Trenton Mclouth Steel Plant

As automobile production began to ramp up in the 1910’s and 20’s, the need for locally produced steel led to the construction of several mills in the Detroit area. McLouth Steel was founded in1934 by Donald B. McLouth, who built a plant on Livernois Street in southwest Detroit.

With limited room to expand in Detroit, McLouth bought 200 acres of riverfront property in Trenton, a city located to the south of Detroit. After the Second World War the government began disposing of many of its wartime assets, including a steel plant in East Chicago, Il. McLouth bought the plant in June of 1948 and began moving it to the Trenton site, which opened in 1949.

The steel plant would provide an uninterrupted supply of steel for Detroit’s automotive plants, which were running at full capacity after the end of the war. Throughout the 1950’s and 60’s, the Trenton plant was upgraded and expanded to meet increased demand. Trenton became the first plant in the United States to use basic oxygen furnaces, which convert iron into steel by using oxygen to lower the carbon content of the metal. Other firsts included the use of computers to control the hot strip mill and continuous wide slab casting.

By 1962 McLouth employed 4,000 workers at three plants in Detroit, 3,000 of them in Trenton. The Trenton plant provided a stable tax base for the city, accounting for 40% of its tax rolls. But steel production could be a dirty process. In 1955, a group of housewives from nearby Grosse Ile complained that the air pollution was so bad that walking outside in a clean white shirt would cause it to become dirty and discolored in minutes. And as Detroit’s position as a major producer of automobiles began to falter in the 1970’s, profits dropped, and layoffs began.

By 1982 a wave of factory closings rolled through the downriver area of Detroit, causing ripple effects throughout the region. McLouth was a major supplier for General Motors, which over the previous decade had closed several of its Detroit-area plants. Loss of business from GM nearly led to the company filing for bankruptcy, but a new owner stepped in at the last minute.

In 1988, the plant’s workers took a large ownership stake in the company, effectively becoming its owners, a rarity in the industry. While the move bought the company some time to work on its finances, the economic doldrums of the early 1990’s and falling steel prices led to a short-term cash crunch. The auto industry accounted for 55% of McLouth’s business, leaving the company heavily reliant on the fortunes of the big three automakers.

To stay competitive, the plant would require extensive modernization costing anywhere from $100 to $200 million dollars. But low steel prices made it impossible for the company to raise enough capital to make improvements, leading to a downward financial spiral. Competition from “mini” mills, which convert scrap metal using electrical furnaces and cost less to operate made larger plants like Trenton less profitable.

McLouth Steel filed for bankruptcy in September of 1995. After spending several months looking for a buyer, the company announced it would cease operations in March of 1996, laying off 1,350 workers at its plants. The company was sold in August of 1996 to Detroit Steel Company and reopened the Trenton plant on a limited basis in 1998 to refinish steel.

The plant was idle again by the mid 2000’s, as DSC planned to redevelop the site for a residential and commercial project that never got off the ground. DSC went bankrupt in 2006, and Wayne County foreclosed on the property in 2017. It was sold in 2018 to Crown Enterprises, owner of the Ambassador Bridge and Michigan Central Station for $4 million dollars. As part of the sale the company began demolishing the buildings in 2019.