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By Bruce Hodgdon
Media Liaison, Forest Preserve District of Will County

To this day, Joliet is known as the City of Steel and Stone, a slogan that dates to the nineteenth century. Rich deposits of dolomitic limestone, discovered in the first half of the century, provided employment for hundreds of workmen. Joliet limestone was used for building throughout the region, and many examples are still very much in evidence today in Joliet, Lockport, and Lemont buildings from that time. Then, in the decade following the Civil War, a group of investors built an iron-making facility that would become the foundation for Joliet’s largest employer for the next sixty years.

Joliet was chosen for the foundry because of its abundant supply of nearby coal for power and limestone for building. The factory was sited beside the I & M Canal and the Des Plaines River to transport raw materials in and finished products out. However, Joliet was quickly becoming a railroad hub, and this form of transport soon overtook shipment by water.

The original site included two blast furnaces, which could produce 700 tons of iron ore a day. These were hand loaded, requiring the complicated coordination of 250 workers at each furnace. From the beginning the plant focused on producing iron rails, a perfect choice for manufacture. The railroad industry was expanding rapidly, with markets growing dramatically not only in the east and the Midwest, but with the great westward expansion of the time. So successful was the plant that it soon was operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The Joliet Works (as it was known) was among the premier sites in the country to incorporate new technologies. Two Bessemer converters were added around 1880 to convert iron ore into steel. This technology, invented in England, could produce steel in far more abundant quantities that was previously possible, and at much less cost. Now stronger, more durable steel rails were used to replace iron rails as well as orders for new rail lines. These Bessemer converters were among the first used in the United States.

By the end of the 19th century, the Joliet Works came under the ownership of United States Steel. By this time Illinois was second only to Pennsylvania as the largest manufacturer of steel rails in the world. By the year 1900, the plant employed more than 2,000 men and had an annual payroll in excess of $2 million.

Two additional blast furnaces were added to the site early in the 20th century. At the pinnacle of the plant’s life, it had become a sprawling complex that covered nearly 1 mile in size.

While work at the mill was dangerous, with asphyxiation being the leading cause of factory deaths, management showed a keen interest in employee safety. The Joliet Works signed on to the Safety First slogan of the National Safety Council. Moreover, the company newsletter, The Mixer, begun in 1913, continually emphasized employee safety, reporting on the safety records of the various shops within the complex.

World War I saw the plant’s greatest output of iron and steel production in its history as orders for military weapons and vehicles poured in. Soon thereafter, however, came the Great Depression. The plant, now 60 years old, had become aged, and markets for its products dried up. U. S. Steel began to dismantle the facility, using all salvageable materials, including the four blast furnaces and Bessemer converters, at other company facilities. In 1936, the stacks of the two oldest blast furnaces and the Bessemer converters were dismantled. The remaining furnaces were removed in 1937. This backbone of the Joliet economy ceased to exist during the hardships of the 1930s.

For sixty years, the site of Joliet’s illustrious industrial past lay all but forgotten. Then, in the early 1990s, an open space organization, CorLands, began negotiating with U. S. Steel, which still remarkably owned the land on which the Joliet Works existed. U. S. Steel agreed to donate the land, 52 acres, to CorLands if it could be developed as a memorial to the factory and the thousands of men who worked there.
CorLands approached the Forest Preserve District of Will County to see if the District could develop the site. Even though the Forest Preserve District is most known for its preservation of natural areas in Will County, its mission includes cultural and historic preservation.

Knowing nothing of the industrial history of the factory, the District hired a consultant, Dr. Jack Bergstresser, from the University of Alabama. For three summers Dr. Bergstresser cut his way through the underbrush that had completely taken over the site to identify the ruins that still existed. These ruins were the foundations of the structures, including the four blast furnaces that once stood there. Dr. Bergstresser issued a report, including graphics, to the Forest Preserve District, which provided the material to interpret the site.
The District applied for, and won, a bikeway grant that provided 80 percent of the funding for the site improvements. The Joliet Iron Works Historic Site opened to the public with a Grand Opening ceremony in 1998.

The site was developed for self-guided tours. A 1.5-mile concrete walkway extends through the linear site. Beside each of the foundations is a wayside exhibit, which utilizes text to describe what originally stood there and how this contributed to the iron-making process, and a graphic showing the structure or explaining the smelting process. Each interpretive exhibit also includes a description of the job that was required by the worker of that job.

This was because the Forest Preserve District of Will County strove to tell the factory’s human story as well as the manufacturing one. In many ways, the Joliet Works stood as a microcosm of what was happening throughout the nation during the Industrial Revolution. Thousands of immigrants, having entered the country through Ellis Island in New York, found their way to Joliet and took the menial labor jobs that the Joliet Works offered. Laboring 12 hours a day, six days a week, these workers were paid little, between $2 and $9 a day, but from those meager earnings they were able to buy a home and raise their families. All of their children born in Joliet entered the world as United States citizens—the grandfathers and great grandfathers of us all.

As time passes and Joliet’s steel industry falls further into the past, the Joliet Iron Works Historic Site will survive to tell the story of the City of Steel.

For Further Reading

Forest Preserve District of Will County. http://www.fpdwc.org.

Sterling, Robert E. Joliet Transportation & Industry: A Pictorial History, Vol. 1. St. Louis, MO: G, Bradley Publishing, 1997.

Sterling, Robert E. Joliet: A Pictorial History. St. Louis, MO: G. Bradley Publishing, 1988.