Chicago’s Southeast Side: Steel Brings Tragedy and Triumph

Category: Chicago
Last Updated: 20 Feb 2023
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The development of several industries and mills on Chicago’s far Southeast side evolved this part of the city from low to middle, working class. Chicago’s geographical features made it the ideal location for the development of the industries. However, although these major economic trade centers brought life and hope to Chicago, their closings later left the city in shutdowns, destruction, and depression. The growth of several industries and steel mills in Chicago’s Southeast side brought hundreds of thousands of jobs and transformed it into a booming economic center, but their closings later brought about depression to the neighborhood.

As the need for steel in America increased during the late 19th century, Chicago held many opportunities for the construction of the mills. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, “The emergence of a large iron and steel industry in the Chicago region during the nineteenth century was a function of entrepreneurial effort and geographical advantage” (“Iron and Steel”). Due to the many bodies of water located in Chicago’s southeast side, such as Lake Michigan, Chicago River, Calumet River, etc., it was easier to export and import goods that the steel mills needed. Lake Michigan, being connected to all of the other Great Lakes allowed for Chicago to receive the iron ore materials for a lower cost “because most of the iron ore used by the American steel industry was mined in Minnesota and Michigan,” which allowed for easy, efficient transportation of those materials into Chicago (“Iron and Steel”). There were also many areas with open space, which allowed mill construction to begin. Because of the fresh space that the city had at the time, entrepreneurs saw this opportunity to build upon the land. South Chicago provided the necessary geographical features that steel industries needed in order to survive for many years to come.

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This map displays the Calumet River and how it flows out right into Lake Michigan. (Map of Southeast Chicago. 2008)

In 1875, Brown Iron and Steel Company opened along the Calumet River from 106th Street to 109th Street along Torrence Avenue. By 1901, South Chicago “eventually became the locus of the largest concentration of steel-making facilities in the world” (Innis-Jimenez, 56). The steel mills located in Chicago’s southeast side included: Illinois Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Wisconsin Steel, Interstate Steel, Federal Furnace, Republic Steel, Pressed Steel, and US Steel. At the beginning of the prospering steel industries, the workers consisted of Swedes, Scots, Welsh, Germans, Irish, and Polish. However, according to Innis-Jimenez, in the late 1910s and 1920s, during the Great Mexican Migration, those in search for a new life and better job opportunities had been introduced to the booming steel industries in Chicago’s South Side (56). Despite all of the hard labor and poor living conditions that the steel mills gave off, the Mexicans needed the money to support their families and were willing to work. In 1919 when a huge strike occurred against US Steel, Mexicans were hired to break the strike. The migrating Mexicans now had a reliable job to provide to their family and a place to civilize.

The industries on the Southeast side were put into place due to an increase in the demand of steel and iron. The first major production of steel went towards the development of the railroads. The railroads were later implemented to the steel industry as a more efficient way to transport materials from companies that made the necessary materials for steel to the actual steel mills. Materials needed to make steel are coal which is used to make coke, limestone, and ore. According to Donald Migler, an accountant at Republic Steel, the mills were put into place to “fulfill the needs of steel, which was used to build cars, boats, highrises, bridges, tools, etc” (Migler). The steel from the mills produced the products needed in order for a society to run more efficiently.

The steel that was produced was used to build the city of Chicago. After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, a new law were passed in which banned businesses and buildings to be made out of wood. The choice of wood was due to the fact that it was an efficient way to build in a small amount of time. However, wood is very flammable, and the fire demonstrated that wood buildings are not safe. With the new law passed, people turned to steel in which was more stable and fire preventative. According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, high rises like the Sears Tower, the McCormick Place, and many other businesses and apartment high rises were all made out of the steel in which came from the Southeast side (“South Chicago”). Although steel was much more expensive than wood, it was both more durable and safer.

The development of several steel mills in Southeast Chicago brought along various positive impacts. One pleasing impact the steel mill developed in the city of Chicago was the hundreds of thousands of jobs for the people to have, such as laborers, accountants, and technicians. Another positive impact was it helped build the American economy by providing steel to be traded with foreign countries and receive revenue in return, which helped the United States build a stronger army and become more technologically advanced. With the mills producing an immense amount of steel, Chicago became a major trade destination with other countries by Chicago exporting them steel, and them importing the resources to make steel to Chicago. The mass production of steel and the products made for steel led to advancements in architecture, innovative ideas, and technological advancements all stemmed from the steel mill industry.

Despite the many positive impacts that the steel mills brought to Chicago, in the late 20th century, the steel industry took a drastic turn and several mills began to close, hurting both the economy and hundreds of thousands of families. According to Daniel Rowe, as the demand for steel decreased, the mills were forced to cut their production and sell their steel at unprofitable prices, and in 1982 alone, the steel industry lost a total of $3 billion (Rowe). Due to being in such a large financial despair, the steel industry had no choice but to begin laying workers off and slowing the production of their steel. As years went by, the steel mills got to the point when so much money was lost that they had no other option than to close.

