ACME PROJECT STATUS REPORT: Work this month has focused on moving two blast furnace bells from the former Acme Blast Furnace site to the Pullman State Historic Site. We expect the small bell to be moved within the week. We also have the good news that Mike Urioste of Salrecon will donate the large bell and the pleasant headache of figuring out how to move it.
MECHANICAL ENGINEERING LANDMARKS: The local chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has responded very positively to CHP’s overtures to work with them to nominate the Hulett Ore Unloaders as a Mechanical Engineering Landmark. We look forward to working with Lou Wozniak, Chair of ASME’s Chicago History and Heritage Committee, on the application. Lou lives in Arlington Heights now, but he grew up in the 10th Ward and worked at both South Works and Republic while a college student. We have also had a generally positive reaction on the landmarking possibility from the current property owner, and will obtain a written statement for him that the landmark designation will not interfere with his use of the Huletts in any way.
COKE…AFTER COKE…AFTER COKE: Those words describe (with apologies to the Coca-Cola Company, whose advertising slogan they constituted in the late 1960s) a recent trip to the eastern and southern United States to look at other efforts to make something of the history of metallurgical coke production. The “something” could be a museum, an archive, a park, or remnant ghostly structures in the woods. Let me jump to conclusions: I feel more confident than ever before that the Acme Coke Plant efforts we are undertaking are nationally significant. The American landscape of coke has a few key features, but this Chicago coke plant museum effort is, as far as I know with my now slightly better educated guesswork, unique. Here, briefly, is what I found. Items are grouped in the approximate order that they retell the passing history of fuel for metalworking:
- Charcoal production — Before Abraham Darby figured out in 1709 that coke (essentially coal with the impurities cooked out of it) was a great blast furnace fuel, people had been smelting iron with charcoal since the Iron Age. America, with its abundant forests used to make the charcoal, was slow to adopt coke. The charcoal maker’s art is well-told at Hopewell Forge National Historic Site in Pennsylvania.
- Beehive coke production – It soon became apparent that forested America also had enormous coal resources that couldn’t be ignored. “Beehive” ovens, so-called because of their shape, sprouted up near mine mouths where the coal could be processed into coke. Industrialists built hundreds of ovens at each site . By the early twentieth century, the U.S. had over 50,000 such ovens, 40,000 of which were clumped in a few counties in western Pennsylvania around Connellsville. 2000 pounds of coal would yield 1400 pounds of coke, the remainder being vented to the air. As a result of this inefficiency, beehive coke ovens became obsolete. Today, as at Leetonia, Ohio, Mammoth, Pennsylvania, and Dunlap, Tennessee, a couple of hundred abandoned coke ovens course through thick woods like effigy mounds. But each group is set in a “Coke Ovens Park” that
- commemorates the earlier age, and Dunbar, Pennsylvania even wants to build a new beehive coke oven for $25,000 to put in the central town park to tangibly ignite memories of the earlier economy.
· By–products coke production — Here’s where Acme fits in. Roughly at the turn of the century new processes were invented to capture the products the beehive ovens let fly, things like light oil, ammonia, toluene, and gases that could be sold to cities or re-used in the fires of the ovens themselves or in the frequently adjacent blast furnaces. I didn’t see any closed plants in interpretable condition. In the Thomas community in Birmingham, Alabama, the ovens are supposedly on the National Register, and they are there, but they are quite remote from view and appear to be crumbling. At the great Bethlehem Steel Works in Pennsylvania, where almost everything else is intact and serves to keep the hope of a National Museum of Industrial History alive, they were demolished years ago. Of course, huge plants continue in production: the huge US Steel Clairton Works stretch for three miles along the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh and produce roughly a fifth of the nation’s coke. The Sloss Corporation, famous for donating its City Furnaces to be the cornerstone of a national landmark industrial tour site, has a very active facility in Tarrant, Alabama. American coke production has fallen from roughly 20,000 short tons in 2000 to 16,000 today. US Steel, Mittal Steel Burns Harbor, and Indiana Harbor Coke Company were among the nation’s top 10 producers in 2005.
- Coke in the museums – Coke production is touched on at the Youngstown, Ohio Steel Museum, at the Visitors Center of the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Corridor in Homestead, Pennsylvania , and at the Iron and Steel Museum of Alabama in Tannehill, Alabama, but only as a part of the steel production story. By far the most significant place I visited in this regard is the Coal and Coke Heritage Museum on the Eberly Campus of Penn State University in Uniontown. They have a newly redesigned museum space, a very active oral history program, and expanding archives. When I visited, curators from this museum were meeting with educators from the nearby Frank Lloyd Wright designed Fallingwater to discuss school programs. Wow: are there other areas where coke production and Frank Lloyd Wright are close neighbors?….
DONATIONS AND COLLECTIONS POLICY: The committee hopes to have a draft policy ready for the next meeting, very important to us as we take on the role of acquiring items, documents, and photographs that preserve and interpret the heritage of the region.
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: At last month’s meeting, Naomi Davis of the Chicago Calumet Underground Railroad Effort (C-CURE) gave an outstanding presentation on the preservation efforts at the Jan Ton Farm in the Calumet area. A Chicago Tribune news story last week lists the farm as one of the Chicago area’s key underground railroad sites. See http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-0704030872apr04,1,7032774.story?page=1
NEXT MEETING: The next meeting of the Calumet Heritage Partnership will take place, Thursday, April 19, 7:00 p.m., at the Calumet Stewardship Initiative office, 13300 South Baltimore, Chicago.