“Here a pall of heavy smoke darkens the sky by day, while by night the lurid glare from the furnaces tells of unceasing toil”
…so reads South Chicago at the Gates of the Steel Mills, a study of housing conditions near the steel mills lining Illinois’ Calumet River in 1911.
Nowadays the skies are a clear, with bright blue skies contradicting industry’s black footprints and gray pillars.
Steel by Sunset
The evening I found myself in stride with two other explorers across the barren polluted fields and piles of bricks; the clouds were yellow, and a golden hue hung in the air. Concrete towers, bathed in the sunset that seemed absorbed inside the rust, caused the twisted, exposed metal to fluoresce.
I paused my hike across the tangled brush, the plants struggling to grow from tainted earth crunched under my shoes. The crackling sound was slowly replaced by deep humming, emanating from nearby factories that have somehow stayed in business. A train whistle blew. There wasn’t much daylight left.
Two truly giant smokestacks and a pair of brick mounds obscured the base of a mysterious concrete tower adjacent to another, shorter tower that seemed to be showing its age more than its partners in death.
A hundred years ago, this site was boiling over with steam, heat and thousands of workers and next to an “Under Construction” sign read a larger sign: “By-Product Corporation.” We know it today, however, as ACME Coke Plant.
People With Mettle
At the turn of the 20th century more than 200,000 workers, many of them immigrants, lived in this part of Chicago, flooding-in from across the country and world looking for honest work in the steel mills and related industries. ACME wasn’t the first arrival, though. By the time they had incorporated in 1905, this strip along the river had been industrialized for 25 years, but not quite like what the coke plant executives had in mind.
Coke is a product used in the steel making process; it’s been used to fuel blast furnaces ever since Abraham Darby discovered the coking process in 1708. Coal would be brought into the plant by train and baked in oxygen-free furnaces until it was purified. The gas released, “coal gas,” would be saved and channeled back into the furnaces to fuel the next “charge,” or batch, of coke, or sold to nearby factories for heating purposes.
The complex kept growing, so that by 1909 the plant sprawled over 100 acres with 100,000 square feet of factory space. On December 29, 1929 the By-Product Corporation was renamed Interlake Iron. While stepping up production and focusing on efficiency. For every 2,000lbs of coal received, the factory could produce 1,400lbs of salable coke which it sold to steel mills, such as ACME Steel across the river.
In 1964, in an attempt to centralize their operations, ACME Steel merged with Interlake Iron. The new owner, in order to get the coke they needed to forge steel, built what was known as the “only suspension bridge in Chicago” across Calumet River. The bridge was essentially an elevated, long-distance conveyor belt system to keep the coke flowing to the company’s blast furnaces. That year, ACME Steel became the 11th largest steel producer in the country—a fact corroborated by the outlines of the expansive ruins how the ground must have shaken when the coke charges were ejected into rail cars.
The trains, the tremors… these are gone now.
Now, I found myself at the base of the mysterious tower in between the twin piles of bricks. “Wow, I’m impressed how much of this place is left,” someone said. I looked around at the bricks and tower and asked, “What do you think the brick things were?” In retrospect, I know they were the coke ovens themselves, or rather what was left of them, while the tower was the coal tower.
Specialized trains would move along the top of the coke furnaces and distribute coal delivered by gravity from the coal tower into the tops of the furnaces, called “batteries.” Then, after the coal was baked into coke, the product would ride down to the farther tower, the ‘Quenching Tower’, where water would rapidly cool the coke. Perhaps it wasn’t so much the age of that area that was showing—perhaps it was just the abuse that coking process inflicted on it.
After maneuvering our way some 200ft in the air atop of the coal tower, the process and history unraveled.
For Sale: Abandoned Coking Plant
ACME Steel, the last standing steel mill in Chicago, closed in 2001 and conveyed that same fate to its coking facility. Soon afterward, scrappers began disassembling ACME Coke under contract, destroying the historical significance of the unique location. Thankfully, the site was saved for a short time in early 2004 when “Calumet Heritage Partnership” paid $250,000 to preserve the factory site.
Although Calumet Heritage Partnership lost the to demolition crews later that year, the delay allowed them to scavenge and save documents and artifacts that are on display now at their local museum. The next summer, the ACME Steel blast furnaces across the river were demolished, punctuating how endangered the ACME Coke was.
I stood on the coal tower admiring a sunset behind a veil of clouds and the jagged skyline of Chicago in the distance. Looking down at the innumerable razed outlines in every direction it made sense that this sort of place was being destroyed. It represents, to me at least, a building that doesn’t really belong in this country anymore: a nation whose focus is less strained on the innovation and creation of products as it is ideas.
Hard to Make a Green Living
Perhaps it’s cynicism formed under the influence of seeing so many factories be imploded in the name of “Walmart.” You probably cannot endorse the pollution, the noise, the urban blights that these industrial centers constitute, but is it really inferior to world where Credit Default Swaps are the only way to make a buck?
Technology is as it’s always been: a game of replacement. Today’s tech will be usurped by tomorrow’s innovations while we turn our cultural gaze to the next revelation—the next breakthrough. There’s a certain recognition that we share that we are part of something new, and that the empty ruin in the South Side is part of something that doesn’t belong anymore. Our concrete world crumbles while no one watches—if no one watches. Human assistance is optional, nature is not, and as long as there is gravity, what we build up will come down.
I left ACME with a taste in my mouth. It could have been the asbestos, or the lead, or the realization that most people genuinely forget their history. History isn’t boring; it’s what our lives are built on. When we demolish things, even dirty old factories, we can’t let them go without realizing what they represent to our past: national, cultural and personal.