The Rouge River

Rouge River at Newburgh Lake

Located in southeast Michigan, the Rouge River weaves in and out of Hines Park. The small coastal river flows through Wayne, Oakland, and Washtenaw counties. The river runs approximately 125 miles long while the mainstream is about 44 miles in length. It has three tributaries (smaller streams that feed into a larger stream, river, or lake): the Upper, Middle, and Lower branches. There are more than 400 lakes, impoundments, and ponds connected to the Rouge River.

The Rouge River basin primarily consists of clay. It has a hilly terrain in its north and west areas, while flat lands dominate the southeast section of the river. The river is considered a watershed, which is a drainage area or basin that allows water to flow toward a stream, river, or lake at a lower elevation. The Rouge River watershed sees an average of 30 inches of rainfall throughout the year, with snow contributing 10-15% of annual precipitation.

There are several impoundments connected to the Rouge River. Impoundments are human-made bodies of water created behind a dam. They are used in several ways including to create a new reservoir, manage flood storage, and maintain or raise water levels. One of the more popular impoundments connected to the Rouge River is Newburgh Lake. Before its present day form, Newburgh Lake was a millpond constructed in the early 1800s. 

Photo of people ice skating on Newburgh Lake
Ice skating on Newburgh Lake, 1934

This southeast Michigan river was not always known as the Rouge River. The earliest evidence of human interactions with the river date more than 10,000 years ago during the Paleo-Indian period. Mastodon-hunting encouraged early encounters with the river and surrounding land. Native Americans called the river “mishqua sibe” or “minosagoink.” Both terms mean “Singeing Skin River,” the place where game was dressed. 

The Rouge River area was home to Native Americans for thousands of years until new visitors encountered the river in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The French first settled in 1701 and called the river “Riviere Rouge” or the Red Rouge after the red water color of rushes growing on the banks. Though a translation, this became the permanent name for the popular and wide-reaching Rouge River.

Recreational use of the Rouge River can be traced back to the sixteenth century. Popular activities included swimming, ice-skating, boating, fishing, transportation, and irrigation. The French took to “pony-racing on the frozen rivers.” Initially used for transportation during the winter, the French “hitched small horses to carioles and sleighs” to travel across the Rouge River. Over time, the activity transformed into a sport.

Black and white photos of people on a beach
Swimmers at Phoenix Lake Beach, ca. 1925

On the morning of October 9, 1969, the Rouge River caught on fire about 1,000 feet downstream from the I-75 freeway bridge, near the River Rouge and Detroit city boundary. The fire was so massive that smoke billowing from the river could be seen from 10 miles away. Firefighters on the scene exclaimed that flames shot as high as 50 feet into the air. But what caused the fire?  Sparks from an acetylene torch ignited oil-soaked debris that was floating along the north bank of the Rouge River.

The Rouge River fire only further highlighted the decades-long issue of preserving the river and its surrounding habitat. By 1985, the Rouge River was designated a Great Lakes Area of Concern due to “significant impairment of beneficial uses” and “human activities at the local level.” Threats to the Rouge River watershed include flooding and streambank erosion, combined sewer overflows, pollution, loss of wildlife habitat, and invasive species.

Over the past few decades, the Rouge River went from being one of the dirtiest rivers in the state of Michigan to a shining example of a thriving ecosystem. Oxygen conditions have improved, fish and peregrine falcons have returned, and it has become a recreational site once more. Though challenges still remain, today the Rouge River is an ecological asset to the community and enhances quality of life.

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