When we are at home between trips, we are busy recovering from the last one, preparing for the next one, catching up with family and friends. Having lived in metro Chicago all our lives, we are rarely in tourist mode at home unless someone from out of town comes to visit. So it was a real treat to take a tour twenty minutes from home. One of our favorite off road bike trails follows the I & M Canal and terminates at the southern end at the Joliet Iron Works. We could see rust belt looking ruins from our bike seats, but didn't know much about it until the park district sponsored a walking tour of this once amazing location.
After the Civil War the iron works were the second largest in the United States. That was a surprise given the fact that there is no iron ore here and except for the nearby Des Plaines River and the tiny I & M Canal, transport to this spot was limited. But the Joliet city fathers pooled $75,000 to bring this fledgling industry here. Much of the iron implements, rail tracks, wagon wheels, that were used in westward expansion until the 1930's were manufactured here. The works had a dam on the Des Plaines River for power, and four blast furnaces capable of producing up to 2,000 tons of pig iron daily. There was also a stock house, a casting house, hot blast stoves, a skull house, a gas washing plant, a blowing engine house, and a gas engine house. Many immigrants from southern and eastern Europe found hot and dangerous employment here. At its height 4,000 workers called Joliet home, living under the constant clouds of ash and soot that were generated by the 24/7 operations. As the work grew more mechanized it became somewhat safer, but workers with limited English skills were stuck in jobs that could be pantomimed. Eventually a social center was built nearby that taught ESL classes and provided cultural activities and entertainment for the workers and their families.
During the Depression production became unprofitable and workers put down their tools and walked away. Some manufacture of steel products continued into the 1960's, but these days this once bustling location has the feel of a ghost town. Any of the structures and tools that were still useful were sold or cannibalized, so all that remains are the massive foundations. Usually when we tour ruins they were built by Greeks or Romans, but the iron works site is a tribute to the hard working immigrants that came to the US to make a new life for themselves and build a new country.