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The Closing of The Mills

A web documentary told through Museum objects saved by Southeast Chicago residents


“When [the steel mills] left, there wasn’t anything that easily replaced them that paid a living wage. You might have gotten malls... but they just didn’t pay what [the steel mills] paid. They just don’t. I would say we’re sort of a reflection of that... like a mini-representation of what’s happened throughout the country itself.”
Peggy Salazar
Southeast Chicago Resident

The Calumet region of Southeast Chicago and Northwest Indiana was once one of the largest industrial corridors in the world.

For a century, steel mills dominated the landscape.


Peak Employment

at larger steel mills from after WWII to present

(hover over the mill names and areas)

Numbers are calculated from peak employment figures, generally reached in the 1950s and 60s, as noted in historical sources. Mill names changed over time.

Beginning in the 1980s, the steel mills began to close. over 100,000 jobs were lost since the height of the industry.

“Last Days of US Steel South Works”
Joe Jenczmionka and Hector Martinez
VHS home video, 1992

Workers could get fired for taking pictures in the mills.

But when the mills closed, some brought their video cameras to document the last days.

“Last Days of US Steel South Works”
Joe Jenczmionka and Hector Martinez
VHS home video, 1992

Today, Museum visitors can view these video tapes to reflect on that past.

“They had rumors that it was going to close up, but none of us actually believed it.”

A Job Like No Other

After the steel mills opened in the late 19th century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants and migrants came looking for jobs in the Calumet region.

The mills were a cauldron of fire, heat, and molten metal.

Workers from different backgrounds came together in this tumultuous mix.

The hardships of the steel mills were legendary. Accidents and even deaths were common.

Osborne Ferguson
Former Steelworker
Acme Steel

“Ever been in a mill? They’re deafening. And we used to work on the cranes exchanging cables and motors. It was so dusty there. We didn’t have no mask; we didn’t have none of that. That came after, but at the beginning, we used to spit that graphite for days.”
Francisco Ramos
Former Steelworker, Republic SteelText Only

“The first day I went up there, I had on a shirt, no undershirt, pants, just regular... the heat hit me and it just—it burned me... when I got through, I was wringing wet. When I ate my lunch, I just sat on the steps. I couldn’t go downstairs... That’s the way they broke you in.”
Osborne Ferguson
Former SteelworkerText Only

The intensity of the job forged a deep camaraderie among workers. But sometimes tensions could simmer and boil over.

Historically, mill managers pitted different ethnic and racial groups against each other to keep workers from unionizing and wages low.

“Unfortunately, people were deliberately, by steel mill barons taught to live in their areas and that they thought by keeping the other guy down—African American or, or the women or whoever, Irish. They had signs for the Irish. We hire no Irish here, no Irish need to apply.”
Dorine Godinez
Former Steelworker

Workers in some groups would also try to control access to better paying jobs at the expense of others.

“I went to work that night, and I'm looking on this particular shift—I'm saying to myself, Jesus, I was the only black guy on this shift, you know. [laughs]… They did not want to teach you jobs. I mean, if they was doing things and you were working with this guy, he wouldn't show you. So basically, if you just sit around and didn't try to learn what they was doing, you would never learn.”
Jessie Brown
Former Steelworker, Republic Steel

Race in the Mills

District 31 Women’s Caucus union leaders, 1978
Alice Peurala, President of Local 65 at South Works, in center

Women also had a tough time breaking into mill work. By the 1970s, however, they were a growing presence.

“I was taught to work and work hard. If it was two shovels for a man’s one, that’s what I did.”

Women in the Mills

Sometimes workers found ways to come together despite the divisions.

The unions were the main route.

Gilbert Garcia
Former Steelworker, US Steel - South Works

“The steel industry in the ’70s, you could earn a nice living and support your family. You had good benefits, vacation, insurance. If you got laid off, you had unemployment benefits. And it was a union job, which I liked very much.”
Vic Storino
Former Steelworker, Republic Steel

“I can say that there were bad days, but as a whole it was a good place to work... Even those that we weren’t friends when we worked, when we’d come across each other at our picnic or something like that, we’d hug.... it was like a family, really, and I always told my wife, ’You know what? This is my second family at home. That was my first one there [laughing].’”
Alfred Fleischer
Former Steelworker, Republic Steel

“I had a lot of friends in there. I kind of miss them... what can I say? There were good times in there... We had Christmas... we would bring food into the shop. We had retirement parties. Beautiful... That’s now fading away as years going on. The mills begin to close, that’s what I remember most.”
David Ventura
Former Steelworker, US Steel - South Works

A World Turned Upside Down

Job Loss by County*Source: US Dept. of Commerce and US Census Bureau

1 - 1,000

1,001 - 5,000

5,0001 - 10,000

10,000 - 539,357

The experience of the Calumet region wasn’t unique. Over the next few decades, virtually every part of the U.S. lost industrial jobs.

