As recently as two decades ago, Chicago was famously a steel mill town. Vast south side factories belched smoke and fire by day and night. Those days are gone now, for better or worse; the last of the city’s great mills is in the final stages of demolition down on S. Torrence Avenue, leaving only the Gary mills further south to carry on.
But on the near north side, one last vestige of the steel industry remains within the city limits. A. Finkl & Sons Co. continues pouring steel, only a mile or two north of downtown, as they have for over a hundred years.
But what makes this comparatively small-scale operation so remarkable is not just its location amid the heavily gentrified near north side, but the proportion of its operation that remains visible from the street. Wander past on any weekday evening, and you’re liable to see all sorts of heavy industrial equipment at work, up to and including molten steel being poured from vats the size of an automobile.
You’re also likely to see folks with cameras, as this amazing sight naturally attracts attention. W. Cortland Avenue is a smallish but busy route to the west side of the Chicago River, so plenty of people pass by. The steel workers are grudgingly tolerant of the attention; if you’re a sociable type, you might even be able to chat some of them up. If not, well, the factory alone is an incredible show.
The nonchalance of the workers is also amusing. Sparks are flying, huge pieces of metal are swinging on chains and rolling along on overhead gantry cranes, molten metal is being poured, blue-flame blowtorches are cutting at steel, and it’s all just another day of work for these guys. Such dangerous, difficult, and intensive work is a rare thing in our post-industrial society.
In 2006, there was talk of the Clybourn corridor plant closing down to relocate to more spacious facilities elsewhere, on the city’s south side perhaps. A quick Google search turns up no forward movement on this, but Finkl & Son’s present operation is such a rarity in this day and age, it seems proper to treat it as an endangered species regardless.