The industrial wonders of northwest Indiana

Whiting. Hammond. East Chicago. Calumet City. Pullman. Harvey. Dixmoor. Blue Island. Gary. As I slowly become more familiar with the southern reaches of Chicagoland, these names gain more and more resonance for me. Each speaks of strange contrasts, lands of tidy lawns and raw industry, urban decay and pastoral emptiness. It’s a land slightly mythologized by the movie Blues Brothers, whose grungy titular characters rarely ventured north of the Loop. It is a region that has worked hard and sacrificed much over the decades, the city’s blue collar underbelly, the engine that drove Chicago to its industrial peak, only to be abandoned and neglected when US industry began collapsing.

I could gaze at this forever.

Despite the hard times, a lot of heavy industry remains here. The Port of Chicago operates here, receiving a steady trickle of Great Lakes freighters. And from Whiting, all the way into Michigan, a line of industrial sites makes Highway 912 one of the most amazing places on the planet.

The industrial sprawl once started much further north, within the Chicago city limits, at the site of the US Steel South Works, once the largest steel mill complex on the planet. That facility closed nearly two decades ago, and was leveled to the ground. With the subsequent demolition of the mills and factories along S. Torrence Avenue to the west, large-scale industry has mostly vanished from the Chicago City limits.

Despite the decline, even the most cursory overview of the industrial regions is a big undertaking. The action today, then, begins at the Chicago Skyway bridges, which soar to incredible heights to cross the Grand Calumet River.

That endless skyway

Below the skyway bridges, a profusion of industrial sites loads ships and barges, as tugs and speedboats drift past. A trio of movable railroad bridges stands abandoned, their tracks long since torn up, too big and cumbersome to demolish.

The Chicago Skyway

Gunfighters...

After the Skyway bridges, one passes the looming State Line Generating Station, which sits just yards away from the Indiana/Illinois border.

State Line Generating Station

State Line Generating Station

Rolling on southward, you’ll pass a profusion of casinos, gas stations, medium industrial sites (including the sometimes overpowering smell of Lever soap being manufactured). This land is essentially one continuous urban development, but the “town” of Whiting is one of several here that has its own distinct main street and central business district. Whiting also abuts an enormous refining complex owned by British Petroleum.

Tank car army

BP Refinery at Whiting

Bladerunner

The BP plant sprawls all the way up to the first of the steel mills, the huge facility of Ispat Inland Steel, built on a peninsula made of landfill. Crushed between the two complexes is the tiny planned workers’ village of Marktown, one of the most incredibly isolated residential neighborhoods you’re ever likely to find, and well worth a post of its own.

Inland Steel

Awesome industrial hell

If there’s a center to all this insanity, it’s the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal, which runs right through the center of the Ispat Inland complex, and is crossed by a dizzying array of bridges and overpasses.

Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal

Highway 912, aka Cline Avenue, provides an elevated view of the Inland Ispat complex, bringing you nose-to-nose with some of their gargantuan buildings and flying high above their grounds.

Inland Steel

Cline Avenue turns away from the lake as it continues south, but the industrial sprawl continues. As soon as Ispat Inland’s reign ends, US Steel begins. US Steel is the reason Gary exists; they constructed the city as their own company town. Their mini-empire runs for miles along the lake, and consumes the vast majority of Gary’s lakefront.

US Steel’s Gary Works is frustratingly inaccessible. Multiple entry points are steadfastly guarded against such wayward rouges as photographers, explorers, and curiosity seekers.

I think there was a fire.

Once you finally get past US Steel, the lakeshore of Gary is quite lovely, marking the beginning of the Indiana Dunes lakeshore park. Due to some Machiavellian bargaining back in the 1950s, part of the dunes was carved away to provide room for still more industry, another steel mill (likewise inaccessible) and a power plant at Michigan City that looms over some of the beaches.

Indiana Dunes

Michigan City power plant

It can be a shock to look back from east Gary’s waterfront and suddenly realize how far you’ve come from Chicago, whose skyline is 30 miles distant and barely visible across the lake. And it’s a bigger shock to realize the amount of industry you’ve passed along the way.

I expect prize money for this shot.

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Quarry town

Thorton Quarry

The fascination of a rock quarry isn’t hard to grasp. Here in the unendingly flat Midwest, a quarry is a shocking interruption of the landscape. The walls are vertical cliffs, their relief impressive in their own right and doubly so in the middle of so much prairie land.

