Looking back: River Rouge museum's survival story reflects the city's own tenacity

When the River Rouge Historical Museum first opened, Dolores Swekel says she fondly remembers children from the neighborhood bringing in a cash register to donate, carting it from their house in a little wagon. Much of the museum’s collection comes from local donations and they never turn down donations, so the connection the museum has with residents is a strong one.

When COVID-19 hit, however, the museum was forced to close for a year.

“We just reopened a couple of months ago for one day a month," says Swekel, retired director and one of the founders of the museum. Swekel says interest in the museum is not what it used to be since the pandemic.

"A lot of the people who visit the museum used to live here. They come back to go over their history or research their families. We have a massive collection.” 

Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic ChurchThe collection is housed in the historic Gallagher funeral home on Jefferson Avenue. Although the city of River Rouge is not known for its historical prominance, the museum contains thirteen themed rooms of memorabilia. Rooms themed for River Rouge veterans as well as the city’s past mayors and schools, hold artifacts from various episodes and generations of the River Rouge community. The historic relics are deeply connected to everyday life in the city throughout the years.

Judy Cooksey, a museum volunteer, says the most notable artifacts to her are those from the old River Rouge high school and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, which was closed in 2012 by the Archdiocese of Detroit.

“There were two Pewabic tile fountains in the high school,” she says. “One went back to Pewabic Pottery and the other is in storage in the museum.”

An interior photo of the Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in River Rouge, circa 1949, courtesy of the Archdiocese of Detroit.

The museum itself has a Pewabic tile floor, in addition to numerous artifacts rescued from historic structures.

The most memorable historic event to ever occur in the city, however, was the launching of the ill-fated freighter, the S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald in June of 1958. The ship was constructed in a year and measured 729 feet from bow to stern when it was completed. It sank during a storm on Lake Superior in November of 1975, taking its crew of 29 men with it.

The launch of "The Fitz", in 1958, in River Rouge.

“I was at the launch,” Swekel recalls. “When they put the ship in the water it went in sideways. It was a normal launch to me, but a lot of water came up everywhere. There were people sitting in the bleachers and they all got wet.”

According to William P. Morreau, the son of a freighter ship captain who was also present at the launch that day, the celebrated launch was anything but normal. In fact, he explains so many bad omens occurred, it caused his father to express worry for the ship’s fate and declare he "would never captain the ship". Morreau says the crew sent to release the ship from the dock worked tirelessly for at least an hour to hammer it off its hold.

When the massive ship finally released itself, it did so by its stern, then the bow followed. In normal launches, the two go together at the same time, but the gravity of this particular maneuver caused seven plates on the port side to buckle. In addition to this, a man on the ship that day died of a heart attack, and another man was scalded to death in the kitchen. Morreau says he did not know how superstitious his dad was until the launching of the S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald.

After the Fitzgerald sank the City of River Rouge began holding an annual memorial ceremony for the victims on November 10.

“The people who worked on it would come to the event and talk about what they did on the ship or talk about what went on when they were building the ship,” Swekel says, adding that at 7:10 p.m., the exact time the ship supposedly sank, a tug boat would take people out to throw a wreath in the river, and for the 29 men who died someone would carry a lantern for each, their names were read out loud, and a bell was rung in their honor.

The museum would provide food afterwards. “It was a nice event,” Swekel says, “but it was getting expensive to put it on so we stopped having it.” 

Events like this have become increasingly hard to sustain in recent years. The population of River Rouge has been in a continual decline since the 1950s. Many historic buildings were torn down as the area became more industrial and turned over to rental properties.

“It’s not a big town,” says Cooksey. “After [World War II] people were looking for places to rent so they divided up some houses.”

A rare photo of downtown River Rouge in 1922, courtesy of the River Rouge Historical Museum.

Driving around River Rouge will reveal that most of the houses are built before the 1920s.

“As far as [pristine] historical buildings go, there aren’t that many. We’ve lost a lot of homes due to foreclosures,” says Swekel. “We do have a few historic plaques on homes. You can get a plaque on your house if it was built before 1920.”

Presently, River Rouge is trying to recover from the recent idling of the U.S. Steel Corporation and the closing of Detroit Edison. The steel corporation wind-down resulted in the loss of 1,500 jobs in 2020. When the tax base suffers, the city suffers at every level, especially public services and educational facilities like nature centers and museums. But despite this, according to Swekel, the museum remains secure. The Economic Development Corporation of River Rouge owns the building and is helping maintain it.

“The museum keeps its own accounts and we’re not charged for maintenance,” says Swekel. “People make a lot of donations. We’ve never not managed.”

Swekel still lives in River Rouge, and has for 81 years. “I was born in the Rouge. When someone says they’re from the “Rouge”, because they don’t say River Rouge, there’s a trust there," she says. "A lot of people have passed on that were really involved [in the museum]. The history is there and when you get inside the museum with other people who grew up here the memories just flow, it’s just a natural, community thing."

“It was a great place to grow up, it’s in my heart. [The museum] is here to receive the people who want to visit River Rouge again.”

Currently, the River Rouge historical museum is open on the first Sunday of each month.

“It is surviving,” Swekel says, “like the city itself.” 
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Read more articles by Brianne Turczynski.

Brianne Turczynski holds an MA in education from Oakland University with a concentration in History and English. Her work has been published in the poetry anthology, Sixty-Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), The 3288 Review, Michigan Out-of-Doors Magazine, and others. Her book, Detroit's Lost Poletown: The Little Neighborhood that Touched a Nation was released with the History Press in 2021. Follow her at @booksandloststories.