The stretch of southeastern Chicago along Lake Michigan was built on steel. In its heyday, about 200,000 people were employed here in the steel mills and other industries related...

Share story

CHICAGO — The stretch of southeastern Chicago along Lake Michigan was built on steel.

In its heyday, about 200,000 people were employed here in the steel mills and other industries related to steel production and shipping. Immigrants from Poland, Ukraine and other European countries flocked to the area, along with Mexican workers and African Americans from the South, all drawn by the promise of grueling but well-paying mill jobs.

“That was the reason people came to this area,” said Rod Sellers, who volunteers at a park-district museum nearby. “My grandfather worked in the mills for 50 years. When we were kids and we’d get crabby, my mom would pile us in the car to go look at the slag” — molten waste from steel production — “being dumped. It was like a volcano erupting. When my dad’s war buddy came to town, what did he show him? He’d drive him around all the mills. That was life here.”

Today, Chicago’s steel industry is gone.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

Mills still operate along the lakeshore in northwestern Indiana, but the giants of Chicago steel have all closed their doors, from the 1980 folding of Wisconsin Steel to the 2001 closure of the Acme Steel Coke Plant, which baked coal into coke, the fuel used to melt iron ore to make steel.

Now the vacant Acme plant, whose components were built between 1905 and 1930, is the last major Chicago steel-industry structure left. Wisconsin Steel, U.S. Steel and the other major plants were demolished and sold for scrap metal. That was to be Acme’s fate as well, until a group of preservationists, environmentalists, former steelworkers and historians stepped in.

Last spring they persuaded the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois to list the plant as one of the state’s 10 most endangered historic places, and they planned to purchase it from the scrap-metal dealer who had bought it from the city at a bankruptcy sale.

“It wouldn’t be here today if we hadn’t come to the rescue,” said Tom Shepherd, a member of the Southeast Environmental Task Force, one of the groups that is part of the coalition working to save the plant.

Now they want to turn it into a museum celebrating the history of steel in Chicago. Environmental activist Marian Byrnes visualizes making the plant’s 15 brick buildings into places where visitors can learn about the steel industry, the city’s labor history and even the complicated process of cleaning up such a site. She points to Duisburg, Germany, where a steel mill that closed in 1985 was turned into a tourist attraction: the gasholder tank converted to a diving pool, the ore bunkers into climbing walls and the casting facility into a concert hall.

First, though, the sale of the property must be completed and the city must finish an environmental assessment. The coalition will have to develop plans for remediating the site, which is likely contaminated with carcinogenic coal tar and other toxic compounds.

“When people hear that we want to make a museum out of a coke plant, they look at us like we’re crazy,” Sellers said. “The coke plants are like the Achilles’ heel of the steel industry, the dirtiest part.”

The redevelopment would fit in with an overall move to clean up and preserve this part of the city, which contains some of the region’s last undisturbed native marshland, plots that were never developed into residential or commercial tracts because of the contamination and heavy industry surrounding them.

It would also likely become part of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal Corridor, which in 1984 became the country’s first congressionally designated heritage corridor. “We’re telling the stories of transportation and industry that changed the country,” said Ana Koval, president of the Canal Corridor Association. “This would help us tell another part of the story.”

The coalition has agreed to pay the salvage company $250,000 for the plant, the approximate amount it could have earned in scrapping the metal and bricks. It has raised about $65,000 from the United Steelworkers of America and other donors.

“Not many people know anymore about all the things that happened here,” Sellers said. “What do people in this area do now? They work for the county or use it as a bedroom community to commute. We want to keep the old history alive.”