Between 1980 and 2014, 7 million industrial jobs were lost in the United States.

The reason why each mill closed was different, but corporate restructuring, growing global competition, and changing government policies were key.

Why did they close?

Each mill in Southeast Chicago had a slightly different story.

(hover over the mill names)

--> -->

The mill closings and layoffs caused more than economic hardship. They undermined families and gutted neighborhoods.

View Notes from Unemployed Steelworkers

Vic Storino
Former Steelworker

Even in Indiana where some mills survived, most jobs disappeared.

“You know we look at the soup kitchens from the thirties, that was us in the 80s.”

Some workers spiraled downward. Others fought the closings.

At Wisconsin Steel, laid-off workers formed the “Save Our Jobs Committee.”

Frank Lumpkin
Former Steelworker - Wisconsin Steel
Save Our Jobs Committee Leader
March 1989

"Save our Jobs" Committee Button
(as seen on Frank's jacket)

They were fighting the aftermath of a questionable company buy-out that helped bankrupt the mill.

After the abrupt shutdown, workers not only lost their jobs, they lost their pensions, health insurance, last paychecks, and other benefits owed to them.

Save Our Jobs Panel Discussion, 1988

The Save Our Jobs Committee filed lawsuits alleging Wisconsin Steel’s buyout was a ’sham’ transaction designed to defraud workers of their pension fund.

Save Our Jobs meetings also offered a social lifeline for unemployed workers facing isolation and depression.

After thirteen years of a David-and-Goliath struggle, the Save Our Jobs Committee won both lawsuits.

Although they won back a fraction of the lost wages and benefits owed to Wisconsin steelworkers, many workers didn’t live to see it.

By that time, over 800 had died, many from lack of healthcare, stress-related illnesses, alcoholism, or suicide.

In the years following Wisconsin Steel’s closure, tens of thousands more jobs disappeared in the region.

By the time steelworkers at South Works made their videotapes, there were only a few hundred employees left at the mill.

It was the end of an era.

When the mills were demolished, workers were there with their video cameras.

Some workers saved things to remember what was being lost.

Mike Yekich, James Stapay,
Joe Butler, Big Joe Jenczmionka

USX-South Works panel discussion
March 1992

hover over grid items

Knowing the Past,
Facing the Future

In many places like Southeast Chicago, the good jobs never returned.

More and more industrial jobs have become non-union, contract, or temp work – or have been automated away entirely.

But some old union hands in the Calumet region are leading the fight to create good jobs for the next generation.

“… unions don't fight just for themselves. Cause when we benefit, everybody else benefits too when it comes to wages, benefits, and opportunities.”
- Rose Rodriguez
Former Steelworker

Resident mediamaker Steve Walsh talks to his grandfather Coco Gomez about working in the mills and the differences between their generations.

The South Works mill where the workers videotaped their last days is now known as Steelworker’s Park.

The walls were so massive, bulldozers couldn’t knock them down.

People from Southeast Chicago still come here to remember.

We asked residents of the Calumet region to leave a message on the wall.

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Explore other artifacts by browsing the archive
or visit the featured curations.

PRODUCED BY: Christine Walley, Chris Boebel


STORY NARRATIVE: Chris Boebel, Christine Walley, Jeff Soyk, Paige Mazurek

WRITER: Christine Walley w/ Chris Boebel

PROJECT MANAGERS: Christine Walley, Jeff Soyk


RESEARCH: Christine Walley, Rod Sellers



VIDEO EDITING: Chris Boebel, Paige Mazurek

FOOTAGE FOR OPENING AND CLOSING VIDEOS: Chris Boebel, Steve Walsh, Lucid Creative Agency

ADDITIONAL FOOTAGE AND INTERVIEWS: Rod Sellers, Steve Walsh, Matt Goetz, Lucid Creative Agency


