old gm building
Bartleby the Scrivener vegan27
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the great mound of the rouge river
When the French settled at Detroit, they noticed strange formations along the shore near where the Rouge River flows into the Detroit River. They are indicated on this 1763 map of the area as écores de sable (sand bluffs).

The French learned early on that these bluffs were in fact human-made burial mounds. They were not created by any of the known tribes at the time. In fact, no Indians then knew who constructed them. Modern research reveals that artifacts retrieved from the mounds date to the late Woodland period, between 600 and 1000 A.D.

The largest of these mounds was on the north shore of the River Rouge, between Jefferson Avenue and the Detroit River, now part of Detroit's Delray neighborhood. According to some accounts, it was 700 feet long, 400 feet wide, and 40 feet tall.

From The Mound-Builders and Platycnemism in Michigan, by Henry Gillman, 1877.

Today there is no trace that this mound was ever here, its destructing having begun in the early 19th century. In 1826, Thomas McKenney saw the mounds on a tour of Detroit and Springwells (the old township annexed by the city) and noted that the Great Mound was being rapidly destroyed, in his observation, by cattle who had a habit of climbing it. The mound was also frequently desecrated by amateur treasure-hunters. But most of the destruction was due to the pillaging of the huge quantity of fine sand in the mound, which was in high demand by builders in the growing city. Yard after yard of the mound was shipped up the river and sold for 2½ cents a barrel. The hundreds of skeletons unearthed in the collection of sand were simply thrown into the Rouge River.

Thomas Palmer, in recollecting his boyhood in Detroit in the 1830s, described his memory of the mounds:
The banks [of the Detroit River] were covered with many Indian mounds, and my teachers used to take me down Saturays often times to see them dig for Indian skeletons and the curios which had been buried with them. In my playhouse I had quite a collection of Indian heads which time had prepared for the museum or for jack-o'-lanterns.

Bela Hubbard, also writing of the same time period, observed that the mound was probably half destroyed when he arried in the city around 1837. He wrote:
It was hardly possible to dig a cellar or level a hillock without throwing out some memorial of the red races... To unearth a human skeleton was a common occurrence. They were thrown out by spade and plough, and sometimes were seen protruding from the soil where the action of the waves had broken into the land... Thousands of fragments of human bones still lie bleaching on the sand, mingled with sherds of pottery and other relics.

Realizing the archaeological importance of this site, Hubbard excavated part of the Great Mound with Henry Gillman in the 1870s. Many of the objects and human remains the team unearthed were donated to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, where they remain.

By the 1920s, the Delray area was fully developed and no trace of the Great Mound was left. However, a writer for the Detroit Free Press pointed out that the actual site of the mound itself "has not been built up, but remains a bare spot, covered with buckthorn and other noxious weeds and used occasionally by cheap shows and carnivals".

After nearly another century of industrialization, the area is barely fit for human habitation. Across from the former site of the Great Mound, on the other side of the Rouge River, lie enormous piles of coal and coke, as if intentionally mocking the ancient monument's absence. Adjacent to the piles of coke is a noxious steel mill, and a few blocks away lies the city's sewerage treatment plant. An oil refinery lies just beyond that. And of course the entire area is surrounded by the thousands of vacant lots and decaying century-old cottages left behind by people who could no longer stand to live in one of the most polluted neighborhoods in the United States. It is as if we needed to wipe away every last trace of the old civilization in order to make room for the near and inevitable fall of our own.


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