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Hear riveting tales of Joliet’s industrial past with ‘Stories from Steel’ exhibit 

A display of artifacts from Joliet Iron Works, including a photo and a brick.
(Photo by Anthony Schalk)

If you enjoy learning about history and geology and are curious about Joliet's industrial past, plan to stop by “Stories from Steel,” a Joliet Iron Works artifact exhibit that will be on display from Nov. 1 through Jan. 31 at Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville. 

The exhibit can be viewed without registration during museum hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.

Visitors to the free, family-friendly exhibit will learn how iron and steel were produced at the once-thriving plant and how the industry put Joliet on the map. During its heyday, from 1880 through the 1930s, Joliet Iron Works produced iron and steel products that were shipped around the globe. 

The exhibit was created so people can view artifacts from that era, which are normally in storage, said Amy Haller, a Forest Preserve program manager. 

“We have a lot of artifacts,” she said. “And we want to share these special stories that they have.”

Each item will tell its own story in its own words. 

“So, the exhibit is a little bit different,” Haller said. “These artifacts will have personalities, which is a fun way to present all these stories. And after viewing the exhibit, visitors will know more about iron production and how this was a very important industry for Joliet and the rest of the country, if not the world.”

Pike's Peak 

One artifact that has an interesting travel story is a steel rail that was used in the Pike’s Peak cog railway in Colorado. Years ago, during railway renovations, a lineman who was working in the area noticed a discarded rail with the imprint, “Illinois Steel Co. Joliet Works 1890.” 

“He is a Joliet native, and he thought that was really neat,” Haller said of the lineman. “The salvaged rail sat around his house for quite some time until he eventually found us and donated it.”

The exhibit is made up of items that are part of a collection stored at the museum, including some that were collected from the Forest Preserve’s 52-acre Joliet Iron Works Historic Site, which protects the industrial ruins of the former Joliet Iron Works plant in downtown Joliet. 

Each item will educate viewers on its role in the plant's history. For instance, a brick in the exhibit might not seem like anything special at first glance, Haller said, but the brick is from a blast furnace at the plant. Bricks were used to line the furnaces to absorb the heat and protect the furnace itself from the molten iron, she explained. 

“Without the bricks, temperatures would get so hot they would have melted the blast furnace,” she said. “You have to have that barrier to protect the furnace. They’re fire bricks made from a special ganister rock that could take on that heat.”

Chunks and lumps

Some of the materials used in iron production also will be on display including a chunk of limestone, a piece of iron ore and a lump of coke. 

A mule shoe included in the exhibit was found along the I&M Canal, according to notes from the Forest Preserve’s collection. 

“Because it’s a mule shoe, it probably fell off one of the mules that was pulling a canal boat up and down the I&M,” Haller said. “Joliet had one of the largest horseshoe companies, Phoenix Horseshoes, that were made from Joliet Iron Works steel.”

Also on display will be the plant’s magazine, “The Ledger,” which was produced from 1887 through 1891 and a companywide newsletter called WireCo Life from 1950.

Haller said it’s important to show artifacts from a range of time periods because while steel stopped being produced at the main site in the 1930s, the finishing mill stayed open into the 1980s.

"Stories from Steel" was developed by museum staff, with the support of The Nature Foundation of Will County.


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