Detroit Harbor Terminals is located along the Detroit River at 4461 West Jefferson Street at Clark Street in Detroit, Michigan. Prior to the completion of the terminal, most of the commodities and raw materials used in Detroit were shipped first by water to Cleveland, Chicago, or Toledo and shipped to Detroit via rail.7


Construction

On May 1, 1925, the Detroit Railway and Harbor Terminals Company issued $3.75 million in bonds towards the construction of a 12-acre terminal warehouse and related facilities.4 Construction of a ten-story, 900,000 square feet building, of reinforced concrete, was the largest on the Great Lakes when it opened on March 15, 1926.The new building, designed by Albert Kahn and his firm, boasted:

  • 10 million cubic feet of storage space, with 7.5 million cubic feet dedicated for dry storage and 2.5 million cubic feet dedicated to cold storage;
  • Dedicated bonded sections for goods arriving outside of the United States that needed to be stored with payment of duty deferred;
  • A 25 car railroad siding whereas all cars could be unloaded at once;
  • Approximately 1/4 mile of dock along the river, served by double railroad tracks that could hold 28 railroad cars and numerous gantry and stiff-legged cranes. A depth of 22 feet in the river permitted large Trans-Atlantic and Great Lake steamers to dock;
  • Direct connections to the Pennsylvania, Pere Marquette, and Wabash railroads;
  • Eleven high-speed freight elevators; and
  • Offices on the second- and third-floors, served by dedicated passenger elevators.

Detroit Harbor Terminals

The largest stockholder was the Buhl family who owned the Buhl Stamping Company, Buhl Malleable Company, and Buhl Building and Buhl Sons’ Company, who owned the land the terminal resided on.4

An additional $300,000 bond issue was released in January 1927 for 280 feet of additional docks, doubling the marine storage and transfer space with the addition of 450,000 cubic feet, and 1,770 feet of additional railroad tracks.5

Expansion

By 1958, the year before the St. Lawrence Seaway opened, Detroit handled 87,232 tons of overseas imports and exports.1 Prior to the opening of the Seaway, each of the Great Lakes ports had their captive cargoes. Detroit claimed iron ore, gravel, coal, and related commodities. Duluth had grain and iron while Toledo had coal. Traffic was only expected to grow with the opening of the Seaway.

The Port of Detroit Commission whose history dates to the establishment of the Detroit Wayne County Port District in 1933, had lobbied for the operation of the region’s ports through government support.9 The Greater Detroit Board of Commerce opposed such efforts, stating that private enterprises, such as Detroit Harbor Terminals, could handle general cargo without adding to taxpayer burden. Wayne County voters defeated two proposals by the Port of Detroit Commission to bond finance public port developments for $9.5 million in 1957 and $7.1 million in 1958.

Detroit Harbor Terminals proposed in May 1959 to enter a 50-year lease with the Detroit Port Commission for approximately 425,000 square feet of land.8 It would allow for a new 1,030 feet dock, sufficient for two Seaway-length vessels, and a new transit shed and office building.9 Acquisition costs were pegged at $850,000, to be financed through 40-year revenue bonds.8

Detroit Harbor Terminals announced that it was starting a $4 million expansion project on September 28, to be ready for the 1960 navigation season.9 The updated proposal included enough dock space for five Seaway-length vessels, thanks in part to a lease agreement with the Detroit Free Press warehouse dock at McKinstry Street, giving Detroit Harbor Terminals 2,300 feet of linear water frontage.

Detroit Harbor Terminals

Detroit Harbor Terminals 1959 expansion plans in shade.

The development announcement was also tied to a $2.5 million port development project by Todd Steel Corporation at Rivard Street and a $1.25 million dock extension project at Detroit Marine Terminals at Anspach Street.9

By 1963, Detroit was handling 50% of all foreign cargo on the Great Lakes.Two new private terminals were soon opened and three small facilities were upgraded along or near the Detroit River, giving the region a total of 19 general cargo berths and 14 gantry cranes – more than any other Great Lakes ports combined. In 1965, Detroit was handling 1,658,732 tons.1

Detroit Harbor Terminals

By 1974, Detroit Harbor Terminals boasted 2,325 feet of dock space along the Detroit River, a ten-story cold storage warehouse and other related buildings.6

Despite this, it had become obvious that Detroit’s ports had become far too inadequate to keep up with demands from the Seaway. Detroit’s port facilities were operated without government support — the last in the United States.There were discussions on creating a public port authority, a move supported by shippers and shipping agents.


