Resources & Research

Where Brownfield Reclamation Meets Historic Preservation A Michigan community benefits from the recovery of an historic battlefield and early American settlement.

Where Brownfield Reclamation Meets Historic Preservation
A Michigan community benefits from the recovery of an historic battlefield and early American settlement.

By James M. Harless, PhD, CHMM

Location: Monroe
Population: 20,733


Sustainable development is defined as the confluence of the following three areas: environmental, social, and economic. What could be a more sustainable development than reclaiming an industrial brownfield for historical preservation as well as education, economic benefit, and creation of greenspace?

In 1997, under abandoned paper mill buildings in Monroe, an historic jewel was discovered. Two facets of this jewel—which is listed on both the Michigan and National Historic Registers and has recently been included in the National Park System—are the locations of the Battle of the River Raisin in the War of 1812 and the 1780s community of Frenchtowns, the original settlement of Monroe.

The Frenchtown Settlement/River Raisin Battlefield site is considered by local and state experts to be one of the most important historic and archeological sites in Michigan. The city of Monroe, the State of Michigan, and the previous property owner, Homrich
Incorporated, took advantage of an unprecedented opportunity to preserve history and turn this former industrial brownfield into a state and federal focal point for sustainable historic preservation, education, recreation, and tourism.

The city and Homrich Incorporated worked together with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop mitigation and remediation approaches to allow the company to donate—and a non-profit or municipal entity to accept—a 30-acre portion of the former paper mill site that encompasses much of the historic Frenchtown settlement and battlefield. The city, MDEQ, and the EPA committed over $3.5 million in brownfield redevelopment funding to address environmental issues at the former industrial facility, demolish existing buildings, and prepare the site for its future role.

Successful completion of the brownfield redevelopment plan provides tourists, history buffs, archeologists, and historians an opportunity to increase their knowledge and understanding of early settlement of the region and the battle of the River Raisin. It also completes the city’s long-term program to sustainably redevelop the multi-site “Paper Mill Row” brownfield zone at the northeastern gateway to the city. Two of the three former mill sites have been redeveloped: one, into a sustainable, new
urbanism residential neighborhood; and the other into a city recreational complex.

Preserving the History—21st Century
On March 30, 2009, President Obama signed legislation designating the River Raisin Battlefield site as a National Historic Battlefield, initiating activities to transfer the property to the National Park Service.

This final path to preservation and national recognition began in 2006 when, after almost a decade of planning and negotiations, Homrich Incorporated transferred ownership of the East Mill historic parcel to the Port of Monroe to hold in trust while site cleanup and restoration and plans for preservation and interpretation were completed. That transfer followed final resolution of the two major issues that long blocked the successful redevelopment of this important site: 1) environmental liabilities and 2) funding for environmental remediation, building demolition, and site restoration.

Transfer of the East Mill property was delayed for years while the current and future property owners, MDEQ, and EPA worked to resolve federal environmental liabilities that would transfer to a new owner. Between 1980 and 1981, the Union Camp Corporation stored hazardous wastes on the site in compliance with an interim-status permit issued under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). This activity subjected the site to the requirements of state and federal corrective-action programs—a liability that transfers to any future owner of the property, regardless of whether they conducted any industrial or other operations on the site.

The RCRA corrective action program requires the identification and investigation of all areas where any type of waste was handled or may have been released during the 80 years of mill operations. For a municipality or historic non-profit organization, the potential costs for complying with these requirements are prohibitive and an unacceptable burden of ownership.

Soil and Materials Engineers, Inc. (SME) worked with the city, MDEQ, and EPA to develop a strategy for sufficiently mitigating potential, future federal liabilities to allow transfer of the East Mill site. This strategy included a detailed environmental investigation to identify potential sources of impact and any existing significant contamination of soil and groundwater; a plan to remediate contamination areas of concern; a commitment by the MDEQ and EPA to issue a No Further Interest (NFI) letter at the conclusion of environmental activities; and an environmental insurance policy.

The results of the environmental investigations revealed no significant impacts to groundwater and only a few subsurface environmental issues: several underground storage tanks and associated releases to soil, a former industrial waste disposal trench, and asbestos releases in damaged portions of the mill buildings.

