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Mud to Parks Brought Life Back To South Works

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Alex MacLean, UIC Imagebase
    An aerial photograph of the South Works Site, taken in 1996.

    Gov. Pat Quinn is spending this afternoon in East Peoria, visiting the dredge site of the Mud-to-Parks project. That’s the project that’s helped Chicago recover a piece of the lakefront that was previously thought to be uninhabitable -- the old U.S. Steel South Works.

    South Works was built in 1880, on 73 acres of lakefront property. Gradually, the mill expanded atop its own excretions, piling slag into the shallows of Lake Michigan, like Holland reclaiming the sea, until it had built a 573-acre peninsula of limestone dolomite and phosphorous. Once U.S. Steel departed, this promontory of slag became the largest undeveloped plot of lakefront property in Chicago. Unlike other industrial cities, Chicago had always preserved its shoreline, in accordance with the plan set out by Daniel Burnham, the 19th century architect who declared that the city’s lakefront should be “forever free and clear.” The parks, marinas and bathing beaches, though, had ended at the gates of U.S. Steel, 10 miles south of the loop. The dismantling of South Works meant that Chicago could finally extend its green belt all the way to the mouth of the Calumet River. It also meant the land was open for development. McCaffery Properties is planning to build Chicago Lakeside, which will eventually be the site of over 13,000 homes and 17.5 million square feet of retail.

    However, nobody wants to live on slag, no matter how close to the water. Children can’t play on slag. Grass won’t grow in slag. Chicago did not exactly have the problem of reclaiming land from industry, since the land beneath South Works had been created by industry. But the city had to figure out how to cover the dead Plutonian surface. It found the solution at the bottom of Peoria Lake, a wide spot in the Illinois River, 150 miles southwest of Chicago. The lake was filling with sediment, most of it alluvial topsoil from the rich prairie farmland. Unless it was dredged, shipping traffic would flounder in the muck. The problem was where to put the mud. It couldn’t be dumped into the flood-plain, because then it would just seep back into the lake. John Marlin, a waste management expert at the Illinois Department of National Resources, realized that mud clogging Peoria Lake could open the shoreline of Lake Michigan.

    “There’s basically no topsoil there now,” Marlin said. “Some plants will grow there, but not anything special.”

    The Illinois River is linked to the Great Lakes by a network of tributaries, locks and canals. It would be possible to float the mud upstate on barges, which carried 1,500 tons of sediment—75 times the capacity of an 18-wheeler. In the spring of 2004, the first of 168 barges docked in the old North Slip of South Works, the nautical chute that once received the thousand-foot-long Elwin H. Gott, the Queen Mary of the U.S. Steel Great Lakes Fleet. Dumptrucks spread topsoil over several acres north and south of the slip—enough to build a park, but not enough to cover the entire site.

    Peoria had too much mud. Chicago needed dirt. One city’s muck is another’s playground.