A mere few hours later, I was back - having grabbed flashlights and my new camera while swapping my dog for Mandelbrot. Clad in Super Sunday Camo (flipflops, bright orange swimsuit, etc) she and I snuck up to the entrance I'd scouted that morning, took a quick stroll across an open area past a security camera, trying to look casual while moving fast ... and before you could say "cheap foreign labor," we were inside Ford's Steam Plant.
Once in, we hustled up and away from our entrance and found a window where we could peer down at it, the noises of the active machinery covering the flipping and flopping of my sandals. I felt pretty confident that no one would have noticed us on the cameras, but it was possible.
After several minutes went by with no sign of a security reaction, we decided we'd probably gotten in unseen - and we got down to the business of exploration and appreciation.
Ford's Steam Plant is found down along the Mississippi, where it turns river water into high pressure steam. The steam travels through pipes to the Assembly Plant, up above atop the bluff, where it provides the heat necessary for the assembly plant. (These days it's probably used primarily to heat buildings, although in the old days they likely used steam pressure to actually run some of the machinery.)
The 10,040 square foot steam plant was built in 1923, pretty much concurrently with the main assembly plant' s construction.
In this 1936 picture, the now-demolished twin tunnel entrances to the Ford tunnels are clearly visible.
These are where newly-completed vehicles once drove out, after being lowered down from the plant in a freight elevator. They were then driven onto barges that carried them away to be sold.
interior of steam plant
interior of steam plant
steam plant exterior
interior of steam plant
Exploring the Ford Steam Plant
industrial architectural beauty
inside the steam plant
asbestos storage stairwell
down toward the open front door
Steam Plant skylight
Mandelbrot and I moved silently from floor to floor, communicating with hand gestures - mostly pointing out the next cool piece of machinery or spectacular room. Our heads swivelled constantly, trying to take in and appreciate everything - as well as spot any employees before they spotted us ... a tricky business, since many of the walls consisted primarily of glass. These imposing windows gave the place the feel of a cathedral, devoted to worship of the American Gods of Industry.
While no longer working at full steam (har), the Steam Plant was still an active facility - a few cars were parked outside, and people came and went. Offices had their air conditioning on high, computer monitors glowed, lights hummed.
Everything was very clean, and insanely well organized. White sticker labels were affixed to every item in the plant, naming what it was or what it contained. Old machinery that had never had any reason for removal bore stickers saying "Historical Item - For Display Only." Desk drawers were labelled with their contents.
In accordance with ancient Action Squad traditions, I'd failed to bring extra batteries for my camera, which was dying, and so I had to be frugal with the pictures I took. But the space was gorgeous - I was glad we'd come in the daylight, because the skylights and massive window walls really lit the place up, and because flash photos would have been extremely ill-advised.
We moved upward to the 4th floor, where we found a few points of interest - roof access, a closed-off stairwell used as an asbestos insulation dumping ground - and a steam tunnel in the sky.
Well. It wasn't a tunnel, really, at that point - it was a windowed skyway with steam lines in it, jutting out of the top floor of the steam plant, hanging above the service road, and then plunging into the side of the cliff and becoming a proper steam tunnel.
We were feeling like we'd pushed our luck enough walking around through the power plant in broad daylight, so we moved into the steamy heat of the crosswalk/tunnel, toward the Assembly Plant.
In the tunnel, it was hotter than the July day outside, a symphony of hissing, banging, and dripping pipes. The sodium lights were on, bathing the pipes and wires in a pleasant orange post-apocalyptic glow.
We advanced cautiously as the tunnel sloped up toward the assembly plant. As we got closer, the air grew hotter and thicker along with the suspense. I didn't have any idea what to expect, and my fight-or-flight responses geared up for action.
Ahead, a sign loomed, warning of security cameras - but it seemed directed at curious or factory workers, and its poor grammar reassured me that it was probably bluffing. I didn't see any sign of security cameras, anyway.
The tunnel ended in a flooded section, which I suspected might connect to the sand mines - but I wasn't about to wade into the water, duck under the barrier, and find out ... at least not until I'd seen what other options there were.
At the moment, the 'other option' turned out to be the Assembly Plant's boiler room - a desk showed signs of being used regularly and recently.
The boiler room had boilers in the middle, and a catwalk around the edges, splitting the space into two levels. The only way out from the lower level was back to the steam tunnel. On the upper section, a set of metal stairs beckoned upward.
