Dispatch from South Chicago: A River Runs Through It

Posted on: March 4th, 2009 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment
Very little remains of the South Works steel mill in South Chicago. These ore walls serve as a stark suggestion of the mill that used to occupy 500 acres along Lake Michigan.

Very little remains of the South Works steel mill in South Chicago. These ore walls serve as a stark suggestion of the mill that used to occupy 500 acres along Lake Michigan.

I ventured out of the National Main Streets Conference hotel and joined a field session that took me to a part of Chicago few visitors—or even residents—even see, according to Rod Sellers, my tour guide. We traveled south of downtown Chicago approximately 30 minutes to South Chicago—still within city limits—a stretch of the city that clings to the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan near the Indiana border.

The “Southeast Chicago Heritage Tour” brought us far from the Burnham skyscrapers and Beaux-Arts bridges to a landscape dominated by smoke stacks, landfills and the Calumet River—Chicago’s other river (and no, its flow has not been reversed—it still flows naturally like most self-respecting rivers).

The Calumet Region is where railroads and the river itself brought coal, coke, and iron ore to the hulking steel mills at the mouth of the Calumet and along both banks of the river. These mills churned out nails, rails and beams to build the John Hancock Building, the Sears Tower and countless other Chicago landmarks. Unfortunately, very little of this industrial legacy remains visible. We did stop at the sprawling 500+ acre U.S. Steel South Works steel mill site that lines the lakeshore. Though it’s impossible to imagine it now, it employed 20,000 workers at the height of its operations. Shift work kept the plant humming round the clock and waves of immigrants moved to the area for plentiful and well-paying work. Taverns, restaurants, grocery stores and ice cream parlors were abundant. Our tour guide described hard-working and hard-drinking men and his school boy memory of being told to keep his horsing around quiet to avoid disturbing his neighbor s resting up for the 11 p.m. - 7 a.m. night shift.

The South Works mill closed in 1992 and was completely dismantled save three massive ore walls that were built to store the ore when the lake was impassible due to ice. The scale of these concrete structures is hard to convey. Their presence and the enormous task of removing them has impeded redevelopment ideas for the site. There are plans to bring residential, commercial and industrial uses to the property after earlier plans to build an airport—or the Olympics—were shot down by neighbors. Thanks to a citizen-led campaign, this land will not sprout high-rise luxury condos but more affordable, sustainable housing. Just when that might happen remains to be seen. The groundbreaking keeps getting pushed back. With the economy in the shape it is currently, the 2010 start date is likely to be pushed back again.

We rolled on to Wolf Lake, a popular recreation district in the area, laid out by Daniel Burnham, whose "City Beautiful" beliefs led to large swaths of the city being left open as green space. Only a handful of Canada Geese were enjoying the lake shore on this cold and clear Chicago day.

The Pullman mural speaks volumes about the history of this company town.

Farther up the river we passed the site of the notorious 1937 Memorial Day massacre where ten striking steel workers were killed. The strike was called when “Little Steel” refused to sign the Steel Workers Organizing Committee’s union contract. Though the newsreel footage is inconclusive (the cameraman was switching lenses when shots rang out), the undeniable fact is that ten workers were shot in the back or the side by Chicago cops. The workers’ deaths were recorded as “justifiable homicides” and no police were ever prosecuted. Looking out at the barren prairie it was hard to imagine the chaotic scene but the starkness of the landscape was ominous. These workers sacrifice is memorialized a short distance away.

The Thomas J. O’Brian Lock was our opportunity to see some of the Calumet's 500 acres of wetlands (reduced from an original 22,000), home to 2,200 species of wildlife. Across the river from our stopping point is the site of the future Ford Calumet Environmental Center. The architect for the project is the Studio Gang, an innovative firm from Chicago known for its unusual design and construction. To be known as the “Best Nest”, the team scouted the site from the perspective of a bird and when they encountered iron beams from the site they quickly incorporated them into the building’s design, scavenging “nest” material much as a bird does.

The Hotel Florence opened on November 1, 1881 as the hospitality showcase for visitors to George Pullman's "perfect town" of Pullman.

The Hotel Florence opened on November 1, 1881 as the hospitality showcase for visitors to the "perfect town" of Pullman.

Our final stop was Pullman, Illinois, the planned community created by paternalistic railroad car manufacturer George Pullman. We rumbled down his narrow streets where railroad car workers, foreman and the bosses lived in close proximity to the plant. This tightly managed community had concrete sidewalks and neatly planted lawns and “Pullman green” detailed brick homes. Today much of that remains though the uniformity –or lack thereof—that I observed would disappoint Mr. Pullman. We got out at the Hotel Florence and got a taste for how George Pullman entertained guests, dignitaries and clients who came to buy his Pullman Palace Train Cars. Opened in 1881, the 30,000 square foot building has 65 rooms on four floors, their specific use segregated by class and gender. The hotel is being rehabbed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

As we headed back up the highway to Chicago, I was left with a sense of appreciation for South Chicago’s industrial heritage, but also regret. Most of it dwells in the realm of photographs and digital archives now. Thankfully these resources exist but there is no way to capture the scale or impact of those mills and manufacturing plants on a two-dimensional surface. Hopefully, the future of the Calumet from this point forward will not be as dismissive or destructive to this region’s industrial past.

- Erica Stewart

Erica Stewart is the outreach coordinator for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Community Revitalization Program. Stay tuned here and on their official blog as Erica and her colleagues share posts live from the 2009 National Main Streets Conference, which is taking place this week in Chicago.

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One Response

  1. Kevin Murphy

    March 29, 2009

    In the interest of accuracy, seven steel workers (two from Illinois, 5 from Indiana) were among the 10 killed, and 3 non-steel workers were killed. More than 100 other were injured, many seriously, none of them police.