GRAPHICS: Jeff Soyk, Sasha Goldberg

SOUND DESIGN: Billy Wirasnik


ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: Thanks to the Calumet region residents who donated artifacts relating to the steel mills and/or their closing or downsizing to the Southeast Chicago Historical Museum. Museum Director Rod Sellers (in conjunction with Metropolitan Family Services) conducted oral histories with former steelworkers during 2005-6. We are also grateful to steelworkers who were interviewed more recently at the Museum: Wes Bueno, Dorine Godinez, Rose Rodriguez, and Roger Gomez. Although Big Joe Jenczmionka has passed away, we received feedback on this storyline from former steelworkers Vic Storino (Republic), Bill Alexander (Acme), Dorine Godinez (Inland), and Bob Sarnowski (US Steel – South Works). Steve Walsh/Lucid Creative Agency and Chris Boebel shot the video of Wes Bueno at the Museum and South Works ore walls. Steve and Omni Media and Marketing conducted the interview with Roger Gomez. Christine Walley and Matt Goetz/Lucid Creative Agency conducted the interview with Dorine Godinez and Rose Rodriguez.



Documentary Films:

Boebel, Chris (dir) and Christine Walley
2017Exit Zero: An Industrial Family Story. (click to visit) 96 min. documentary film.

Walsh, Steve
2023A City Within a City. (click to visit) Feature-length documentary film.

Written Sources:

Bensman, David and Roberta Lynch
1987Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Mill Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Bluestone, Barry and Bennett Harrison
1982The Deindustrialization of America. New York: Basic Books.

Bogdanich, Walt and Michael Forsythe
2023When McKinsey Comes to Town: The Hidden Influence of the World’s Most Powerful Consulting Firm. New York: Anchor Books.

Brody, David
1960Steelworkers in America: The Non-Union Era. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Case, Anne and Angus Deaton
2020Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Clark, Gordon L.
1990“Piercing the Corporate Veil: The Closure of Wisconsin Steel in South Chicago,” In: Regional Studies (24): 405-420.

Dudley, Kathleen
1994End of the Line: Lost Jobs, New Lives in Post-industrial America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fonow, Mary Margaret
2003Union Women: Forging Feminism in the United Steelworkers of America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Geoghegan, Thomas
1991Which Side Are You On? Trying to Be for Labor When It’s Flat on Its Back, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

High, Steven
2003Industrial Sunset: The Making of North America’s Rust Belt 1969-1984, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

High, Steven, Lachlan MacKinnon, and Andrew Perchard, eds.
2017The Deindustrialized World: Confronting Ruination in Postindustrial Places. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Hoerr, John P.
1988And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Isidore, Chris
1990“ESOP Casts New Steel Roles” Gary Post Tribune, 1/15/90

Job Ownership LTD
1991“Struggling to Get Onto the Same Side: The Experience of America’s Republic Engineered Steels After a Union-Led Employee Buy-Out.” Research report.

Kornblum, William
1974Blue Collar Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Linkon, Sherry Lee and John Russo
2002Steeltown U.S.A: Work and Memory in Youngstown. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Linkon, Sherry Lee
2018The Half Life of Deindustrialization: Working Class Writing About Economic Restructuring. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Lumpkin, Beatrice
1999“Always Bring a Crowd!” The Story of Frank Lumpkin, Steelworker. New York: International Publishers.

Mah, Alice
2012Industrial Ruination, Community and Place: Landscapes and Legacies of Urban Decline. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Metzgar, Jack
2000Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Modell, Judith
1998A Town Without Steel: Envisioning Homestead. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Needleman, Ruth
2003Black Freedom Fighters in Steel: The Struggle for Democratic Unionism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Podmolik, Mary Ellen
“Sale of Steel Division Completed,” Southtown Economist, 12/1/89.

Putterman, Julie and the Steelworkers Research Project
1985Chicago Steelworkers and the Costs of Unemployment. Chicago: Hull House and Local 65, University Steelworkers of America.

Roediger, David R.
1991Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso. 2005Working Toward Whiteness: How America’s Immigrants Became White. New York: Basic Books.

Rudacille, Deborah
2010Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town. New York: Pantheon Books.

Schennum, Jill A.
2023As Goes Bethlehem: Steelworkers and the Restructuring of an Industrial Working Class. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Stein, Judith
1998Running Steel, Running America. University of North Carolina Press.

Taft, Chloe E.
2016From Steel to Slots: Casino Capitalism in the Postindustrial City. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Walley, Christine J.
2009“Deindustrializing Chicago: A Daughter’s Story.” In The Insecure American, eds. Hugh Gusterson and Catherine Bestemann, Berkeley: University of California Press.
2013Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Winant, Gabriel
2021The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.