The Calumet region of south Chicago and northwest Indiana, which includes Steelworkers Park, was once the largest steelmaking region in the world. Now, however, Chicago's great steel mills have fallen silent. Steel is still made in northwest Indiana, but the industry is a fraction of what it once was.
Understanding why the steel industry existed here starts with understanding the process of steelmaking. The first step is making coke, a special kind of coal produced by burning coal in an air-tight oven. This burns off the volatile compounds and lets it burn hotter. As charcoal is to wood, coke is to coal.
Coke, pellets of iron ore, and limestone are all loaded into a blast furnace, where the mixture is blasted with superheated air. This causes the coke to burn at nearly 4,000 degrees, hot enough to melt the iron ore. The limestone binds to the impurities in the ore and can be skimmed off the top, leaving pure iron. The molten iron is then blasted with pure oxygen in a separate furnace. This causes impurities in the steel to oxidize out, making liquid steel. The limestone-impurity mixture is known as slag, and it can be found below your feet through most of this area. Almost everything east of Lake Shore Drive was built on slag dumped into the lake — this was a convenient place for U.S. Steel to dump it, as it also gave them more land to expand their mill.
Liquid steel can be mixed with other metals, like chromium or boron, to give the steel different properties. The final step is pouring the liquid into a mold to form an ingot. These ingots can be sliced down in another part of the plant, producing anything from massive slabs to thin steel plates.
The three ingredients in steel are iron ore, limestone, and coal. This happens to be the ideal place to bring all three together. The largest iron mining district in North America is in northern Minnesota, near Lake Superior. That ore can be loaded onto freighters and shipped south — it was offloaded here, in the slip, and piled high against these massive ore walls.
The world’s largest limestone quarry is in northern Michigan, coal travels from Appalachia by rail, and the Calumet region of Chicago is where the three intersect. The fact that we're in Chicago, with access to the city's rail and waterway transportation network, doesn't hurt either — if you make steel here, you can ship it pretty much anywhere in the country. But why ship steel to your factory if you can move your factory to the steel? Natural advantages encouraged steel mills to locate here, and the mills encouraged more industries to locate in the Calumet. One of the largest steel consumers is the automobile industry — that's why there's a Ford plant at 130th and Torrence.
Before automobiles, the big steel-consuming industry was railcars, and two of the largest manufacturers were the Pullman Car Company and the U.S. Rolling Stock Company, the latter owned by a man named Adolph Hegewisch. Both companies had factories in Chicago, and built towns around the factories for their workers. Pullman and Hegewisch still exist as neighborhoods of Chicago today.
The mills kept growing, encouraging the growth of more industry. When the mills started to stumble in the 70s and 80s, however, that impact also reverberated out through the neighborhood. For every job lost here at South Works, around two and a half jobs were lost elsewhere in the neighborhood.
The decline was the result of several new pressures. One was competition from imported steel: other countries often had lower wages and safety standards than the United States, allowing them to make lots of cheap steel. Foreign governments also often subsidized steel production, seeing it as an essential basic industry, while the U.S. government did little to subsidize domestic steel production.
Another problem was better recycling technology, which made it possible to make industrial-grade steel from steel scrap. "Mini-mills," small U.S. mills that made steel from recycled scrap, started to emerge as a major market force. Since they did not have to produce steel from scratch, their production costs were often lower, allowing them to undercut the traditional steelmakers. As a result of these pressures, many mills laid off workers or — like every mill in Chicago — closed down. The natural geographic advantages of the Calumet, however, have allowed some mills to survive. Mills in Northwest Indiana, including U.S. Steel’s Gary Works and two mills now owned by ArcelorMittal, were larger and more modernized than their Chicago counterparts, and still operate today. These mills, however, employ a fraction of their old workforce. At its height, South Works employed 20,000, but Steel’s Gary Works peaked at around 50,000. The plant employs just 5,000 workers today, the result of job cuts and increasing automation. It is, however, still the largest steel mill in North America.