Eleven new signs stationed along the interpretive path at Joliet Iron Works Historic Site describe the history of the iron manufacturing plant that once stood at the site and the people who performed the work.
The signs convey how much the workers earned, which countries they came from and which Joliet neighborhoods they settled in to build their homes, churches and clubs.
Hike the 0.59-mile paved path and you’ll be walking through the remnants of a time when the manufacturing facility was churning out tons of iron and providing thousands of jobs to local residents and immigrants from around the world.
'Much more appealing'
“The new signs focus more on the experiences of the workers, whereas the old signs were half about the iron making process and half about the workers,” said Tina Riley, the facility supervisor who oversees the preserve. “The new signs are much more appealing than the old ones, with color, more photos, and more information about the iron works experience for workers.”
The Iron Works site, located on Columbia Street, east of Route 53/Scott Street in Joliet, was founded in 1869 and was at the forefront of technological innovations. When the Great Depression hit, the plant closed but the finishing mills stayed open until the mid-1980s.
The signs along the interpretive path will enhance guided tours provided throughout the year. But they also convey information for those who want to take self-guided tours at their own pace, absorbing the history-rich area and the industrial ruins left behind.
Sara Russell, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District, often leads the District's guided tours. She said the signs will help set the stage for any walk along the path. And new signs at the beginning and end of the asphalt trail will alert passersby and those walking or riding the nearby I&M Canal Trail to the historic site just a few yards away.
The old signs had a lot more text on them, which made them more difficult to absorb in a short period of time, Russell explained.
“You want to have shorter chunks of text to keep it interesting,” she said.
The signs are positioned to describe former Iron Works building locations and what tasks were performed there. For instance, an area between signs two and three was devoted to coke, limestone and coal storage. The buildings are gone but the foundations and remnants of the activity remain, preserved in perpetuity by the Forest Preserve District.
One of the signs explains how language barriers experienced by many immigrants led to a “Safety First” campaign by the company that owned the plant at the time. These safety measures were among the first in the nation implemented in an industrial setting, Russell said.
“A huge issue people faced is that they didn’t speak English,” she said. “That’s a recipe for disaster when working with 2,800-degree molten iron.”
The company began posting signs in English, Czech, Hungarian, Croatian and Polish to make sure all employees knew proper safety procedures.
A hard living
Another sign shows plant wages in 1887 ranged from 50 cents per day to $1.75.
“It was a living, but it was a hard living,” Russell said.
The signs also show how women entered the Joliet Iron Works workforce during World War II. In those days, steel production no longer took place, but the plant was still finishing products such as barbed wire and steel tires.
One interpretive sign describes where all the immigrant groups settled and the churches, clubs and homes they built to reflect their heritage.
“There is a lasting legacy of the people who made their homes here,” Russell said.
The signs are designed to make a visit to Joliet Iron Works more enticing and more rewarding, she added.
“The idea is to be welcoming to any person coming on the path so they can be brought into the story.”
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