There were few but major impacts in which led to the mills going under. One of those causes was that steel was being imported from other countries, like China, for much smaller prices. The United States government took over after realizing that China's production of steel would save them money, and forced the mills in the States to close. According to Migler, another cause of the closings was due to the mills “not putting their profits into modernizing their mills” (Migler). What Migler means by this is that when the mills were prospering and making great profits, they were not upgrading and improving the mills and the equipment within them. With foreign countries producing steel for much lower costs and the mills not keeping in fashion, the mills had no chance of survival.

The most substantial and heavily weighted cause that led to the closing of the steel industry in the southeast side of Chicago was do to the the environmental issues. The mills drastically destroyed the environment in ways such as dumping waste into Lake Michigan, heavily polluting the air, and giving off a bad scent in the surrounding neighborhoods. Not only did the mills damage the area, but it provided an unsafe environment for the workers. According to a study shown in document by Rod Sellers and the Southeast Historical Society, in the year 1906 alone, “there were 46 fatalities and 41 of those were in separate accidents” (Sellers). This statistic demonstrates that everyday the steelworkers went into work, they were in danger. The area in which the steel mills existed were faced with “the smell of slag, dumped by the mills onto the banks of Lake Michigan, [which] added to the frequently overwhelming smells of a crowded, working-class neighborhood with poor sanitation” (Innis-Jimenez, 57). However, the workers were willing to do whatever it takes to have an income and support their families.

The shutdowns of the steel mills angered the workers as they felt the closings were handled unjustly. According to a Chicago Tribune article from June 11, 1985 on the case in which the union and South Works Company were in an arbitration case, the union was saying that, “any attempt by the USW to discuss those partial closure would have been futile because the company’s decision was alleged to be final when announced” (Kearns). This quote demonstrates that the union (laborers) was upset with the fact that they had no say in keeping the company open or not. Even if they were willing to lower their income to still keep their job, the decision was final and nothing was changing it.

Due to the shutdown of the industries, tons of Chicago residents were left unemployed. This brought about an increase in poverty and homelessness throughout the city. The people on the Southeast side of Chicago were left hopeless without a job. The neighborhood then began to witness a major decline in population as people left in search for a new job and a new life. According to a chart in the Encyclopedia of Chicago that displays the population of South Chicago from 1930-2000, it shows that after the shutdown of the mills in the late 1980s that over 9,000 people in the neighborhood of South Chicago alone had left after the shutdown of the mills (“South Chicago”). Most of the population that made up the neighborhoods of the East Side, South Chicago, Hegewisch, and South Deering were all workers for the steel mills. When the mills shutdown, the area did them no good, so they had no choice but to move out in search for a new job, while others just left the area in search for a new life to escape the depression that occurred.

The closing of the steel mills also brought depression about the southeast side of Chicago. Most people who worked in the mills did not go to college and receive a degree due to the fact that it was not needed. Then, once the mills were shutdown, those people had no other job to turn to due to having no degree. In his book, David Bensman interviewed with several people from the neighborhood when the mills shutdown and discussed their experiences with the changes that occurred within the surrounding neighborhoods. In one interview with Jaime Gomez, he said, “If you see someone, they don’t even want to talk. People just stay in their houses” (Bensman, 103). This interview demonstrates that the city was in a state of depression and most people had nothing to say and nothing to do. The closings of the mills left the neighborhood in shock and despair.

The most substantial negative impact that the closings of the steel industries had on the neighborhood was the destruction of the land. As shown in the images featured in the “South Works” article by Jacob Kaplan, it becomes apparent that after the steel mills were closed, the land was left vacant (“South Works”). The vacancy is due to the land being contaminated, in which terminated homes from being built, due to the possibility of causing lung cancer to those who would live there. Another negative impact that the steel mills on the land was waste lands known as the coal hills. These coal hills are filled with limestone and iron oxide, which is just contaminated waste from the steel making process. The waste was fille dup in dumping trucks that were sent of to various locations near the steel mills, where they would dump and bury the waste. These coal hills can become very dangerous towards those who live near them. The contamination can cause lung cancer and many other heart and breathing issues.

This image is of South Works between 1970 and 1980 This image was taken after 4 years after the mill closed

before the closings occurred (“South Works”). (“South Works”).

Overall, the steel industry in Chicago’s southeast side helped shape the American economy and build the city of Chicago. The industries brought triumph to the area by bringing about new life to the neighborhoods with the availability of hundreds of thousands of jobs and the opportunity to have a steady income to support a family. However, after the demand for steel took a drastic decrease and foreign countries began exporting steel into the United States, the mills within the US were no longer necessary. After the closing of the industries, the southeast side of Chicago was faced with tragedy when they experienced a state of depression and many destructions to the environment. The steel industry of Chicago was one of the most dominant catalysts to the American economy and to the shaping of new technologies.

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Chicago’s Southeast Side: Steel Brings Tragedy and Triumph. (2023, Feb 20). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/chicagos-southeast-side-steel-brings-tragedy-and-triumph/

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