Heading south down the shore of Lake Michigan from the Chicago Loop, you encounter a landscape that is both sublime and ineffable at the same time. There are no words to describe it. As I planned my journey to a series of Midwest industrial powerhouses, I realized I had never used these old, very old photos from December 27, 2009 of that region between Chicago and Gary, Indiana, a borderlands of sorts. They are dark, snowy, overcast and smoky, and I like them like that. They were taken with a much less complicated camera, with a lot less skill, and when it came to edit them in August of 2023, I left them largely untouched in order to convey the feeling of what that day was like. I had captured photos of one of the first famous planned company towns of Pullman at the time in South Chicago, as well.
After passing over the Calumet River (you might be familiar with the baking powder named after it), there is the open space in Chicago where U.S. Steel once had a mill. There was also the now long-gone State Line Power Station.
Then you cross into Indiana, and the town of Whiting. While it had existed before the coming of Standard Oil (click on the huge panorama above) for all intents and purposes, it was a company town. In fact, if you look at the map, the giant oil refinery built by Standard Oil in 1889, and now owned by British Petroleum, takes up more of the town than actual houses! That’s what you see in the above photos. The train tracks originally followed old Native American trails on tall sand dunes.
I honestly know nothing about how oil refineries work, but I do know that they make for impressive landscapes. Whiting also has a historical society.
Heading down the shore and passing by Marktown, the next stop is East Chicago, a large portion of which is built on fill sticking out incongruously into Lake Michigan. Honestly, it is really ugly and a good example of how humans have altered the natural environment for the worse.
In fairness, it was done over a century ago, when attitudes were different. The northern protrusion was Youngstown Steel, opened in 1918, and later owned by LTV. The southern and much larger carbuncle was Inland Steel, opened in 1902.
These photos are just a big jumble of both steel mills. LTV is easily the most boring company I have ever read about, so spare yourself the effort of looking its history up. Youngstown Steel is very interesting, being founded in the city of the same name, and once boasting 27,000 employees. Youngstown vs. Sawyer is actually one of the most important Supreme Court cases involving industry in America, when Truman attempted to nationalize the steel industry during the Korean War. He lost when Youngstown Steel fought his effort all the way to the Supreme Court.
Inland Steel also has an interesting story; it was founded in 1893 by Jewish investors to combat discrimination in the steel industry, providing employment for Jewish men who were refused employment at other steel companies.
It always helps when buildings are labeled. This is what cold strip steel is.
You can read all about hot strip steel here.
Steel requires huge amounts of electricity.
All of the buildings and foundries stretch on for miles.
The Cline Avenue elevated roadway (which has been demolished and replaced since 2009) that passed through the area provides interesting views of the steel mill precincts.
The rather non-descript buildings belie what occurs inside.
Moving away from the heat of the steel mills, we go to the massive quarry at Thornton, back in Illinois.
Apparently it’s one of the largest quarries in the world, and much like Whiting, Thornton’s city area is largely taken up by its depths.
It’s so big, in fact, that the Tri-State Tollway has passed through the middle of it for decades. It’s quite the place, dating from 1928.
There is a bridge over one point…
Apparently the quarry is part of the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, which helps prevent raw sewage being spilled into Lake Michigan during torrential rains.