For more than a hundred years, South Chicago factories provided employment to steel workers. These laborers eventually banded together to form a powerful union, which vastly improved their working conditions.
It’s no wonder that the South Chicago neighborhood became a magnet for industry. Back in 1833, smart businessmen pegged the community as an area ripe for development due to its location perched between Lake Michigan, the Calumet River and several major railroad routes, so they snatched up plots of land with visions of vast manufacturing growth dancing through their heads. Big companies like Brown Iron and Steel Company and South Works roared into operation in the 1870s. The area soon bustled with immigrants from Ireland, Poland and Italy, who moved there to work in the factories. It was inexpensive and convenient to obtain the iron ore from Lake Superior for processing in the South Chicago plants and as a result, South Works quickly became a world leader in steel production. (A bit of local trivia: South Works manufactured the steel that supports the Sears Tower and other Chicago skyscrapers.)
US Steel bought South Works in 1901, though the factory name remained the same. Even back in 1911, South Works employed 11,000 people. But it was a hard job, usually with 12-hour shifts, six or seven days a week, and safety regulations were hardly sufficient. Workers repeatedly held strikes, but it wasn’t until 1923 that the steel industry finally agreed to the more humane eight-hour day.
Fast forward half a century: The steel industry dramatically changed in the 1970s and ‘80s, as local manufacturers had international competition to contend with, coupled with less demand on the home front. Consequently, thousands of Chicago steel workers lost their jobs and South Works finally closed its doors for good in April of 1992.
The roar of machines may be gone, but city planners are now pondering the opportunities for the spacious undeveloped portion of South Chicago’s lakefront. The former site of South Works itself covers more area than the Loop and is nothing more than a large dirt-filled field with great potential for future development.