Interest in Thornton Quarry tours reaches an all-time high

By |  September 22, 2015

Massive canyons appear on both sides as passers-by drive east or west through Thornton, Ill., on Interstate 80. Often, people will get outside their vehicles to peer into the massive manmade holes.

“They’re standing by the fence trying to get a look at what’s going on down there,” says Margaret Loitz, president of the Thornton Historical Society.

Locals dubbed this site “the Grand Canyon of the Midwest.” A mere look from the top isn’t satisfying enough for some people. Some have returned over the years to visit the quarry operation – Lehigh Hanson’s Thornton Quarry – that’s situated below the interstate.

Open invitations aren’t available to the Thornton Quarry. Lehigh Hanson does, however, have an active partnership with the Thornton Historical Society, which organizes biannual tours of the quarry.

The tours are so popular that they’re sold out through this decade.

“We are booked into 2022,” Loitz says. “They just keep coming in.”

A major attraction

According to Loitz, the Thornton Historical Society-organized tours of the Thornton Quarry started around 1985. Tours began with one busload of people, but interest in the quarry grew over the years.

Now, six busloads consisting of up to 270 people typically visit the Thornton Quarry on a tour day.

“I really can’t tell you how people learn about it,” Loitz says. “We get letters and emails constantly about this. They’re just all excited and they have a good time.”

According to Loitz, tours typically begin at a lookout area before proceeding into the quarry. A Lehigh Hanson representative guides each tour, explaining the Thornton Quarry’s operations.

Tours, which last about two hours, are restricted to people who are at least 18 years old, Loitz adds. Tourists also have the opportunity to search for fossils in a designated area of the quarry.

“They’ll take a pile of rock and dump it in a particular area,” Loitz says. “That’s where people can look for fossils.”

Loitz attributes the recent surge in interest among tourists to news reports of the quarry “closing.” Fortunately for tourists, the quarry is not closing. The north lobe was converted into a reservoir that can hold 8 billion gallons of stormwater and sewer backup. The south lobe – the larger chunk of the Thornton Quarry – is still operational.

Recent news reports about the Thornton Quarry flooded the historical society with tour ticket requests.

“People were writing that the quarry is closing,” Loitz says. “They were saying ‘the last blast at the quarry.’ So people were asking if they could get on the tour.”

According to Loitz, the quarry tours are the main source of the historical society’s funding each year. A tour ticket costs $20 per person. She estimates each tour day generates between $1,500 and $2,000 for the Thornton Historical Society.

“It’s definitely an excellent way to do a fundraiser,” she says.

The Thornton Historical Society brought its ticket reservations to a halt, she says, because there’s no sense in booking too far outward.

Yet, the demand remains.

“Every once in a while we get a [reporter] who goes on the tour, and he writes an article for his newspaper,” Loitz says. “We will just be bombarded with requests afterward.”

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Kevin Yanik is editor-in-chief of Pit & Quarry. He can be reached at 216-706-3724 or

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