Cold Water and Hot Steel

I’d like to introduce the world’s largest integrated steelmaking complex, the ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel works in East Chicago.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

I say I’d like to – but it’s just too big. Too much. Too hard to grasp. And more importantly, too tightly sealed to public access.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

All I can truly offer is a series of stolen glances, quick flashes gained by trooping doggedly around northwest Indiana over the years, over and over – testing the limits of every road, every shoreline, every park, every overpass, every parking lot. I’ve pushed my zoom lenses and my camera’s sensor to their limits, and probably turned the head of every security guard within a mile of the lake’s edge, for glimpses into this astonishing industrial kingdom of ash and fire.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Here I present the results.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
One of the facility’s several blast furnaces, where raw ores – fed in at the top, hence all the conveyor belts – are heated and combined into a liquid metal form. AcelorMittal’s website alternately states that there are 3 or 5 blast furnaces on the site.

I cannot say I understand this place, but I am fascinated by it. Flying over it in Bing’s aerial views, the vast size becomes apparent. Hundreds of acres of buildings, jammed one against the next. In true Chicago fashion, they are enormously long, repeating themselves endlessly bay after bay.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

What is now ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor began over a hundred years ago, as the Inland Steel plant. Inland Steel – now most famous for their landmark Modernist headquarters building in downtown Chicago – was formed in 1893, and began development on the Indiana Harbor Canal site in 1902. The business grew over the next 15 years to include a lease on a Minnesota ore mine and a lake freighter division, ensuring in-house control over supply and shipping of raw materials, an integration strategy that would be completed by World War II’s end and last into the 1990s. Across the 20th century, the plant would continuously expand and modernize, while producing a huge variety of goods – from railroad spikes to World War II materiel. Post-war, a large portion of its output went into automobiles. At its peak, 25,000 people worked at the plant. The company was purchased in 1998, becoming Ispat Inland. Mergers in 2005 and 2007 created ArcelorMittal, an international corporation that is the world’s largest steel company and current owners and operators of the facility.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

The huge complex is mostly sited on an artificial peninsula jutting out into Lake Michigan, with the Indiana Harbor Canal running down the middle. Many acres are covered with buildings; the site is also criss-crossed with railroad tracks, roads, overpasses, material storage lots, and a huge variety of industrial structures. In the 2010 photograph above, the now-demolished Cline Avenue – aka Indiana State Road 912 – snakes its way around the inland portion of the facility. Marktown is visible at lower left; just out of the frame to the left is the giant BP refinery at Whiting.

The site is also a bottleneck for railroads as they muscle their way into Chicago; at one point, nearly half a dozen rail bridges crossed the canal. Only one remains in full-time service, but it sees heavy use, with multiple freight trains crossing it hourly.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Raw materials arrive primarily by boat; the wide mouth of the canal can handle full-size lake freighters and has docking space for several. Huge ore cranes lining both sides of the canal unload arriving ships.

I could gaze at this forever.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

One result of having such a huge complex is that outdated buildings and equipment are often abandoned in place and may stand for years, untouched, while business proceeds around them. It’s not like there are neighbors to complain! Large expanses of the site may deteriorate for years and even become overgrown.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Above: remains of an abandoned blast furnace alongside the canal in 2004. Already stripped of their support infrastructure, the hearths were dismantled shortly afterwards.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Above: remains of Inland Steel’s coke ovens and by-products processing plant. Inland ceased coke production in 1993, but the abandoned ovens still stand, with grass growing on the roof.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Long-abandoned ramp and trestle alongside Dickey Road. BP’s Whiting refinery looms in the background.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Half-demolished buildings can hang around for years:

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
An abandoned building in 2004.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
The same building – most of it, anyway – in 2013.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
Recycling steel is a major part of the contemporary steel business. Gondolas are stored here, full of scrap steel awaiting its fate in the arc furnace. The now-demolished Highway 912 overpass stands at right.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
Legions of criss-crossing electrical lines speak to the vast power requirements of the complex.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill
And did we mention that there’s a significant work of architecture in the midst of all this industrial madness? The main office building on the site is a lovely 1930 work by Graham, Anderson, Probst & White. It’s an Art Deco beauty in red-brown brick, with floral cartouches atop each bay and twin towers punctuating its skyline.

The steel industry has changed dramatically since its last great domestic peak in the 1970s. Automation has vastly reduced the number of workers required to produce a unit of steel, leading to devastating unemployment in mill-dependent towns like nearby Gary. Evolving technologies have rendered many US facilities obsolete, leading to the kind of abandonment seen here and there on the Indiana Harbor campus. And international competition has required steel companies to be agile and flexible to survive. Outsourcing coke production was just one of a number of maneuvers by Inland and its successors to survive the times.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

Rolling mill buildings. In these and other buildings, the newly formed steel is pressed or rolled into bars and other shapes of uniform thickness.

Forgotten Chicago offered a tour of the Indiana Harbor Canal in summer 2013, which sailed right through the middle of the plant; no word yet on when a repeat tour might be offered. Till then, I have more photos of the plant at my Flickr space.

ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor steel mill

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Marktown Historic District

Marktown

This is the strange, surreal world of the Marktown community, a neighborhood in East Chicago, Indiana that is completely surrounded by heavy industry.

Marktown

In this region of northwest Indiana, there are plenty of neighborhoods that abut manufacturing plants. Marktown’s interest goes well beyond that, as it is a rare and unusual example of a planned worker’s community, with a scale and charm that defies its inhumanly sized surroundings.

Marktown

Marktown

Marktown

Marktown

Marktown

This strange attempt at a charming hamlet amid furnaces and smokestacks began as the brainchild of Clayton Mark, a steel manufacturing magnate who controlled a steel firm and was involved in the building of the harbor and the landfill that today holds Inland Ispat Steel’s vast plants. Seeking to provide his workers with quality affordable housing, Mark planned a sizable community next to his plants.

Mark recruited renown architect Howard Van Doren Shaw to design the new workers’ community in 1916. Shaw drew on the model of an English village, with streets so narrow that today, residents park their cars on the sidewalks. The charming plaster-sided houses were made to be fire-resistant. They ranged from a boarding house for single men (abandoned and deteriorating today) to modestly large houses for mid-level managers.

Marktown

Marktown

Due to financial troubles with Mark’s steel firm, however, only a relatively small fragment – 4 sections out of a planned 30 – were ever built. Plans for shops, a market, a theater, and other amenities were largely scuttled, as was a vision of a more extensive park system enveloping the community. Marktown today contains about a hundred residential buildings, the boarding house (abandoned), one commercial building (also abandoned), and three generous park spaces.

Presumably owing to its less than ideal setting, Marktown struggles to maintain a population. Immaculately kept houses alternate with abandoned and deteriorating ones, sometimes within the same structure. Perhaps 1/4th of the core buildings are vacant. One has lingered in a state of half collapse since at least 2007.

Marktown

Marktown

I wonder if a completed Marktown might have had the critical mass to sustain itself more thoroughly than it does today. You can’t point a camera in Marktown without hitting a massive industrial structure, but a larger development might have meant a core that was better-insulated from the unpleasantries of heavy industry.

Marktown

Marktown

The Marktown Preservation Society hosts a very informative site about the neighborhood, which is a designated historic district and on the state of Indiana’s 10 Most Endangered Places list.

Marktown

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.