After reviews of the assessment results and remediation plans, the regulatory agencies agreed to issue an NFI letter. At this point the city secured commitment for $1 million in environmental cleanup insurance to protect future owners against possible future cleanup costs for unknown/undiscovered environmental contamination. The only remaining problem was securing funding for the environmental remediation, building demolition, and site restoration.

The city and SME spent over seven years seeking funding for the $3.2 million needed to pay for the environmental and demolition activities necessary to allow transfer of the East Mill historic parcel for preservation and interpretive redevelopment. The funding keystone was a $1 million Clean Michigan Initiative brownfield redevelopment grant provided by the MDEQ. The city then secured a $1 million brownfield redevelopment loan from the MDEQ and a $1.2 million loan from a U.S. EPA Brownfield Revolving Loan Fund Grant. These loans will be repaid with incremental taxes generated by other brownfield redevelopment projects in the city.

The culmination of the work was the effort initiated and led by Congressman John Dingell to add the River Raisin battlefield to the National Park System. He sponsored and worked tirelessly to advance legislation to accomplish this feat. He also led the years-long effort to introduce Park Service staff to the battlefield site and convince them that a reclaimed brownfield could be successfully transformed into a National Battlefield Park. President Obama signed legislation designating the site as a National Park in March 2009.  The crowning moment for Congressman Dingell and the entire project team came in October 2010 when land for the River Raisin National Battlefield Park transferred to the National Park Service. Dedication of the River Raisin National Battlefield Park as America’s 393rd national park occurred in Monroe, on October 22, 2010. This was the first reclaimed brownfield site ever to be included in the National Park System.

History Well Worth Preserving
By the early 1780s, many French settlers, dissatisfied with conditions in British-held Detroit, left to establish a new community. In 1784, that journey ended at the Riviere aux Raisins (River Raisin), 45 miles to the south. The settlement soon became the focal point of French life in the region. By 1810, it consisted of approximately twenty buildings located within a compound, enclosed by a puncheon fence (stockade), along the north bank of the river. It later became the flash point for American-British skirmishes during the initial stages of the War of 1812’s Northwest Campaign.

Frenchtown occupied a critical position between the British-Canadian Army stationed in Detroit and the Kentucky Volunteer Militia led by William Henry Harrison encamped at Fort Meigs (near present-day Toledo). On January 19, 1813, the Kentucky Militia moved north and attacked British regulars in control of Frenchtown, driving them back to Fort Malden (now Amherstberg, Ontario). Four days later, on January 22, the British counterattacked, pushing those not captured or injured back south to Fort Meigs. More than 300 Americans died that day, making it the single most costly battle for the U.S. during the entire war. The next day, native allies of the British massacred another 60 injured Americans who were unable to march to Malden.

The massacre of those wounded soldiers enraged and galvanized the fledgling western American settlements. Huge numbers of volunteers flocked to recruitment stations seeking revenge. With these additions, a new American Army of the Northwest forced the British from Ohio and back across the River Raisin during the summer of 1813. With Commodore Perry’s September victory on Lake Erie, the British began a full retreat into Canada. On October 5, 1813, Harrison caught them at the Thames River near present-day London, Ontario. Led by the remaining Kentucky militiamen screaming, “Remember the Raisin,” the Americans crushed the British-Indianforce and ended the Northwest Campaign.

The events at Frenchtown and subsequent victory of the American Army in the Northwest Campaign secured the present-day boundaries of Michigan for the U.S via the 1814 Treaty of Ghent.

James M. Harless, PhD, CHMM is a vice president and principal of Soil and Materials Engineers, Inc. He can be reached at 734.454.9900 or [email protected].

Monroe was the 2010 Region 1 Winner in the Community Excellence Award “Race for the Cup.” The CEAs are the League’s most prestigious community awards. They are decided upon by peers both at the regional level and at the Convention, where one of seven finalists is selected as the Cup winner. To find out more about the CEAs, go to
©2022 Michigan Municipal League LLC. All rights reserved