During the 1880s, the Joliet mill was in full operation. Its location was beneficial to take advantage of expanding markets. According to Bergstresser, the plant “occupied a central location between the ore supplies of Lake Superior and the Iron Mountain district of Missouri. Secondly, the Joliet area contained extensive deposits of coal and limestone that could be used, respectively, as fuel and building stone. In addition, several railroads, including the Chicago and Alton and the Rock Island, which (both) ran through the site, and the Michigan Central, which lay nearby, offered a convenient assembly system for raw materials as well as a shipping outlet for the mill’s finished products. Lake ore could also be delivered to the site via the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which flowed past the factory.”
During this period, two blast furnaces towered 72 feet into the sky.
Each furnace required the complicated coordination of 250 workers, who loaded materials — iron ore, limestone and coke — into wheelbarrows and were transported by elevator to the top of the furnaces where the materials were dumped in.
Local steel played a major role in the outward and upward building of America. In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed much of the city, and former wooden structures were replaced with steel buildings. In 1885, the 10-story Home Insurance Building was completed in Chicago. This was the first modern skyscraper with its steel load-bearing frame. Throughout the next 20 years, Chicago would lead the world in designing and building steel frame skyscrapers.
Managers of the Joliet factory appear to have been socially advanced for their day. In 1889, at a cost of about $75,000, they built the Steel Workers Club, “apparently the pioneer workingmen’s club of any size in America,” according to Will County ILGenWeb’s The History of Joliet Illinois 1927. Membership was restricted to employees of the factory, who paid a nominal fee of $2 per year to use the facility.
“The club contains pleasant reading rooms, with more than sixty periodicals and newspapers, a large billiard room with six tables, a well-furnished and lighted gymnasium and handball court, fine bowling alleys, a tennis court and an athletic field. There is a bath room with a swimming pool, shower and tub baths, a kitchen, card rooms, and a large reception room and three pianos, a large assembly room seating more than nine hundred people.”
In 1901, the United States Steel Corporation was founded, the largest business enterprise ever known. It began with a merger between Carnegie Steel and the Federal Steel Company that soon began to buy and incorporate other companies. The Joliet Steel Works, as it was then referred to, was one of these companies acquired in 1901. In that first year of operation, U.S. Steel produced 67 percent of all steel made in the United States.
Illinois was second only to Pennsylvania as the largest manufacturer of steel rails in the world, and the Joliet plant employed more than 2,000 men with an annual payroll in excess of $2 million.