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Grain of Truth: Taking stock of the relics of Chicago’s era as the world’s “Stacker of Wheat”

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By David Witter

Grain elevators were the city’s first skyscrapers, rising up as high as fifteen stories along the Chicago River and Sanitary and Ship Canal from downtown to the South Shore, supplying the nation’s bakeries much in the way that the stockyards of the Armours, Oscar Mayers and Swifts gave us steak, bacon and hot dogs. Along with being the “Hog Butcher for the World,” they gave rise to Carl Sandburg’s description of Chicago as the “Stacker of Wheat.” Poured from trains and barges, wheat, corn, barley and other crops were stored within before being sold at a “new” market called The Chicago Board of Trade. Today, only two grain facilities, the Archer Daniels Midland Plant, and the Illinois International Port Grain Elevators at the Port of Chicago, remain in operation within the city limits. Dozens have been demolished, while still more sit vacant. Too large and expensive to tear down, they are slowly deteriorating like Egyptian ruins in an urban desert, standing as a final reminder of Chicago’s agricultural past amid the modern skyscrapers, condos and highways that are now Chicago’s landscape.

The grain elevator was invented in Buffalo, New York, but its design, use and implementation were perfected in the Windy City thanks to a man named Ira Munn. A grain merchant who made a small fortune building several grain elevators, he became one of the first presidents of The Chicago Board of Trade. Like Carnegie and the other industrial giants of his era, he turned a vision into millions. The PBS documentary, “The American Experience: Made in Chicago,” describes it this way:

“The [grain] business clearly needed streamlining; the casualty would be the inefficient, labor-causing sack. In 1857, the Chicago Board of Trade introduced a wheat-grading system so that one farmer’s crop could be combined and stored in bulk with another farmer’s crop of the same grade. All the loose grain could be mechanically transferred from railroad cars to grain elevators, eliminating the need for laborers to load and unload sacks. The seller would walk off with a warehouse receipt, which he could trade, sell or use as currency in the marketplace. From the grain elevator, a buyer could have his grain transferred directly into a boat to be carried anywhere around the globe. By 1861, Chicago’s grain trade had increased to fifty million bushels annually—a rise of over forty-eight million bushels in a decade—supporting the city’s boast that it fed the world.”

This is what the scene must have been at the Santa Fe Grain Elevator one hundred years ago. Located off the Damen Avenue exit of I-55, this massive city within a city was built in 1906 just off its namesake rail line. It had an overall capacity of 400,000 bushels of grain, with five shipping and receiving legs that were able to accommodate four separate rails. It also had thirty-five concrete storage bins, a 1,500-horsepower electrical plant, a marine tower and eight vessel loading spouts. All in all, the plant could process 75,000 bushels of grain per hour.

While the Santa Fe and other grain elevators were a source of fortune for many Chicago traders, they have also been the scene of many tragedies, mainly in the form of explosions followed by blazing infernos with heat so intense that firefighters often could not even approach the blaze.

“Grain dust itself is not dangerous until you have enough air between the particles of dust,” Jim Bates, a teacher at Kelly High School who grew up next to a grain silo, says. “But if you get a mixture of heat, fuel and oxygen it becomes combustible, and just one spark can set off what is basically a chain reaction within the elevator. In this way, grain dust is as explosive as gasoline.”

This was the case in 1977, as a massive explosion and fire, along with over thirty years of abandonment, turned the Santa Fe grain elevators into a burnt-out relic which could serve as a set for every neo-futuristic end-of-the-world movie from “Mad Max” to “The Matrix.” To the west of the ruins is a stagnant channel where the Chicago River meets the I&M Sanitary and Ship Canal. The grey, murky water, filled with white foam, industrial driftwood, plastic grocery bags and used condoms serves as a moat guarding the east and north end of the ruins. To the south is a rusted, barbed-wire fence adorned by a small sign that reads: “State Property, No Trespassing.”

Beyond the fence is a field of weeds, rusted steel beams and hundreds of blocks of cement the size of small cars. Towering over them are rounded silos climbing over a hundred feet in the air. Next to it is a square, cement building fifteen stories high. Its rotting walls are filled with broken windows and chunks of hanging, rusting rebar, all ringed by a steel ribbon on top which has been completely painted by graffiti artists who somehow got on top of the sheer cement walls.

