What ruins of a former Chicago steel mill say about our past and future

January 7, 2013

In a golden moment during the 20th Century, Chicago's Southeast Side made more steel than did all the mills of Great Britain. The old Acme Steel & Coke site at 114th Street and Torrence Avenue is both evidence and a fading vestige of that past.

Acme's 100+ acre site awaits a future uncertain. The complex closed in 2001, almost a generation after larger and more prosperous competitors in the area shuttered. A movement to preserve Acme as a museum failed; the plant's assembly of blast furnaces, coke ovens, conveyors, lifts, pipes, chutes and other works were demolished and sold for scrap.

What's left is a solemn handful of spectacular industrial ruins scattered about Acme's vast, stilled grounds. Let's take a look around, beginning with the photo above in which a coke tower once connected to a battery of ovens stands against the open sky. A tumble of spent coal used in the coke-making process sits in the foreground.

Here is a westward view into Acme through the main gate:

The photo below shows the base of a former quenching tower. The long-gone apparatus above would pour down water, cooling the newly-made coke. Now, graffiti artists have found a secret canvas inside the base's yawning concrete mouths:

A twin column of chimneys spring up from the prairie:

Here, a dilapidated guard's house—quaintly Germanic, with its brick base and half-timbered second floor—rots along Torrence Avenue:

The steel and iron churned out from this side of town became the skeletons that held up skyscrapers; the grid that supported roadways and bridges across the nation; the rails that criss-crossed the country and more. Such a heritage needs honoring.

Ships carrying this hard cargo kept city's port busy and railroads humming. The steel industry provided good, solid jobs for tens of thousands of working class folk. Food on the table. Money in the bank. An offering for the church. A Buick in the garage.

Is it all in the past? Mingling with the industrial ghosts at Acme Steel, it certainly seems so. Until you look at an aerial map. Transcontinental freight rail continues to pass through and near Acme and the former mill sites along Torrence between 95th and 130th streets. An active channel a few blocks east leads northward to Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes. Though aged and better-known for its golf course than for commerce, the Port of Chicago is still doing business at the nearby Lake Calumet.

The Southeast Side is still physically wired to the nation and linked to the world, even if age and neglect have weakened those connections. What can those vast acres so close to rail, water and expressways yield in the 21st century? A fresh and comprehensive look at the Southeast Side—done today and with global perspective—is in order. The city has a ton of economists, urban planners, bankers, world market experts and more than a few friends in Washington D.C. Something can be done.

The best way to honor this region and its contribution to Chicago and the nation is to rebuild it.