What will become of Zug Island?

An “idled” steel mill hangs by a thread as President Biden bets big on his futuristic infrastructure plan.

Zug Island, where U.S. Steel recently idled its operations. Credit: Nick Hagan

We’re in a period of transformation, it seems. I added the qualifier because in the era of Covid-19, not much is certain. 

We’re barely four years past former President Donald Trump’s retreat from environmental protection. A retreat that eschewed enforcement of laws and regulations and where climate change was denied and debunked. President Joe Biden, just past 100 days in office, is now attempting to reverse course. 

Rather than being a moderate progressive as was his history, Biden has proposed a multi-trillion dollar infrastructure plan to fix our pot-hole plagued roads and crumbling bridges. He wants to electrify the auto industry, retrofit homes for more efficient energy use and much more.

In this mix is a focus on environmental justice and dealing with climate change. They aren’t tangential to Biden’s desired transformative process, they’re woven into it. At least that’s the plan that has yet to take flight and is not guaranteed success. 

The news accounts of how the trillions of dollars will be spent are dizzying.

Billions of dollars will be tossed around like they’re nickels if Biden’s plan is enacted. And the initiative is presented as a jobs plan, officially The American Jobs Plan that’s wrapped around infrastructure. 

The jobs portion of Biden’s plan caused me to reflect on my first real job, weekends at a car wash don’t count.

It was on Zug Island, or just “Zug.” Rarely did anyone refer to the island part of the name. 

As a 19-year-old bouncing around between college and the Army I needed to work and for many from Downriver, that meant making cars or steel. I chose steel and I don’t know why except that a couple of my friends’ fathers worked at Great Lakes Steel (now U.S. Steel). They said go there, they’ll probably hire you. 

Before I knew it I was on Zug Island, the home of blast furnaces, iron ore pellets discharged from lake freighters and an omnipresent feeling of when do I get out of here. I was there to make money, not start a career. After a year done in a couple of stints on Zug working on what was called the “labor gang,” I was gone. Off to something more substantive and future-oriented. Zug and its seemingly toxic odors and constant glaze of iron ore dust on my clothes were in my rearview mirror never to be considered again. 

Zug Island. Photo by Nick Hagen.

That is until 2013 when well into a late in life second career as a journalist living in Chicago, I took an environmental boat tour of the Detroit River. It had been forever since I was on the river that I skated on in an inlet behind Wyandotte hospital as a kid.

As the boat headed south from downtown, Zug’s signature blast furnaces came into view. But I had to make sure it was really them and asked a Detroit colleague if that was Zug and he said yes. Is it still operating, I asked and he confirmed it was. I don’t know why I thought it would have been shuttered, but I did. I took a few pictures and the boat continued without the eco-tour guide giving Zug a mention.

If they were still making steel on Zug after all those years surely it would continue for another generation or two. But eventually, things change. 

In late 2019 U.S. Steel announced a major reduction in operations on Zug. The iconic blast furnaces would cease to operate and only a minimal operation would continue. Officially it was an “idling” of the plant the company said, but most see it as the beginning of the end. 

Curious about Zug Island’s future, I peppered U.S. Steel with questions.

When will operations cease and will the plant be demolished? Will the land be sold or repurposed? If so, for what purpose? Would the land be sold to the city of River Rouge? Is there a timeline to make a decision on the plant’s future? 

U.S. Steel responded quickly to my questions in familiar corporate style. 

“The changes are classified as indefinite idles and not closures,” U.S. Steel spokesperson Amanda Malkowski said. She did not answer other questions except to say “it is premature to speculate about the property’s future.”

What about the city of River Rouge, surely it would have preferences for the property if steel operations ceased. It could give the city a rare opportunity to remake its riverfront. Perhaps as Detroit is attempting to with the Milliken State Park and its riverfront?

I asked the city if it should remain industrial or have a softer, cleaner future like a park or natural area?  

“Zug is probably going to stay heavily industrial,” city attorney David Bower said. Bower pointed out that the city has a park in the area, Belanger Park and an observation deck is under construction to allow for viewing of the construction of the Gordie Howe bridge.

Interest in Zug’s future stretches beyond River Rouge and the Downriver cities where many of the workers resided. 

Cleveland’s James Weakley is President of the Lake Carriers Association, representing lake freighter companies including some that delivered the iron ore to Zug that fed the blast furnaces. The Edmund Fitzgerald was headed for Zug when it tragically encountered a November gale and sunk in 1975

“I had relatives who worked there for decades and it’s sad to see those jobs go,” Weakley said. 

The steelworks future on Zug Island looks uncertain and murky. President Biden’s jobs and infrastructure plan appears to have a bright future, if it can survive the polarized political quagmire in Washington then actually deliver on its proposed transformation.   

It’s hard to predict what will happen to Zug Island and President Biden’s utopian jobs plan. 

But there ought to be room for electric cars and rehabbed steel mills. It was a mill that gave me a boost as a young man, though I couldn’t appreciate it at the time.

Gary Wilson is a Chicago-based contributor who has reported on Great Lakes issues for public media since 2011.