Saint Paul by Bike: A Short Jaunt to Ford

August 30, 2019

3.9 Miles

Highland Park

The State Fair, or more accurately, a park and ride lot for the State Fair, gave me the chance to check out a usually off-limits part of the old Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant (TCAP) and grounds. The 22-acre area is between Mississippi River Boulevard and the Mississippi River, across the River Road from where the 122-acre main plant stood for 100 years. All of the 22-acres, known as Ford Area C, are between 30 feet and 110 feet lower than Mississippi River Boulevard and the grounds of the former plant. The elevation difference and the thick growth of trees and bushes make it difficult to see Area C. Only a soaring  smokestack is visible from atop the bluff.

Row upon row of vehicles belonging to Fair-goers sit on the Park and Ride lot just west of Mississippi River Boulevard in Highland Park. The metal gates on either side of the picture are usually locked, except during the Fair.
Row upon row of vehicles belonging to Fair-goers sit on the Park and Ride lot just west of Mississippi River Boulevard in Highland Park. The metal gates on either side of the picture are usually locked, except during the Fair.

A large motorized gate usually prevents access to the driveway leading from Mississippi River Boulevard and the bluff down to a parking lot. During the State Fair, however, the gate is open to people opting to park their cars and take a shuttle bus to and from the Fair. The lot holds several hundred cars.

Hundreds of vehicles park and ride a shuttle bus to the State Fair. Much of the industrial waste from painting vehicles and construction debris sits beneath this 3.8 acre parking lot.
Hundreds of vehicles park and ride a shuttle bus to the State Fair. Much of the industrial waste from painting vehicles and construction debris sits beneath this 3.8 acre parking lot.

Below the lot are Ford’s former steam and water treatment plants, two of the three structures built to support Ford’s manufacturing that remain standing.

Area C map by Saint Paul By Bike blog. Aerial photo courtesy of Google

The future of Area C hasn’t been determined, at least partially because of its past as an industrial waste depository for more than four decades.

According to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Ford, paint sludge, old paint and solvents that were produced during the manufacture of vehicles were dumped in Area C from about 1945 to 1966. The MPCA says that Ford’s precise disposal methods aren’t known, but “liquid solvents may have been dumped over the edge of the bluff, while barrels of paint sludge were buried.” Environmental regulations regarding hazardous waste disposal were nonexistent at this time, so Ford’s disposal methods were legal.

Other waste materials were moved from a dump on the main factory property to Area C in 1962 and ’66.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Area C became the de facto landfill for construction debris from three projects. In 1975, the Army Corps of Engineers deposited a great deal of rubble from the reconstruction of Lock and Dam Number 1, just across the Mississippi, on top of and near Ford’s previously buried industrial waste.

Some 47,000 cubic yards of concrete, sandstone and sand from repaving Mississippi River Boulevard were placed within Area C in 1981. Then, between 1984 and ’86, Ford put an “unknown volume” of debris and excavated soil from construction of a new Paint Building on the main TCAP property. (At one point in the 1980s, Area C was declared a Minnesota Superfund site. Subsequent remediation by Ford prompted the MPCA to remove the Superfund designation.)

Most of that waste and construction debris was dumped within about 3.8 acres of Area C’s 12. As a result, between 1985 and ’87, that part of Area C was paved with an eight inch layer of concrete, which encapsulated the dump. It also became a place to park trailers, and after the TCAP was shuttered, the State Fair Park and Ride lot.

This undated photo shows Area C in the foreground, the concrete-paved trailer lot in the center, and the Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant in the background. Erosion of the debris pile is apparent on the right (south) side of trailer lot. Courtesy MPR/U of M Regents
This undated photo shows Area C; the concrete-paved trailer lot is in the center, to the left is the steam plant, and the Ford Twin Cities Assembly Plant in the background. Erosion of the debris pile is apparent on the right (south) side of trailer lot. Courtesy MPR/U of M Regents

Ford dug several groundwater monitoring wells in 1981 and ’82 and has added more since then. The company has said any contamination is below levels that could affect people or wildlife. However, the Friends of the Mississippi River has convinced Ford to do additional testing of groundwater and flood waters that could carry contaminates from Area C into the river.

The service road that takes Fair-goers to their parking spots continues down the bluff toward the decommissioned steam and water treatment plants, and beyond.

