Intriguing sites just steps from the classroom

July 8, 2024

Take a stroll back in time — and see a new environmentally friendly addition to the land — when on a campus walk toward the south side of the Rouge Gateway Trail.

Clara Ford's Rose Garden near the Estate
An ornate gate opens to Fair Lane's rose garden. Photos/Sarah Tuxbury

Fossils that dot building exteriors. A wrought iron-fenced rose garden that sits on top of underground tunnels. And a new water feature that helps the fish travel up the Rouge River from the Detroit River for the first time in more than a century.

These are a few of the intriguing sites along a trek from campus to the south end of Rouge Gateway Trail. First created in 2005, the gateway trail runs through campus and gives the community a scenic way to explore local history and a route to downtown West Dearborn.

“We have so many fascinating landscape features right in our backyard. Some are beautiful, some are functional, some are intriguing — and some have a little bit of everything,” says EIC Program Coordinator and Interpretive Naturalist Dorothy McLeer, who has led educational programs along this route. “If you want a shorter walk, you can start at the CASL Building or Fieldhouse and walk along Fair Lane Road from there. You’ll still see most of the sites I’m talking about today.” 

A walk from the Environmental Interpretive Center to the Rouge Gateway Trail’s south bridge and back takes about 90 minutes, depending on your pace. View a campus natural areas map

Here are a few things you’ll see when you take the south side portion of the Rouge Gateway Trail. Since the Orchard Trail leg of the walk — which is the beginning path from the EIC to Fair Lane Lake — was previously covered in a recent article, this trail guide’s highlights will start at the edge of Fair Lane Lake.

A view from Fair Lane through the meadow

The greenspace between Fair Lane Lake to the Henry Ford Estate

At first glance, it just looks like grass — but something else is going on here. The land didn’t always look like this. Nearly 110 years ago, this meadow was designed to use curiosity to keep people moving forward.

When at the lake, you cannot see the house. When in the middle of the meadow, you can’t see the lake or the house — just an opening in the trees that hints something is up ahead. 

Geese snacking by Fair Lake Lake
Geese by Fair Lane Lake

Closer to the 1915 mansion, there’s a glimpse of the 56-room residence. McLeer says the peek-a-boo pathway was created through the progressive realization technique. And Henry Ford’s landscape architect, Jens Jensen, did it by redesigning the entire area.

“Jensen turned farmland into a scenic space that looks like it could have always been here,” McLeer says. “Everything you see in the meadow, including the lake, was put here by Jensen.” 

On the grounds, McLeer says there are 100-plus-year-old Hawthorn trees that dot the landscape, which was a nod to the prairie style of Frank Lloyd Wright. Looking up, there are herons, hawks and eagles that nest in or around the meadow. “This meadow was created in a way that supports and highlights nature,” McLeer says. “At the time it was done, this was progressive. I think we can say, 100 years later, that Jensen’s plan was successful.”

Fair Lane Terrace

A century-old terrace

Once getting to the clearing end of the meadow, Henry Ford Estate — a national historic landmark — is completely visible. The first prominent feature seen is the home’s terrace. Made of limestone from Kelleys Island State Park in Ohio, there are surprises in the brownish-gray material. “There are visible fossils in this limestone. They are everywhere,” McLeer says, pointing out lighter patterns on the steps of the porch and exterior walls of the house. Fossils include extinct marine invertebrates like trilobites and nautilus-type shells.

“This limestone was all under water in Lake Erie at some point. It’s a 100-plus-year-old home made of a million-plus-year-old material,” McLeer says. In addition to the main house, McLeer says the estate’s garage, powerhouse, gazebo and potting shed also are made from the natural stone.

The Fair Lane Rose Garden

The rose garden

Keep walking south around the 31,000-square-foot house and you’ll arrive at a picturesque rose garden with a fountain in the center. The garden’s opening welcomes guests with a decorative wrought iron gate that once belonged to an 18th century English manor. The gate, pictured at the top of this article, was noticed by Clara Ford on a European vacation and a deal was struck to bring it back with them for their home.

Karen Marzonie, Fair Lane director of gardens and grounds, says the flowers, including the roses around the estate, have been carefully researched by combing through historic photographs, correspondence and receipts of plant purchases from when the Fords lived at Fair Lane. “It’s not unusual for homeowners, especially garden enthusiasts like Clara Ford, to revise their plant choices over time," she says. "Fair Lane’s gardens and grounds reflect the plant preferences of the Fords while responding to today’s need for disease- and deer-resistant plant varieties.”

