which is maintained by dredging.  Therefore, much larger cargo vessels can ply the Great Lakes and carry bulk materials such as coal, iron ore, gravel, cement, corn, wheat, and bulky manufactured goods. Panamax-class container vessels cannot enter the Lakes, but lesser-draft lake and ocean vessels have passage most of the year (depending on ice cover). There have been proposals to enlarge the locks along the St. Lawrence Seaway and deepen the channels sufficiently to allow Panamax vessels to carry cargo all the way into the Lakes, but such a project would cost billions and takes decades. It is unlikely this will ever happen.

As far as I know, there are only four deep-draft inland waterways in the world:
  1. The St. Lawrence Seaway as far as Duluth, Minnesota
  2. Congo River as far as Matadi
  3. Rio Orinoco as far as the CaronĂ­ River (approx. 225 miles)
  4. Rio Amazonas as far as Manaus, Brazil
Possibly you could include the Thames, lower Mekong, and the Port of Rotterdam to this list, but I think of these as dredged river mouths rather than an improved system with locks and/or major dredging to allow ships deep into a land mass.

Third, the Detroit River is of major biological importance because its fishery resources move freely across the boundary between two nations (Canada and USA), and represent millions or billions of dollars in revenue each year to each nation.

The Detroit riverfront was formerly an industrial area of warehouses and factories, but has been converted to recreational use in the last decade or so.  It is really pleasant on a warm sunny evening to walk along the embankment and watch ships pass and people enjoy themselves.
Interesting people hang out on a summer evening.
This view shows the International Riverfront and Rivard Plaza Merry-Go-Round. The cluster of glass towers in the distance is the Renaissance Center, also known as the General Motors Renaissance Center. The four 39-story corner buildings are office towers, while the 73-story unit in the middle is the Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center. With 1298 rooms, it is a large hotel on any standard.

The complex was originally conceived by Henry Ford II and other businessmen in 1970 as a way to forge a Renaissance in downtown Detroit.  We think of Detroit's calamitous decay as being a recent phenomenon, but deep trouble was obvious as early as the infamous 1968 summer riots, when many blocks of tenements burned. Businesses moved out from downtown, and serious decay set in. The hotel opened in 1977, and Ford originally occupied some of the office space. General Motors bought the complex to use as its world headquarters in 1996 and completed a 500-million renovation in 2004. Somewhere in the towers is the now-infamous private elevator for use by top-level executives so that they could emerge from their cars in their private parking garage and get whisked up to the executive suites without having to mix with lowly GM engineers and mid-level managers. Imagine having to mix with engineers and hear technical details about your product.
Fireworks over the river are awesome if you have access to an upper floor in the Marriott. As I recall, I was invited to a suite rented by a dredging company. Most of the guys drank, but I took photographs.
The view inland is not as interesting as the view over the river. The terrain is flat, and you see office buildings and warehouses. This area looks reasonably prosperous and is well-policed because of the tourist trade - you have to drive inland and north to see the blocks with burned-out homes and empty lots reverting to prairie.
Just a few blocks to the west is Greektown, a block of restaurants and stores with a Greet theme. As I recall, downtown Detroit used to be a food desert, but in Greektown, you could get a good meal and finish off the evening with a pastry - or two - or three.

Photographs taken with a Fujifilm F31fd compact digital camera

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