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History rewrite: What if Chicago’s reserves had been managed differently?

By |  January 19, 2021
Could stone still be sourced from plentiful reserves within the city of Chicago if a few events throughout history went differently? Photo: tifonimages/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Could stone still be sourced from plentiful reserves within the city of Chicago if a few events throughout history went differently? Photo: tifonimages/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Geology fascinates Don Mikulic.

It has since Mikulic was a teenager, when he took an interest in fossils. Mikulic ultimately chose geology as his craft, and he became an accomplished geologist with a career that steered him to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Mikulic, who grew up in Milwaukee, particularly entrenched himself in the Chicago and Milwaukee markets, with industry stakeholders in the region recognizing him as the foremost expert on the Silurian geology of Illinois, Wisconsin and surrounding states. During his career, Mikulic grew an appreciation for the industry’s history in Chicagoland. It’s a rich history, he says, that stretches back to the 1820s.

Stone reserves were aplenty back then in Chicago, according to Mikulic, but almost 200 years of establishing quarries in the market and abandoning them before they were fully utilized contributed significantly to the market as it’s shaped today.

Much of Chicago’s stone today is brought in by truck, and barge is also central to supply in the Windy City. Additionally, underground mining is now a significant part of supplying the nation’s third-largest city with the stone it demands.

Still, a question lingers in Mikulic’s mind: Did Chicago have to be supplied as it is today? Could stone still be sourced from plentiful reserves within the city if a few events throughout history went differently?

As Mikulic reflects from his home in Appleton, Wisconsin, he points to a number of missed opportunities that truly bred the market dynamic that currently exists in Chicago.

“From a geological standpoint, there are a lot of potential reserves in place,” says Mikulic, 71, who now serves as a curator of the Weis Earth Science Museum at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh in Menasha, Wisconsin.

A little history

LafargeHolcim’s Becky Kazmierski, left, presents a plaque to Donald Mikulic during the IAAP Annual Convention. Kazmierski serves IAAP as chairperson of its Public Information & Education Committee. Photo: IAAP

LafargeHolcim’s Becky Kazmierski, left, presents a plaque to Don Mikulic during the Illinois Association of Aggregate Producers’ (IAAP) Annual Convention in 2020. Photo: IAAP

The Chicago metro area has long been a major producer and consumer of construction stone.

Geologically, the region is generally underlain by up to 500 ft. of Silurian age dolomites, Mikulic says. These dolomites were the source of high-quality building stone and lime during the 19th century, transitioning to high-quality crushed stone aggregate in the 20th century.

Open-pit quarries produced all of these resources until the 1980s, Mikulic adds. But issues related to urban growth stopped the lateral expansion of existing quarries and eliminated the opening of new sites. No operating quarries or potential undeveloped properties remain in city proper as of 1970, according to Mikulic.

“Until 30 years ago or so, most of the companies operating in Chicago were very interested in finding new sources for crushed stone or sand and gravel,” he says. “Most probably aren’t looking at all anymore. There’s not much to work with.”

With the loss of local stone resources, Chicago receives most of its stone from the nearby Thornton Quarry and McCook Quarry – two of the largest operations in the country. While both locations have considerable reserves that could be accessed through underground mining, large parts of Chicago and much of Cook County are located far from these sites, making transportation difficult and expensive.

Mikulic conducted research over the years to determine where some of the Chicago metro area’s earliest quarries were situated. What he learned is that about 20 are still operating – including underground mines – but more than 250 were ultimately closed.

Some of the abandoned operations were rather small, he says, and many were eventually built over. But the collection of one-time active sites represents a substantial amount of reserves that could have been better utilized.

Based on the volumes those sites contained, some could still be in operation, according to Mikulic. But a turn of the economy here or a change in material needs there likely forced operators to give up on them before reserves were maximized, he says.

“The Milwaukee area has about 150 of these [abandoned] sites too,” Mikulic says. “They’re not uniformly distributed throughout the area, but there are numerous places in Chicago and Milwaukee that disappeared or closed down for a variety of reasons.”

A prime example

Even some of the biggest operators in Chicago’s history walked away from quarries before aggregate reserves were fully realized, according to Mikulic. A former Dolese & Shepard quarry in Cicero, Illinois, is probably the best example of lost stone reserves in the region, he says. Based on his research, Mikulic argues the loss might even be the greatest in all of the Midwest.

“The lost reserves include about 130 million tons of accessible surface reserves by abandoning all of the land that could have been quarried,” Mikulic says.

Unknown at the time was that another 130 million tons could’ve been mined in the Ordovician dolomites that are present deep underground, he adds.

“So why was this outstanding quarry site in terms of geographic position, large reserves of high-quality stone – with a large plant and excellent rail access – abandoned?” Mikulic asks. “No records have been found to explain this decision, but it might have simply involved changes in local land value.”

In this specific instance, Mikulic points to a nearby Western Electric plant opening as a potentially more lucrative business opportunity for Dolese & Shepard.

“In the early 1900s, the Western Electric Hawthorne Works was opened just north of the quarry and partially on vacant [Dolese & Shepard] land,” Mikulic says. “The Western Electric plant was an enormous local development at the time, which probably drove up adjacent land prices.

“As a result, it became more profitable for [Dolese & Shepard] to sell their Cicero land and move,” Mikulic adds.

This type of scenario played out time after time in the region.

“A lot of times in the past, there were quarries very close to the center of Chicago,” Mikulic says. “Most of those were big operations for a while, but most certainly never got into the potential of the underground mining stage. Back in the 1920s or ‘30s, they closed down. Nobody ever planned on going underground. They also left a lot of rock at the floor of the quarry.”

Many of the abandoned quarries Mikulic references are sprinkled throughout what are now Chicago’s suburbs.

“They’re where the building stone operations were,” Mikulic says. “Quarries around canals were all shallow operations. When the building stone industry collapsed around 1900, they abandoned all of those places. A few of them were reinvigorated with crushed stone production, but most of them were just lost.”

Conclusions

The industry’s history in Chicago should serve as a lesson to other U.S. cities about the value of aggregate reserves – and that they should not be taken for granted.

Chicago, of course, isn’t the only U.S. city whose aggregate supply is getting farther away. Some planning boards are complicating the matter, too, according to Mikulic.

“The Minneapolis-St. Paul and Los Angeles areas have plans for protecting reserves,” he says. “But it is unclear how well they will work over long periods of time.”

Construction materials are obviously more expensive the more they have to be hauled, but zoning and permitting challenges are driving operations away from a number of city centers. It’s a reality aggregate producers across America now live, but the challenge of bringing materials into cities may only compound in the years to come.

“It’s an interesting industry,” Mikulic says. “People don’t seem to realize that resources like aggregates are common in many places worldwide, but there are shortages of these things in certain areas and it costs money to overcome shortages.”

Fortunately, the U.S. will always need crushed stone, sand and gravel. That much, at least, should never change.

“As long as we need aggregate for concrete to develop and maintain infrastructure, we’re going to be in the Stone Age,” Mikulic says.

Kevin Yanik

About the Author:

Kevin Yanik is the editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry magazine. Yanik can be reached at 216-706-3724 or kyanik@northcoastmedia.net.

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