Willis Avenue Station

The Detroit Edison Company began construction on Willis Avenue Station in 1903. It was Detroit’s first steam heat production plant; at first, it served only 12 customers with only 3,000 feet of mains to supply this electricity, but the company added an additional 10,000 feet of mains the next year.  By the 1940s, the plant was providing power to 1,650 customers.  Steam heat was considered an ideal medium for distributing power at the time because steam can circulate to any elevation, unlike hot water. Also, steam heat allowed customers to control their heat supply and the process of installing steam lines was less expensive than other methods.  The plant is still operational, but was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.

The steam line in the 1940s was approximately 42 miles long. Asbestos was commonly used in this era as pipe insulation. Asbestos products were also used for fireproofing and sound absorption. However, in the late 1970s, it became publically known that asbestos was a dangerous material. In fact, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the manufacturing of asbestos-laden products used in certain products, such as fireplace components and wallboard patching compounds. But it wasn’t until 1989 that the Environmental Protection Agency banned a majority of products that contain asbestos. This ban ultimately applied only to the manufacturing of new products.

Public areas and businesses, including schools, shipyards and power plants, which had been built before the ban, were not forced to remove asbestos from their buildings for many years. Sometimes the asbestos stayed in place but was encased by resin to prevent the hazardous fibers from escaping into the air.

Willis Avenue Station workers may still be suffering the devastating effects of asbestos. Some power plant workers have died or become gravely ill with asbestos-related illnesses, like mesothelioma and asbestosis. And, unfortunately, the damage was not limited to workers. The workers families would frequently come into contact with asbestos if the fibers attached themselves to clothing, skin or hair.  Asbestos-related illnesses typically come to a head 20-30 years after exposure. Once symptoms have begun and a diagnosis is made, it’s usually too late to treat the diseases.