Not only is the garden beautiful, it’s intriguing. McLeer says there’s a tunnel from the Ford’s power house to the main home that runs under the roses. Ford used a variety of tunnels to travel to the buildings without needing to be concerned about weather.

The tunnels were also an important safety feature in the wake of the 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping, in which the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month-old son was snatched from his home. McLeer says the Fords saw the underground passage as a way to protect their often-visiting grandchildren. At the time, their youngest grandchild, William Clay Ford, was 7. McLeer says she’s been in the tunnels before, but the tunnels are not open to the public, with the estate currently undergoing renovations.

Rouge Trail southside bridge

The south side bridge

Keep traveling down Fair Lane Road until there’s an opening to the right marked by a “Rouge River Gateway Trail” sign. Take that until you see a bridge. Once you get to the red south bridge and cross the Rouge River, there’s a fork in the road — one way leads you to downtown West Dearborn and the other takes you across the river from the Henry Ford Estate.

Fork in the road on south Rouge Gateway Trail

“You can choose your own adventure,” says McLeer, who walked the trail recently. “It can take you to a busy downtown for lunch or a quiet place to enjoy listening to birds and the sounds of rushing river water.”

If there’s time, stop on the bridge and look for wildlife. McLeer says evidence of beaver families — like gnawed tree trunks — are often seen from the south bridge. “It depends on the time of day whether you’ll see them. They are most active at dawn and dusk,” she says.

Incredibly, the bridge is quiet and serene, even though a busy downtown is just around the bend.

Gateway trail opening to downtown Dearborn

Downtown West Dearborn

Looking to be part of the action? Head left. The trailhead emerges in downtown West Dearborn near the former Andiamo’s building. It seems a bit loud with car traffic after being among the trees and bird songs. There are trees along the way for shade, historic buildings for visual interest and restaurant options for a nice lunch break. Buddy’s Pizza is a few blocks from where the path emerges and more restaurants, coffee shops, stores, parks and museums are nearby.

There’s a Dearborn Summer Market that brings together the community with local farmers, entrepreneurs and small businesses. It’s at Bryant Branch Library — a very short walk from the trailhead — and runs from 3 to 8 p.m. July 12, Aug. 9 and Sept. 13. The address is 22100 Michigan Ave.

Prefer to take a bike? UM-Dearborn has a bike route that goes from the EIC to downtown West Dearborn via the Rouge River Gateway Trail. Want to make it a social event with UM-Dearborn colleagues? There's a group meeting at the Renick University Center's patio at 4 p.m. Friday, July 12, to walk to the market.

The fish ladder across from the Fair Lane power house

The fish ladder

If a scenic nature walk is the preference, go to the right and cross the second red bridge. On the right, you’ll come to a small waterfall in the river that appears natural — but it was added in the early 20th century to generate hydroelectric power that powered the Henry Ford Estate and 200-plus houses in Dearborn.

McLeer says it’s attractive and innovative, but the waterfall posed a problem for the fish that swam up the Rouge River from the Detroit River. They were blocked by the 12-foot waterfall/dam.

Looking at the environmental concerns and the health of the Rouge River and its wildlife, the Rouge River Advisory Council recently led an effort to create a $9 million fish ladder. (Yes, it’s a real thing and not an idea from Dr. Seuss.) Construction started in 2018 and finished in 2023. As McLeer puts it, “Now the fish can swim upstream to make more of themselves.”

To help Friends of the Rouge learn more about the fish in the river, McLeer says UM-Dearborn alum Robert Muller conducted a long-term research project that assessed fish life in the water. Muller began the project in 2012 as a college intern and continues the work today. The data he gathered helped show why the fish ladder was needed. Fish that travel upstream from the Detroit River to the Rouge include yellow perch, black crappie, emerald shiner and more.

“Environmentalists knew cutting off river access was an issue and the fish ladder had been in talks for quite some time. But it takes education, experts and funding to make large projects like this happen,” McLeer says. “It’s been more than 100 years, but they can finally swim upstream again.”

Reporter checked out the north side of the trail in June and the EIC’s Orchard Lake trail in May. Next month, we’ll hike around Fair Lane Lake. 

Story by Sarah Tuxbury.