A short ride away, developers have built a series of more than twenty townhomes. Called “Riverside Homes,” they overlook an industrial rail bridge and are surrounded by empty lots and factories including the Santa Fe Grain Elevators. They do, however, offer a view of that same industrial section of the Chicago River and a sign proudly proclaims “only three left.”

The only other thing that indicates any type of ownership or human activity within this industrial “Shutter Island” is a two-story sign painted on the side of the main tower which declares: “On Behalf of the Central Management Services of the State of Illinois; REAL ESTATE AUCTION. Rick Levin and Associates Inc. 773-252-4500.”

A spokesperson for Rick Levin and Associates stated that “the property was owned by the state who wanted seventeen million for it and it didn’t sell. They have lowered it to eleven million but they are only willing to sell it in one big chunk. Do you want to buy it?”

Bridgeport and Back of the Yards. It was not only here that the South Branch of the Chicago River wound through the neighborhood, it also made its way into the stockyards. So much so that the Chicago River is still referred to as “Bubbly Creek” due to the grain spilled from barges and bits of rotting animals left from the days when the area from Halsted to Ashland and 35th to 48th Streets was filled with cows and pigs waiting to be slaughtered. A study from the University of Illinois at Chicago documented the role that grain elevators played in the Bridgeport and Back of the Yards areas.

“Five major grain elevator operations were situated in the Bridgeport area: the Chicago and St. Louis elevator at Halsted Street and the river; the Danville elevator at Ashland Avenue and Levee Street (this street ran along the Illinois and Michigan Canal); Dennis Sibley’s elevator at 31st and Stewart Avenue, which was along the railroad right-of-way; the National elevator at 24th Street and Archer Avenue; and the Wabash elevator at 33rd and Waterville (now Benson) Streets. Additionally, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy railroad had an elevator on one of the slips opposite Bridgeport.”

Today, as you head south down Halsted, past Chiappetti Lamb and Veal, Chicago’s last slaughterhouse at 39th and Emerald, you are greeted by a sight representing an urban twilight zone. Rising out of the abandoned lots, warehouses and scattered residential units, is a grain silo. Not a massive concrete grain elevator like The Santa Fe, but the kind you might see driving South on I-57 in Mattoon, Johnson or Goreville. In these towns, grain elevators tower over the flat cornfields, the only structure over two stories high for miles. This depot consists of four medium-sized aluminum cylinders with a white shack on top that says “Mr. Bee Seeds.”

“They belonged to a company named Kahn Greene,” local historian Tom Pierce says. “It was a feed company that stored grain for the stockyards. When I was a kid we used to go over there with a junk wagon and pick up feed for the horses and chickens.”

Today, these elevators are covered with a deep patina of rust which has formed in shades of brown ranging from dark chocolate to a light beige.

“Now the offices are being rented out. One of them is a business. I think it is a spice company tied in with Bobak Sausage Company,” Pierce, who is trying to establish a Back of the Yards Museum, says. “The other side is a plumbing outfit. As for the elevator itself, I remember they opened it up a few years back, but now it is closed down, but it is still a quiet neighborhood that hasn’t changed much, and it is nice to see that the old feed house is still there.”

While the old Kahn Greene Elevator and Back of the Yards may remind some people of Mattoon or Mayberry, The Illinois International Port at the Port of Chicago is a foreboding structure that represents bleak, industrial Chicago at its grittiest. Located past I-94 on the Bishop Ford Freeway near 130th Street and Sibley Boulevard, these giant, desolate towers seem to rise like another Sphinx in an industrial desert. Although they are surrounded by a major expressway to the west and other industrial complexes to the east and south, the outside of the elevators can be reached by driving down an unpaved frontage road, festooned with swamp, weed trees and discarded pallets. Like the Santa Fe, these grain elevators are built from cement and steel and rival Chicago landmarks like Soldier Field and The Merchandise Mart for sheer size and volume. Also like the Santa Fe, they sit on a body of water, in this case Lake Calumet off of the Calumet River. Yet unlike the Santa Fe the grain elevators at the Illinois International Port are still in working operation.

