Sunday, June 3, 2018

The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: The Joliet Munitions Plant

Blueprint of the southern end of the Joliet Arsenal from 1944. Tracing by H.J Cox
The Joliet Munitions Plant was opened in 1940 in anticipation of the United States entering World War II. It combined the earlier Elwood Ordnance Plant and the Kankakee Ordnance Works. During peacetime, the extremely large facility often sat disused, but was reactivated during times of war up until the late 1970's. Located between two major railroad lines (and a third that ran through it), it had a very large number of side tracks in it, used to transport weapons to aid in the war effort.
From the Chicago Tribune, "Jan. 20, 1958: A fully-automated shell-filling line designed and built by Mechanics Research Department of American Machine & Foundry Company for the Joliet Arsenal. Key stations along the assembly line were observed on five television monitors by a single-operator seated at a remote console. — Tribune Archive photo / Chicago Tribune, July 29, 2014"
Today, the land that the facility once was on is home to a very large and active Intermodal Transportation Center, Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which is what today's blog will focus on.

The Midewin came into existence in 1996, from land transferred from the Army to the US Forest Service. After subsequent land transfers, it has reached it's current size of roughly 20,000 acres, 1,200 of which include bison, which can roam in the otherwise unused land.
Entering from Route 53, this is the beginning of the Henslow Trail. Where I was standing leads to where railroad tracks once lay, but itself wasn't part of the railroad lines in the facility.

Looking Northeastward from 41.374917, -88.121577
It's amazing how much has been done to the site. It's also quite sad that if one weren't aware that they were on a former railroad right-of-way, there are few clues that let them know, with the exception of the bridge over IL-53.

The Henslow turns southwestward towards the IL-53 Bridge.

Somewhere, The Who's "I Can See For Miles" is playing.

Looking Southeast. The facility railroad tracks would continue in various areas for about five miles, all the way to the tree line. That tree line itself is the right-of-way of the former Wabash Railroad, and today's Wauponsee Glacial Trail.

Snapshot of the southeastern part of the bridge.

The Henslow was under construction when we went, as the wooden pilings were being replaced. It was necessary, given how rotted the old pilings were.

Looking east from the other side of the bridge.

Under these wood pilings, the railroad tracks are still there, albeit long abandoned. This is a little clue of their existence.

Under one of the rotting wood spots, I tried my best to get a pic of the railroad tracks underneath. You can kind of see the wooden ties, but no tracks in this view, sadly.

Looking from the south end of the bridge over Route 53. This is the original route of the former US-66, before 66 moved to a more westward alignment in 1940. That western alignment would be eventually upgraded to Freeway Standards, and become today's I-55.

I believe these tracks are owned by CN. There was a maintenance truck working on the day we went. 

West of the bridge, this land becomes part of the US Forest Service.

South of here, a group of roughly 50 bison call this area home. 

Leaving the park, one can see the bridge over IL-53 and the maintenance truck working.

As we were leaving, I found this spike next to the trail. Just another reminder of the days when this was more than a simple walking trail.
In the time of the Joliet Munitions Plant and it's immediate aftermath, this land was controversial. During the Vietnam War, protesters often attempted to block trains leaving the site. 
On the west side of the plant with it's former connection to the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad. From the Chicago Tribune: "April 16, 1973: Protesters stand on train tracks at Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, blocking a freight train for two hours. The protesters said they were members of the Religious Resistance against U.S. Imperialism and were protesting the bombing of Cambodia. Five people were arrested." — Roy Hall / Chicago Tribune, July 29, 2014
In addition, the transformation from munition plant to Federally protected prairie was not without controversy either, as a number of private industries vied for the land. The only successful one was the aforementioned CenterPoint Intermodal Facility, however.

The land was considered a Superfund site for a long period, given that explosives and shells were buried at the site following it's disuse. 

From the Chicago Tribune:"Jan. 24, 1994: An aerial view shows part of the 19,000 acres of the former Joliet Arsenal that eventually became the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie." — Tribune Archive photo / Chicago Tribune, July 29, 2014
While almost all the buildings are demolished from the site today, the farthest East area where, according to the blueprints, the Standard Fixed Ammunition Storage Area was located. 

Overall, I suggest visiting the Midewin site for yourself. It's sheer vastness is such that it really puts into perspective just how much land was needed to manufacture weapons. It's quite a beautiful hike or bike ride today. 

In addition, I would like to thank you for reading this article, and extend a special thanks to all the Forest Service volunteers at the site, who were out in full force, and were extremely helpful and friendly during our visit. It was how I was able to procure the copy of the blueprints for the site from the 1940's!

If you have any pictures or other information you'd like to share about the area, please do so in the comments! Thanks!


  1. Thank you for this information. The summers of 1966 and 1967 I worked as college summer help at the Arsenal. The first summer I worked unloading full box cars of 105mm howitzer shells made at the Baraboo WI foundry. Your picture of the train arriving with empty shells brought back many memories. The second summer I worked on the track gang. Uniroyal (the Arsenal contractor) hired 60 of us for replacing cross ties. The original ties from 1940 were still in place. At the end of that summer I could triple spike a 12 inch long spike with two others and not miss a stroke. Hard work but very rewarding. Thanks again!

  2. Neil,

    Thanks for your comment as well as your story about your college job here. It is the stories and memories of places which keep them alive, so thank you for your contribution to that end!

  3. Greetings. My name is Susan Boblitt and I am still going through my Dad's (William T. Bryant) misc. records and things since he passed away in 1993. He was in Joliet in 1940-42 and was fascinated with the building of the Arsenal during those years. (After the war, he was a research physicist for the Harry Diamond Ordnance Fuse Laboratory ). Anyway, he put together a scrap book of mostly Joliet Harold News articles that are quite interesting and which he kept the rest of his life. If there is anyone out there who would be interested in this scrap book please give me your name and mailing address sent to Thanks and regards, Susan B.