We crept up the stairs into a closet-sized wire cage - in the middle of the most vast industrial space I've ever been inside of - the Ford Assembly Plant floor.
lights on wall seem like they may have once been exterior?
another view of same room shown above
obselete item label
retired steam plant machinery
we felt exposed among the huge interior and exterior windows
down from the "steam skyway" at the Ford service road
checking out a dead end
Underground Grammar Squad
Construction of Ford Assembly Plant -
History of the Assembly Plant
The Saint Paul Plant, built under Henry Ford's direction in 1924, is the oldest Ford plant still in operation today - the longest-surviving member of the original assembly lines that forever changed the face of human labor and culture.
As you may remember from school, Henry Ford (more or less) invented the moving assembly line, which used conveyer belts to move the cars along as they were assembled, rather than having workers move up and down the line, as in a static assembly line - or using skilled workers to assemble the cars individually, as was the old European way.
This brought about vast increases in efficiency & decreases in production costs - and is often singled out by historians as the turning point that paved the way for both the automobile-centric American society and the global 'consumer culture' of modern times.
Today, for now, the Saint Paul Ford plant manufactures exclusively Ford Ranger style trucks. It is unusual among other assembly plants in that it runs primarily on hydroelectric power, supplied by its hydroelectric dam on the Mississippi River.
But the plant has been on the chopping block off and on for several years now, with the plant's demise having been previously slated for 2006, 2008, and then 2009. Last I heard it was going to shut down in 2011 - but that talk was before the recent sharp drop-off of the economy ...and news hasn't been good for the auto industry, Ford Motors, or the Ford Ranger lately.
As I write, the plant is in the midst of a month-long "idling." It will be interesting to see if the plant can be saved (if gas prices spike up, the economical Ranger may see an increase in sales) - and if not, what will happen to the property - all 2.2 million square feet of it - when it shuts down.
Outside of the cage, it was - while not silent by any means - subdued. A blurred hush of low humming, clinks, rattles, and echoes combined to softly fill the cavernous space.
Would there be workers, or maintenance, or security on a Sunday afternoon?
We had no idea.
At the top of the stairs, there was a door in the cage. I opened it as carefully as I could, but there was no way to do it without the hinges squealing horribly. Wincing, I opened it just enough to squeeze out of, and propped the door open with a piece of cardboard, preventing it from squealing closed.
Walking out onto the floor for the first time was a walk of faith like no other.
High ceilings, hangerlike, made of translucent green plastic, the sun weakly glowing through. Catwalks above. Ford Rangers on the assembly line in every possible state of assembly, from raw skeletons to completed trucks, newer than brand new, embryonic, being cleaned and detailed before being birthed out into a dealership somewhere.
It was simply impossible to do my usual 'keep a sharp eye out and see people before they see us' thing. Corridors stretched to the vanishing point in all directions, control panels blinked, screens flashed, and fans roared continually - their wind waving hanging signs - all this motion and visual complexity providing our visual systems with far too many false positives to sort through.
Moving quickly, silently, ears and eyes straining, we breezed through the plant, every step forward a pleasant victory. A train track cut lengthwise through the plant, graffitied box cars parked in the trench. Yellow taped lines on the floor showed workers where to stand and where to stay out.
Constantly, we checked our bearings, making sure that we knew exactly which way to run if spotted, back to the cage and out to the steam plant. Finding a couple pair of coveralls, we considered disguising ourselves - but it was way too hot to bother.
As the minutes passed, we grew bolder - I took a couple of flash photos. We went up into a room raised up above the assembly floor - a bathroom, as it turned out. Checked out a pressurized room where electronics and computers were worked on. Wandered through groves of disembodied bumpers, greeted a robot welder, gawked at the assembly line - an assembly line!
For all its familiarity to me in the abstract, it suddenly occurred to me that this was in fact my first time ever in this classic American institution, which paved the way for the industrialization of the world. It was fascinating to witness how the simplification and rigid organization of component parts made possible the efficient functioning of the Assembly Plant meta-organism (if also somewhat disquieting, given that human beings are among the component parts.)
As my confidence grew, I was able to relax and enjoy the audacity of this invasion. I could feel a huge, happy grin stretching my face anew as I beheld each new area of the plant - each specialized space devoted to one single aspect of the production of one single species of automobile.
But before too long, my smiling muscles got sore, and I began to get the feeling that we'd pushed our luck enough for one day.
Mandelbrot was more than ready to leave by that point, so we made our way back outside - taking far more caution in our exit from the grounds than we'd taken in our happy-go-lucky approach. Because now, we had something to lose ...
I had my entrance at last, and I wasn't going to be happy until I'd found a way back down into the miles of tunnels that lay slumbering far below ...