“Despite what some people may believe, they are not shut down.” Sue Kiley, a spokesperson for the Illinois International Port, says. “Currently, the port only owns two of the elevators. One elevator is totally occupied and the stand-alone metal silos are also in use. The other three are privately owned and we have no knowledge of whether they are in use or not.”

The capacity of these elevators is staggering.

“The elevators can hold fourteen-million bushels of grain of all types, wheat, corn, barley, etc.,” Kiley says. “It is brought in by all modes of transportation–rail, highway, ships and barges—and is stored and sent to markets all over the world.”

Perhaps this is why, as people approach the elevators, they are greeted with four-by-five foot signs which read: “No Trespassing: Violators Will be Prosecuted Under the Fullest Extent of the Law.” These signs rest on chain-link fences topped by barbed wire, razor wire and security cameras. If you try to approach the area, private police and security guards suddenly appear from what seem to be abandoned sheds, rushing towards you with sirens blazing. Much of this is, of course, due to the extreme danger of the grain elevators. In fact, one of the worst grain-elevator fires in our nations’ history occurred on the former site of the Rosenbaum Grain Elevators, which were located nearby at 102nd and the Calumet River. On May 11, 1939, the “chain reaction” which Bates described became a reality. The Associated Press described the incident this way:

“An explosion and fire leveled a South Side Grain Elevator which firemen feared eight or more men were killed and many more wounded. The fire spread to four neighboring elevators, enveloping almost a quarter mile in searing heat. Reports that casualties might reach a score could not be confirmed because the heat kept firemen 100 feet from the area.”

In 1990, another tragedy struck Chicago’s Calumet-area grain elevators. During the 1960s, the Falstaff Brewery painted a series of elevators, located on the Illinois/Indiana border just off of the Skyway, to look like giant beer cans or “tall boys.” Like the Santa Fe, they sat abandoned after Falstaff went out of business in the 1980s. While exploring the abandoned area, 10-year-old Ricky Rodriguez fell to his death.

“Ricky was bouncing on conveyor belts in the plant with two other boys when he fell through a three-by-five-foot hole which was used as an inspection port at the top of the silo,” beer historian Tom Clark says. “The others were afraid to tell the authorities what had happened, and they said he had been kidnapped. His body was found five months later when one of the older boys had nightmares about the accident and finally told his girlfriend what had happened.”

The only other working grain elevator and grain-processing plant in Chicago is the Archer Daniels Midland Plant. Located on Ogden and Carroll Avenues, just north of Lake Street, the plant is not separated from the general population by water, expressways or other giant, industrial structures. Instead, the facility is in the middle of a city neighborhood, including restaurants like La Luce at Ogden and Lake Street, which offers a great view of the elevators. If you drive by the structure you will see a full-force plant in action. Signs indicating “Danger Flammable” and “No Smoking Within 50 Feet,” surround the plant. To the north, train cars filled with corn oil, ethanol and grains load and unload at a constant rate. To the south, giant diesel trucks are loading and unloading liquid and solid grains, pulling in and out of Ada Street. All the time, you hear the sounds of chunking, pounding engines and machinery and the churning and chugging of trains on the nearby Metra tracks. Like the ruins of the Santa Fe, the Illinois International Port, or the grain house in the Back of the Yards, this building is more than just a giant homely structure you pass on your way to eat at restaurants like Dragonfly, One Sixty Blue or Red Light in the Randolph Street Market. It’s an urban enigma—a final link to the days when Chicago, “the Stacker of Wheat,” was the agricultural center of America.

3 Responses to “Grain of Truth: Taking stock of the relics of Chicago’s era as the world’s “Stacker of Wheat””

  1. The Damen Silos – Exploring America's Gritty History Says:

    […] the grain elevator. Afterwards the location fell into disuse and became property of the state. The real estate company charged with selling the property states “the property was owned by the state who wanted seventeen million for it and it didn’t sell. […]

  2. Chicago | Rethinking Life Says:

    […]… […]

  3. Chicago in…(Unusual) Innovations | Chicago Ideas Blog Says:

    […] (see Upton Sinclair for one take on Chicago’s ruthless efficiency). That’s the story behind the grain elevator, first invented in Buffalo, New York, but fully developed into what we think of a silo today by […]

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