The artificial depths seem ominously unstable; despite the solid beds of rock that line their walls, it is hard to behold a quarry without feeling that somehow, Nature will strike back, bring the walls crumbling down, reclaim the pit, fill the vacuum. Land dikes separating quarry pits look precarious to begin with, even before they are pierced by Gothic arch-shaped openings to permit communication between pits. And water inevitably finds its way in, requiring constant pumping. The thought of water overwhelming the works of man is, I suspect, a primal fear on some level. Here it’s not just a shadowy thought, but frank reality.

Thorton Quarry

The quarry pit is a window into the Earth, showing us a slice of what lies buried under our feet. Rock strata that have not seen daylight in millions of years lay exposed to the world. Tunnels hint at darker depths still. The invasion of water gives one a visual grasp of the water table, the rivers moving below the earth’s surface.

Thorton Quarry

And finally, the sheer volume of material removed to create these pits beggars imagination.

Thorton Quary

All this effort goes to remove minerals and rocks from the earth. A city the size of Chicago uses a lot of rocks. They doesn’t just go into those MidCentury buildings I’m so fond of; they’re cut and crushed and used as aggregate for concrete, gravel ballast for railroads, rip-rap for the lakefront, and many other purposes.

Being really heavy, rock is best harvested locally, and to that end there’s a surprising number of quarries to be found around Chicagoland.

Thorton Quarry
Thorton (the subject of all the above photographs) is the biggest and by far the most famous of Chicago’s rock quarries. The reason is obvious: not only is it huge, but it’s spanned by a massive and busy highway atop a two-hundred-foot high land dike.
Thorton Quarry

Tri-State Tollway

Views of Thornton Quarry are also easy to come by from the surrounding public roads. Access is limited by fencing, of course, but through the links one can see deep into the quarry’s depths.

Thornton Quarry

Thorton consists of four main pits, collectively forming one of the largest quarries in the world. Three of them are readily visible from the various roads hemming the site in. The material removed from here is for aggregates — the little bits of solid stuff that goes into concrete and various other materials.

Thornton Quarry

The northernmost pit, shown here, is being converted to a stormwater holding facility, for when strong storms overwhelm the city’s deep tunnel storage system.

Thorton Quarry

Tours of the facility are offered twice a year, and they fill up months in advance.

* Birds eye view at bing.com
* Thorton Quarry at Wikipedia

McCook Quarry
One of several pits operated in Chicagoland by Vulcan Materials Company, this pit operates beyond the city’s upper southwestern limits, covering some 650 acres. Sadly, very little of its depths are visible from public roads.

Lemme tell you man, I've been everywhere!

Joliet Road, abandoned

Speaking of pubic roads, McCook’s operations have apparently destabilized one. Joliet Road crosses the quarry on a land dike, similar to the Tri-State’s route across Thornton. But the road has been closed since the 1990s, fenced, barricaded and overgrown with weeds.

McCook Quarry

* McCook Quarry official web site

McCook is one of a string of quarries in the area; two more are directly northeast of it:

Reliable Materials Lyons Quarry
Somehow I missed this one on the ground, despite being only a mile away and on a very specific mission to visit quarries. I’ll get it some day!

* Reliable Materials Lyons Quarry aerial view

Unknown quarry, La Grange
Seen 'em haul rocks on the south side

Like McCook, very little of this one is visible from public roads. This is about the best view one can get from outside the property, and you’d better be prepared to hoist your camera up high.

* Aerial view

A skim through Vulcan’s list of Illinois facilities turns up quite a few additonal quarries in and around Chicagoland, and a Google search shows even more. Most are either much smaller operations, or else are far out in the countryside, away from the developed lands that help make Thorton so remarkable. A couple of the more notable and nearby ones are:

Elmhurst Chicago Stone Quarry

Elmhurst quarry

This former quarry now functions as a storm runoff holding facility for DuPage County.

Elmhurst quarry

I’ve seen it from an airplane, but I have yet to visit on the ground.

* Aerial view, showing the quarry flooded
* Elmhurst Quarry Flood Control Facility, with live images!

