Sifting through the rubble
Fifty years later in 1989, the Forest Preserve entered into an agreement with CorLands to accept a donation of the parcel, which sits at the confluence of the I&M Canal, the Des Plaines River and several railroads. CorLands was a division of a regional land conservation agency known as Openlands.
CorLands received the 45-acre site as a donation from USX Corp, which had moved its main steel factory east from the Iron Works location to Collins Street.
“At that time, the Iron Works site was incredibly overgrown,” said Ralph Schultz, the Forest Preserve’s chief operating officer. “It was a thicket of trees and shrubs, mostly invasive.”
The Forest Preserve’s main goal in preserving the Iron Works was to protect the cultural history of the site, as well as the adjacent I&M Canal and its influence on the development of the Iron Works, Will County, the City of Joliet and Lockport, Schultz explained. Before the railroads were built, the canal’s towpath was used to transport raw materials to the steel factory and other businesses along the route.
A second goal in preserving the site was to have the property serve as an anchor for a new I&M Canal Trail section that was built from the Iron Works to Division Street in Lockport. The trail was eventually extended even farther and now stretches 7.55 miles north to 135th Street in Romeoville, where it connects to the Veterans Memorial/Centennial Trail and Isle a la Cache Museum.
In 1991, when the District took ownership of the Iron Works site, the land and the foundry’s crumbling ruins had to be assessed, Schultz said. An industrial archaeologist was hired to sift through the rubble and the thick layer of earth that had settled over the stone and concrete footprint.
“That was the first glimpse we had of the extent of what was remaining there,” Schultz said. “For instance, we knew where the gas washing plant, the furnace and other components of the manufacturing plant had been located. And based on that, and historical photographs, you could visually reconstruct in your mind what had once been in place.”