Press "Enter" to skip to content

The River Rouge Complex, WWI

Ford River Rough Plant (From

During WWI, German U-boats were destroying the United State Navy Ships. At the time the United States had no submarine chasers. The Navy destroyers were managing but not very well. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy, reached out to Henry Ford to build ships for the Navy. In July 11th, 1918 the first Ford Eagle Boat was launched at Ford Motor Company, Ford River Rouge Complex.

Ford Eagle Boat (From

Henry Ford had his very popular Model T that was revolutionizing the automotive industry. The plant were Ford was producing the Model T was his Highland Park Plant. Ford was quickly out growing this facility. Therefore he started looking for options to expand his operations. He came across land that was right on the river. The Rouge River was perfect to bring in raw materials. In 1915 Henry Ford started to acquire land for his newest plant called the River Rouge Complex. All in all he purchased over 2,000 acres [8], making this the biggest plant in the world at the time [4]. The River Rough Complex had three assembly lines that were right next to each other. All three of which were a third of a mile in length. The River Rouge Complex was not only the biggest plant in the world but it was the most technological advanced plant at its time. The plant was fully integrated, from having a steel mill on site, to having a continuous supply of raw materials right from the river. Ford took what he knew about assembly line and producing automobiles to integrating his own technology into the entire plant process [5].

After Ford acquired all the land for his new plant he needed more than automobiles to be produced because like all business men, Ford wanted to make money. What better way to make a lot money fast then to land a big government contract to help with the war effort. Ford started to have radical and extreme press conferences to try and get the attention of the government. Ford eventually landed a big contract but this is how he did it…

Prior to the Navy hiring Henry Ford to build the Eagle boats Ford held a press conference. To get the attention of the Navy Ford stated to the press “I can build 1000 small submarines and 3000 motors a day [1].” Shortly after this bold statement President Wilson in summer 1917 requested Ford to the White House. The meeting was to appoint Ford for membership of the United States Shipping Board. Ford could not accept the position fast enough. Meanwhile he had this brand new plant with nothing to build yet. With Ford being on the board of the United States Shipping, he could start putting out ideas on how to positively use his efforts to help the war effort. The board started to get ideas from Ford on how he could help with the war effort. Ford was eager to get started.

The big issue at hand with the great way was that the Germans have these extreme state of the art U-boats. At the start of World War One the Germans had forty-eight submarines all of which had torpedoes. Germany started a shipping strike campaign. At one point the German U-boats sunk over one million tons worth of shipping ships. Most famously was the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, this was done by a German U-boat.

Prior to 1917 the United States Navy was not capable of taking on the German U-boats. The Navy had wooden chasers, which were no match for the U-boats and the mines that were in the water. The current navy ship was called a wooden chaser. The wooden chasers were extremely fast, getting up to seventeen knots. What the chasers lacked was the defense capabilities. With having the haul made of wooden anything could penetrate it with ease. Early steel haul ships were so heavy as slow that the German U-boats could simply out run them and disappear with ease. The Navy decided that they needed a ship was between a heavy steel haul ship and a wooden chaser to get the best of both worlds [2]. In addition the ship needed extended range as a big factor as well for the new ships. While the Navy was looking to reinvent their fleet, Ford happened to be right around the corner looking to land that contract.

It was determined officially by the Navy in fall of 1917 that the best course of action to take in defeating the German U-boats was to design and build a new type of ship. A steel ship that was between a modern destroyer and the wooden chasers is what the Navy decided. Ford officially stated to the board and the Navy on December 24th, 1917 that He would take his Ford Motor Company and produce the Eagle Boat [3].

Ford was given a contract to build a hundred Eagle boats. The Navy engineered the Eagle boat while Ford was to take the design and come out with a process to mass produce these boats as fast as he could. Ford and his team of engineers took visits and trips out to Navy ship building yards to see how the current ship builders are building the steel haul ships. He saw that the ship would stay stationary while being produced and huge scaffolding all around the ship. Ford saw this process as slow and obsolete. Ford and his team took what they learned and brought it back to the River Rough Complex [3].

Ford began to build the Eagle Boat at his new River Rough Complex in the start of 1918. Production was not going as easily or quickly as Ford initially thought. The plant was proving to be too small and not enough assembly line stations as needed. So Ford and his team of engineers made the plant two hundred feet longer and were able to add the necessary seven stations needed for pre assembly. Even after the addition to the River Rouge Plant took place there were still several issues with production. The engineers and workers at Ford found that riveting was much harder than what they were used to working with on the Model T’s for example. The reason the rivets were so much harder to install is because to speed up the process Ford did not want any scaffolding around the ship. This was thought of as too slow and the ship was constantly moving down the assembly line. The only way to keep the ship moving down the assembly line was for the workers to use ladders. The downfall to this process was the rivets were so hard because the worker could not get the leverage needed to push the rivet in. The assembly line workers were worried of being pushed off the ladder. The workers confronted Ford and the engineers that scaffolding was required and would be easier. Ford did not budge, he said make it work with ladders. It did not take much time for Ford to realize he was falling behind his promised one hundred Eagle boats promised.