* Bolingbrook Quarry – aerial view
* Official site

* Laraway Quarry, Joliet – aerial view
* Offical site

* Romeo Stone Quarry – aerial view

Hardy Glass Block Company

Then and now

Standing at 711 W. 103rd Street, deep on the south side, the Hardy Glass Block Company‘s building is a weathered time capsule. With a couple of eager companions in tow, I paid a visit last weekend.

Hardy Glass Block

The exterior sign isn’t quite as fabulous as it once was; it’s lost a revolving clock, as well as flecks of colored filler block which have been replaced by clear blocks over the years. It is likely they were removed over time to act as replacements for customers.

Inside, however, a number of delights await the fan of Midcentury architecture.

Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

The company’s offices, though small and utilitarian, are of the same vintage as the exterior wall: unblemished 1960s. The president’s office in particular is unfathomably perfect.

Hardy Glass Block

The wood desk is perfectly geometric, clean and precise. Three matching chairs sit across from it. The company’s product forms a backdrop, between vintage false wood paneling. Even the carpet fits. Marvelous!

Not everything is untouched. In a conference room, a solid wall of wedge modules in “fire engine red” has been painted over with white; when new, it harmonized with bright red furniture and carpet to form a shocking Sixties composition.

The biggest treat, of course, is viewing that spectacular wall of glass block from the inside, amid aisles of loose glass block stacked on shelves.

Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

Hardy Glass Block

As can be seen, the wall has taken some abuse over the years. A few of the leaf-design modules have been replaced by other designs or by standard blocks, either as replacements for customers or following damage. The wall as a whole has suffered from its proximity to the street, as buses and street work cause damaging vibrations over the years. Several of the modules are noticeably cracked. Its days are probably numbered, the company representative who ushered us in said that it will eventually be replaced with more current product lines. Understandable, but still saddening.

And of course, the culmination of our visit was actually purchasing a few of the blocks ourselves. I got the last two unused modules, a pyramid and a wedge in orange, as well as a pair of the blue leaf blocks shown here, salvaged from a church some years ago. My compatriots walked out with several modules and a pile of “filler” blocks in a rainbow of colors.

Hardy Glass Block

The prizes

They still have quite a few left, and they’re cheap as cheap can get; the salvaged blocks cost us $2 each.

Schulze Baking Company

Here is a building I have longed to photograph for many months, maybe even years. Today, I finally got my chance.

Schulze Baking Company

Amid the houses, apartments, and low-grade commercial enterprises along Garfield Boulevard, this gleaming, towering industrial building stands out like a jewel. Seeing it for the first time is a take-your-breath-away, holy-crap-what’s-that kind of moment.

German immigrant Paul Schulze founded his baking company around the turn of the century, and worked to promote sanitary conditions in industrial bakeries (or at least the perception thereof.) The building went up in 1914, designed by John Ahlschlager & Son.

Schulze Baking Company

Schulze Baking Company

Among the building’s lavish ornament are some flagrant Louis Sullivan knockoffs, enhanced with sculpted ears of corn.

Behind the five story main building is a long, low industrial complex, still in operation today.

Schulze Baking Company

Schulze Baking Company

The building appears to be having some problems; a piece of the terra cotta cornice is missing, and this side wall has been propped up with wood beams. Walkway coverings ring the building, as if to protect passersby from further terra cotta loss. One of the stairwells, visible from the street, has been tagged with spray paint, hinting at an under-used if not outright abandoned building.

Schulze Baking Company

Finkl Steel

Finkl Steel

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.

Finkl Steel

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.

Finkl Steel

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.

Finkl Steel

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.

Finkl Steel

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.

Trilla Steel Drum Corp.

What the –

Trilla Steel Drum Corporation

– what the heck is it?

Trilla Steel Drum Corporation

Thus ran my initial reaction upon seeing the building of the Trilla Steel Drum Corporation during a cross-south side bike trip. The company’s low-slung factory and office building sits alongside 47th Street in a region of light industry, bars and houses.

The building’s designers made delightful use of the company’s signature product, both to enliven the building and to advertise the company’s wares. Stacked steel drums serve as decorative pilasters and as actual columns, holding up the roof of the front portico.

Trilla Steel Drum Corporation

Town & Country Liquor

Just across the street, Town & Country Liquor offers both a small batch of Chicago’s characteristic incised and glazed glass block, and a handsome Midcentury neon sign.

Town & Country Liquor