The smokestack of the old steam plant stands like a silent sentry keeping watch on Area C. As you’ll see, it has done a poor job watching over the area. The structure arching above the road carried steam pipes (and steam) under Mississippi River Boulevard to the main TCAP.
The smokestack of the old steam plant stands like a silent sentry keeping watch on Area C. As you’ll see, it has done a poor job watching over the area. The structure arching above the road carried steam pipes (and steam) under Mississippi River Boulevard to the main TCAP.
Thick brush covers the hill just east of the service road.
Thick brush covers the hill just east of the service road.
Overgrown bushes, broken windows and graffiti remove any doubt about the operational status of the steam plant.
Overgrown bushes, broken windows and graffiti remove any doubt about the operational status of the steam plant.
The east wall of the steam plant is a showcase for an assortment of artists.
The east wall of the steam plant is a showcase for an assortment of artists.
An old entrance to the steam plant.
An old entrance to the steam plant.
Windows broken by vandals dot the four floors of the steam plant.
Windows broken by vandals dot the four floors of the steam plant.
The steam plant in 1930, looking from the west. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
The steam plant in 1930, looking from the west. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
A storage tank next to the steam plant wears an elaborately spray painted design.
A storage tank next to the steam plant wears an elaborately spray painted design.
Looking up, up, up at the steam plant and its tall smokestack.
Looking up, up, up at the steam plant and its tall smokestack.
The smokestack and its dizzying number of rungs that go to the top.
The smokestack and its dizzying number of rungs that go to the top.
Another angle of a part of the south side of the steam plant.
Another angle of a part of the south side of the steam plant. The steam plant bares the same winged wheel pattern as the original portion of the Ford TCAP, not surprising since both were built at the same time.
The “skyway” carried steam pipes from the plant to the TCAP above the bluff and east of Mississippi River Boulevard.
The “skyway” carried steam pipes from the plant to the TCAP above the bluff and east of Mississippi River Boulevard.
The north-facing side of the steam pipe “skyway,” which inexplicably is finished with plaster or cement. Notice the outline of what appears to be windows showing through.
The north-facing side of the steam pipe “skyway,” which inexplicably is finished with plaster or cement. Notice the outline of what appears to be windows.
On the right, the service road continues north past the water treatment plant, on the way to the hydroelectric plant, in the background. The smokestack, decorated with graffiti, is on the left. Behind that, the two brick structures are parts of the water treatment facility, as are the beige tank and building in the center of the picture.
On the right, the service road continues north past the water treatment plant, on the way to the hydroelectric plant, in the background. The smokestack, decorated with graffiti, is on the left. Behind that, the two brick structures are parts of the water treatment facility, as are the beige tank and building in the center of the picture.
A new “mural” in progress on the water treatment plant.
A new “mural” in progress on the water treatment plant.
Broken windowpanes on a north-facing window expose some interior mechanicals in the steam plant. Nearly every windowpane on this side of the building has been broken.
Broken windowpanes on a north-facing window expose some interior mechanicals in the steam plant. Nearly every windowpane on this side of the building has been broken.
Brookfield Renewable Partners owns the one and only operational former Ford building. The hydroelectric plant, constructed in 1924, is a major reason Henry Ford selected Highland Park for the Twin Cities Assembly Plant. Brookfield purchased the 18 megawatt hydro plant (enough to power about 14,400 homes for a year) in 2008.
Brookfield Renewable Partners owns the one and only operational former Ford building. The hydroelectric plant, constructed in 1924, is a major reason Henry Ford selected Highland Park for the Twin Cities Assembly Plant. Brookfield purchased the 18 megawatt hydro plant (enough to power about 14,400 homes for a year) in 2008.
A better look at the hydroelectric plant.
A better look at the hydroelectric plant.
Water flows over the dam at Lock and Dam Number 1, spinning generators at Brookfield’s hydro plant, to the right.
Water flows over the dam at Lock and Dam Number 1, spinning generators at Brookfield’s hydro plant, to the right.
The hydro dam and plant in 1934. The main Ford Assembly Plant is in the background.
The hydro dam and plant in 1934. The main Ford Assembly Plant is in the background. Courtesy Minnesota Historical Society
Looking south from at the water treatment plant. The tanks were used for waste water collection.
Looking south at the water treatment plant. The tanks were used for waste water collection.
More graffiti and broken windows on the northwest corner of the steam plant.
More graffiti and broken windows on the northwest corner of the steam plant.
Abstract patterns in broken windowpanes.
Abstract patterns in the broken windowpanes.
Vandals have extensively damaged the plant with paint, rocks thrown through windows and bricks extricated from walls and window sills.
Vandals have extensively damaged the plant with paint, rocks thrown through windows and bricks extricated from walls and window sills.
Time, nature and worst of all, looters, have battered an elevator inside the steam plant.
Time, nature and worst of all, looters, have battered an elevator inside the steam plant.
A dirt road heads away from the steam plant and into the woods toward the Mississippi River. Although not visible in this shot, hikers can without much effort find steel, concrete and other construction debris poking up within the thick brush.
A dirt road heads away from the steam plant and into the woods toward the Mississippi River. Although not visible in this shot, hikers can without much effort find steel, concrete and other construction debris poking up within the thick brush.

There is so much to experience within Area C, from the remains of an industrial giant to the plants and animals inhabiting the grounds. I understand the draw of abandoned facilities like the steam plant. The excitement of exploring a building that is off limits, that holds memories and mysteries of the past is compelling for some. However, the damage inflicted upon the these buildings appalls me. I can’t comprehend what motivates someone to destroy other’s property. I find the intentional damage to the buildings and property very disillusioning.

At just under four miles, this was the shortest ride in the history of the Saint Paul By Bike blog.

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