Decline

Frank Scoby, the owner of Jefferson Seaways, obtained an option to acquire Detroit Harbor Terminals for $5.15 million.1 Scoby then persuaded the Detroit Common Council to allow a non-profit corporation, Detroit Port Development Corporation, be formed to buy the terminal from him.3 The corporation ultimately was formed and bought Detroit Harbor Terminals, which was then leased back to Scoby. The purchase was financed with the sale of $9 million in revenue bonds, with the city guaranteeing that the non-profit corporation not make a profit so that the bonds could be sold on a tax-free status at a favorable interest rate to investors. The city would be able to acquire Detroit Harbor Terminals free of charge in 1996.1 6

On December 13, 1974, Detroit Harbor Terminals was sold to a group of 20 investors underSoutheastern Michigan International Terminal Incorporated.6 The same group had announced plans in 1973 to build a new terminal to serve ocean-going vessels on the Detroit River in Ecorse. Detroit Harbor Terminals was planned to be part of a system whereby large container cargo ships, too large to navigate the Seaway, would unload containers Halifax, Nova Scotia. The containers would then shipped by rail to Windsor, Ontario, barged across the Detroit River to the terminal, and then dispersed.

On September 14, 1976, the Detroit Port Development filed for Chapter 10 bankruptcy reorganization.3 While the non-profit corporation claimed more than $750,000 in cash and U.S. Treasury Bills in special bank accounts, it was not able to access it as it was restricted by bondholders’ claims. At the time of the suit, $7.5 million in bonds was still considered outstanding. The city had filed suit against the Detroit Port Development just one day prior for unpaid taxes.

In November 1977, Detroit Marine Terminals temporarily took over operations of the financially troubled port facilities owned by the Detroit Port Development Corporation, which filed for bankruptcy reorganization in 1976.2 The facilities was formerly operated by Detroit Harbor Terminals. Detroit Port Development, a non-profit corporation whose source of income was the lease payments on the complex, had to seek protection of the bankruptcy court after the city of Detroit sued for unpaid taxes on the $17 million complex.

In June 1999, the Detroit Port Authority attempted to make the Detroit Marine Terminal site a dock for luxury liners following the successful visit of the German cruise liner C. Columbus in 1998.12 A dock used from the early 1950’s to 1992 for the Boblo Island Amusement Park ferry was to be refurbished for the project. The proposal was never completed.

Closure

Detroit Marine Terminals continued to operate the warehouse and freight operations until 2003 when it defaulted on bonds owed.11 The terminal, which mostly handled steel imports, had seen its revenues decline after the federal government imposed higher steel tariffs in 2002.

After the Detroit Marine Terminals site remained vacant, in May 2005, Detroit city council approved an arrangement to give the Detroit Port Authority ownership of the terminal and to hand off operations to the Ambassador Port Company, a subsidiary of Manual (Matty) Moroun’s Detroit International Bridge Company.11 In return, Moroun would loan the Detroit Port Authority $2.1 million to pay off bonds owed by Detroit Marine Terminals.The Ambassador Port Company would operate and manage the terminal for 25 years, with three successive 25-year extensions that the company could apply for. The contract was heralded by Mayor Kilpatrick as an opportunity to revive commercial shipping along the Detroit River after a trip to Dubai in 2002.

By 2014, the Ambassador Port terminal was handling approximately 60 vessels and 301,878 tons of cargo per year.11

The city attempted to renegotiate terms of the contract in 2015 that it considered “lopsided” in favor of the Morouns family.11 Part of the issue stemmed from the revenue split: Ambassador Port Company hired NiIcholson Terminal and Dock Company to staff and operate the terminal. Nicholson Terminal and Dock received 94% of the revenue. Of the remaining revenue, the Ambassador Port Company gets 3.5% and the Detroit Port Authority gets 2.5%. Because of the interest owed on the loan and other costs, the Detroit Port Authority has not been able to receive any payments since its first in 2005. Additionally, the contract called for the Detroit Port Authority to share 40% of its proceeds with the city of Detroit, which have been nonexistent.

Additionally, Ambassador Port was declared exempt from paying taxes as it was considered part of the Detroit Port Authority.11

A two-alarm fire broke out on the 5th floor of the warehouse in October 28, 2008; the warehouse had not been in use since Detroit Marine Terminals defaulted. Due to the building’s reinforced concrete construction, damage to the facility was minimal. A three-alarm fire was reported in the structure on June 29, 2016.10

Further Reading
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