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Rod Sellers/Southeast Chicago Historical Society

Wisconsin Steel during its heyday, c. 1960 (left) and in 2008 (right) after 11 years of cleanup

After cleanup is completed, a former worker remembers the closure of Wisconsin Steel

by Kevin Clifford
Jan 23, 2014

In 1977, Bill Dewey, 23, took a leave of absence from his job at Wisconsin Steel on the Southeast Side to travel and explore career options.

By the time he came back, Dewey decided being a steel worker was what he wanted after all. He planned to retire from Wisconsin Steel like his father. What he didn’t know was his lifelong career would only last three more years.

While enjoying a post-shift beer in a South Deering watering hole in early 1980, Dewey heard the bartender make a surprising announcement.

“They’re nailing the doors on the machine shop,” the bartender said. “If you want to get your personal tools out, you’d better go now.”

“That’s how short of notice I received,” Dewey said, recalling that March day when Wisconsin Steel, in operation for almost a century, closed its doors, leaving more than 3,000 people jobless.

“A lot of people had homes and cars to pay off, and all of a sudden, the jobs they figured they’d retire from were gone,” Dewey said.

The decline of Wisconsin Steel began in the early ’70s after the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act. Losing money due to the cost of meeting new regulations, the mill’s owners, International Harvester, sold the company to in 1977 to Envirodyne, a California-based company without steel experience.

“Envirodyne tried to upgrade the plant,” Dewey said. “They were in the middle of rebuilding the No. 3 blast furnace, which could have significantly increased steel production, but the mill closed before we had a chance to find out.”

After Wisconsin Steel closed permanently in 1980, other area mills, suppliers and shops soon fell like dominoes: “It was a devastating time for the East Side,” Dewey said.

The nearly 182-acre property remained abandoned for more than 15 years until 1997, when Navistar (formerly International Harvester Company) purchased the site and began cleaning up the grounds under the scope of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

On Jan. 16, after 14 years of extensive soil and groundwater decontamination by Arcadis, an infrastructure cleaning and engineering firm, Navistar announced the completion of the environmental project to IEPA standards during an event at St. Kevin Church in South Deering.

“This site contributed significantly to the entire region,” said Ald. John Pope (10th), a lifelong Southeast Side resident who was in attendance. “But as much as no one wanted to see the mill close, no one wanted or wants to see the site remain unproductive and certainly contaminated.”

To date, four companies have bought and developed parcels on the revitalized site, however, none produce steel. Dewey, who settled in Bowling Green, Ky., with his wife 15 years ago, hasn’t kept up with the remediation process. But he said it would be “strange” to see new industry built on the bones of the old.

“Anyone born after the ‘80s would only have photos to reference what the area was like when the mills were around,” Dewey said.