Article: Cement - Michigan's newest industry shakes out in the early 1900's
The process for making cement was refined in the 1890's and Michigan had an abundance of natural resources which were integral to this process. Cement plants flourished in the thirty years from about 1890 until 1920. Prominent and wealthy Michigan businessmen along with out-of-state investors, funded these plants which were located mostly in the lower peninsula from Coldwater and Union City on the south, to Alpena, Elk Rapids and Petoskey in the north. Only the LaFarge plant in Alpena and two St. Marys plants in Charlevoix and Detroit remain today.,
Railroads were vital to the early operation of these plants for a variety of reasons, but mostly by bringing in coal and marl to the plant, and taking finished cement out of the plant to customers around the country. Cement product was transported in barrels, and later in hopper cars.
It is important to note that cement is not concrete. They are different products. Cement is used as a binder along with other ingredients like gravel to make concrete. Cement is also a binder used to make morter, which uses a finer aggregate.
Cement is either "hydraulic", which sets in water and is commonly known as "Portland Cement". "Non-hydraulic" cement sets as it dries. Most of Michigan's early plants produced cement using the "Portland" process.
The successful factors necessary to make cement included:
- Financing. Plants needed significant capital investment to find marl or limestone deposits, purchase land, build buildings and kilns, build power plants, and provide housing for employees. They also needed cash flow for start up funding until operations became profitable.
- Marl or limestone. Marl was found mostly in lake beds. Limestone was found in mostly open pit mines. Most plants had a nearby supply, but some brought product in from other locations by rail. Ultimately, marl was found to be inferior to limestone for large scale production.
- Energy for heat. Usually provided by local, coal-fired electric plants, with coal being brought in by railroad or ship (if a port was available).
- Manpower. To operate the plant. One company near Baldwin created a town of 400 people (Marlborough) to support their plant.
- Transportation. To bring coal and supplies in and to ship cement product out. Sometimes by lake freighter, rail or both.
Plants began producing cement in the 1890's and reached a peak number of plants in Michigan by about 1905. At this point, plants which didn't become profitable began to fail. Today, Michigan has only three cement plants remaining, including LaFarge in Alpena - which is purportedly the largest in the world. There are other cement production facilities in other parts of the country and world. China actually produces 50% of the cement used in the world. [Wiki]
In the case of the LaFarge plant in Alpena, limestone is mined on site and product is shipped around the world by lake freighter from the port of Alpena on Lake Huron. Rail service (Lake States Railway) brings in fly ash and other products used for production. The facility also has an in-plant industrial railroad for switching cars.
Cement Plants in Michigan
The following is our list of known former cement plants in Michigan. It includes the name and location of the plant (with links to other pages in this website), years in operation ("xxxx" means date is unknown), and primary rail service. "LS&MS" means Lake Shore & Michigan Southern which was the most common carrier in the southern tier of counties.
St. Marys Cement Plant, Charlevoix, Charlevoix County, xxxx-(open). No rail service.
Wolverine Portland Cement, Coldwater, Branch County. xxxx-xxxx, LS&MS Old Road
Why did the Huron Portland Plant Survive? It has an almost unlimited local supply of Limestone on site, which minimizes transportation costs. It has energy available and can bring in large quantities of coal by boat. It has rail service and has a nearby city ( Alpena) which doesn't require company support for a nearby "company town". It ships cement product out in great quantity to other Great Lakes ports and to the St. Lawrence seaway and the world. The company is now known as Holcim, and is a french multi-national company.
Also Notable. Jesse Besser (1882–1970) was an inventor and manufacturer from Alpena in the U.S. state of Michigan. He is best known for inventing, and supervising a series of improvements to, a tamping machine used to rapidly press wet, flexible concrete into blocks, thereby making possible a new generation of applications in masonry construction. For decades, Besser block was a worldwide standard term for masonry construction blocks. The Alpena-based Besser Company, which inventor Besser ran for many decades, manufactured these machines and made a fortune for Besser and his family. Concrete block became a feature of worldwide construction solutions in World War II and following years. Commencing in 1964, Besser turned over part of his assets to the newly founded Jesse Besser Museum, now known as the Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan, as an endowment. [Wiki]