It was problem after problem with producing the Eagle boats. Ford did not have any marine engineers on his staff. This proved extremely problematic in the production of the Eagle boat. As stated by Ford “On July 11th, the first completed boat was launched. We made both hauls and the engines, not a forging or a rolled beam entered into the construction of other than the engineer. We stamped the hulls entirely out of sheet steel. They were built indoors… These boats were not built by marine engineers. They were built simply by applying our production principles to a new product [3].”

A big problem that Ford did not see coming was the fact that the boats were not water and oil tight. With making the Model T’s there was never the urge to ever look into how to make sheet steel waterproof in the seams and joints of the haul. While testing his first boats it became a big issue in how to solve the issue of water and oil tightness. Oil was leaking from the engines and through the haul, while water was leaking in to the haul. This added to another delay in the delivery of the Eagle boat.

Even though Ford came off so strong in trying to mass produce boats, it went to prove that Ford fell short of his promise in delivering one hundred boats. By the End of 1918, Ford produced only six Eagle boats. The Navy cut Ford contract from one hundred Eagle boats to only sixty. With all the manufacturing issues occurring with the Eagle boat Ford finally delivered his sixtieth boat on October 15, 1919 [7].

The original intention was for the Eagle boat to be used during World War I. Although not a single Eagle neither saw combat or was used in the Great War, a few saw action in the Russian Civil War for the Allied intervention efforts. After the great way some of the Eagles were sold to the United States Coast Guard. It wasn’t up until World War II the Eagle Boat finally saw its first real combat. The USS Eagle Boat 56 (PE-56) was the most famous of all Eagles. A German submarine off the coast of Maine torpedoed the ship. Originally it was thought that the ship sank due to a boiler explosion. It was not up until 2001 where it was discovered that the ship sank due to German torpedo. This was the only time in United States Navy History were a Court of Inquiry in their own court was overturned.

Before Ford got involved in government contracts there was no standard on any contracts. If two manufactures were building the same model of any particular equipment, the manufactures would produce their own version. Ford saw this extremely frustrated and time consuming. When he was given the drawings of the Eagle boat, different companies designed different parts of the ship. The drawings did not match up nor work together. Ford insisted on having a United State wide standard on all drawings therefore no matter who was building what that all parts and equipment were the same and would work together if needed.

It was through Fords continual improving and contiguously integrated manufacturing methods is what brought the manufacturing industry to what it is today. This all started the Eagle Boat that was produced at the River Rough Complex and seen through Fords Willow Run Plant successfully produced wartime effort machines.

The Eagle boat contract was never seen as successful by wartime efforts, marine shipbuilding manufacturing, and overall assembly line production. Ford did fall short as he even stated and realized in his autobiography “My Life and Work [3].” Ford did however reclaim his wartime efforts during World War II. Ford used his Willow Run Plant and produced over half of all B-24 bomber planes. Even though Ford failed miserably that did not stop his as an engineer and an entrepreneur. Ford was able to learn from his failures and was able to produce a very successful bomber and produced nine thousands of them on time.

The River Rough Complex started off producing Eagle boats. After that failure and after the war, Ford started producing tractors and automobiles. The River Rough Complex is still in operation to this day. This plant is still Fords biggest factory in the company, employing over 6,000 people [6]. The Ford F-150 is the model that is currently produced here. In 1999 the plant went a major renovation. Most of the roof is now filled with plants. This serves as two main purposes. This helps keeps the interior of the plant insulated and as a water treatment process.

Throughout Henry Ford’s life he has always been pushing the boundaries in innovation, design, and manufacturing. Even with his failure with the Eagle Boat, he still continued to push the innovation bubble and it was because of this push and drive is why his legacy and company is where it is today.

Lauching the Ford Eagle Boat (From

Primary Sources

1. Library Of Congress. The New York times, February 11, 1917. [New-York N.Y, 1857] Newspaper. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <>.

2. Furer, “The 110-Foot Submarine Chasers and Eagle Boats,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 45 (1919)

3. Ford, Henry, and Samuel Crowther. My life and work. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014.

4. Ford, Henry, and Samuel Crowther. Today and tomorrow. Productivity Press, 1988.

Secondary Sources

5. Hounshell, David A. (1984), From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States, Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press

6. “Henry Ford’s Rouge – History – Ford Rouge Factory Tour.” The Henry Ford,

7. Benedict Crowell and Robert Forrest Wilson, The Armies of Industry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921)

8.  “Ford River Rouge Complex.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,

Further Reading

1. Wikipedia Ford River Rouge

2. Wikipedia Ford Eagle Boat