The Highland Park Powerplant Story by Paul Rentz

When we wrote about the Highland Park Plant in a previous issue of Model T Ford Fix we got the attention of Paul Rentz who has researched the subject to a greater extent than we have. The building existed until after WWII, but the smoke stacks were silent from the day that power became available from the River Rouge plant’s generating station.

WWII era photo showing the Executive Offices in the foreground and the silent smoke stacks of the Power Plant Building. The clouds in the sky make it appear that the smokestacks are operating, when in fact there are no engines in the plant to produce smoke!

Below is Paul’s story of what actually happened to the huge DC generators inside, and why they went silent in the 1926 time frame.

The power plant engines were scrapped in late 1920s with only one saved- the one that’s in the Henry Ford Museum. That one was moved in 1929 and was the first item moved there as they couldn’t do it once the teak floors were laid down. After that power was supplied from the Rouge plant- some say Mr. Ford had his guys run the power lines over the city’s approval but… who knows! And that was in part because of a dispute with Edison Electric of all things!

How it was moved-By Roy Schumann from the Benson Ford Oral History archive


1400- 1500hp it’s the same engine! From a 1909 issue of Power and the Engineer magazine. Note that each engine was actually connected to a 250 volt DC generator, not an alternator.

1906 City of Oil City directory showing my grandfather (Elmer LeSuer) working at Riverside-

Apparently the building they used in Oil City had belonged to a Mr. Smithman who owned the street car company there and was used to service those engines. Gray ‘partnered’ with Smithman from 1905 to 1909 when he left for Highland Park. (I searched all through that directory, made a list of all the ‘draughtsman’ and other employees then searched Detroit directories and grandpa is the only one that I could find that came to Detroit with Gray. His return in 1937 seems to confirm that as well.)

City directory showing Gray and LaFleur

The rest had to be built elsewhere as Mr. Gray left Riverside under the temptation of a very nice contract to work for Mr. Ford! The next ten were built in Hamilton, Ohio, the plant mentioned above. In 1913 Hamilton suffered severe flooding and 200 died. The plant was damaged as well so there was a delay between the 5000hp one and the first of the nine ‘gas-steam’ engines coming in.

This postcard shows the damage to the exterior

Hamilton Ohio flood damage parlor card showing flood damage to the interior (text is a little hard to read but…)

This is the one that was built in Oil City at Riverside Engine- they mention here the next one, a 5000hp engine that was ‘gas only’- then nine ‘gas-steam’ engines.


Photo of engine inside HF Museum – They numbered each side so this was actually #6 engine, #11 &12 gas and steam, making one ‘engine’.

The specifications are fairly incredible:

Engine: 6000 HP, 80 RPM

Mfg by Hooven, Owens, Rentschler Co, Hamilton, OH

Steam side:

Tandem compound

High pressure cylinder bore – 36″

Low pressure cylinder bore – 72″

Stroke 72″

Gas side:

Cylinder bore – 42″

Stroke – 72″

The 100 ton flywheel behind me. In the factory the floor in the above photo would have been ‘ground level’, in this one I’d have been in the basement- Mr. Ford had it laid out this way so everyone could see the whole thing.

Photo of Paul with flywheel on the engine side

The 250 volt DC generator can be seen on the other side. The generators were made by Crocker Wheeler company of New York.

Description of the exhibit at the Henry Ford

Henry Ford was VERY proud of that building and those power plant engines, the largest in the world at the time. He gave a tour of them in this video- you can see one running. That demolition occurred about nine years after Henry’s death, by the way.

As proof of that pride, here’s Edsel, Charlie Chaplin in the middle and Henry Ford. Funny that Charlie Chaplin would go on to make a movie that put a negative ‘cast’ on assembly line work!

Photo of Ford with his son Edsel on left and  Charlie Chaplin on right.

Here’s a clip from Chaplin’s movie, pretty funny! He must have watched this happen in real time!

So this is what was at completion, 1920s. The ‘X’s explained, far left, a Trade School, to the right of that is the one building along Woodward Avenue that still stands, the Sales Office. Next is the old Power Plant, then the Executive Offices- all three gone.

What remains today- what was on Woodward Avenue, except for the Sales Office, is gone. In the video above showing the demolition they show placing the historical marker in front of the Sales Office. The buildings marked with red X’s are gone.

Yes, the smoke stacks were unnecessary but removing them would be destroying the whole old power plant building. What to see how that happened? This video first starts showing the front of the Highland Park power plant building (the front end was the old part) and you can see two of the power plant engines in there. Later in the video it shows taking those down and demolishing the building- which ‘dropping the stacks’ does almost by themselves!

I got to be at a meeting of the W3, a group that was trying to raise funds that would include restoring the Sales Office building. This guy brought his grandfather’s 1915 Model T Ford runabout to the event, very cool to see! The red box under the hood was designed to cook food! He made an Apple Crisp during the event!

Steve Shotwell, who is the exhibits curator at the Ford Piquette Plant. Shown in front of the Sales Building. The Powerplant Building would have been in the background facing Woodward Avenue to the south where the modern shopping center is today.


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