West Chicago: founded around a railroad junction, host to Big Boy, and a missed opportunity to be a railroad tourist center

On Sunday, I had a vision of the suburb of West Chicago. Thousands of people regularly visited the community to see railroad displays and learn about the influence of the railroad on local history, the Chicago region, and the nation as a whole. Both regular and special trains drew onlookers. Local businesses, some with railroad themes, some not, benefited from extra visitors. Even as the car has dominated suburban life for decades, West Chicago remained an exciting testament to the power of the railroad in American life.

This vision may seem outlandish on a regular day but not so this past Sunday. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, Big Boy, one of the largest locomotives ever built, spent several days parked at the Union Pacific facilities just outside downtown West Chicago. On a hot summer Sunday, a large crowd gathered to see the locomotive and several passenger cars. Multiple generations turned out. People waited patiently to walk through one of the passenger cars. People stood next to the giant Big Boy and cheered when it released steam.

BigBoyOverhead

A community roughly thirty miles west of the heart of Chicago’s Loop, the community was founded as Junction around a railroad junction linking several other lines to the first railroad line in and out of Chicago (the Galena & Chicago Union). Workers came for railroad jobs. Factories and industrial facilities located near the railroad lines (including the later-arriving Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway). The community developed an identity around the railroad, with a Main Street that backed up to the railroad, the annual Railroad Days celebration and the prominent locomotive on the city seal. If there is a Chicago area suburb that can claim the railroad as its own, it is West Chicago.

Why doesn’t the suburb attract more visitors with such a rich railroad past? It may not be for a lack of trying. A display on Main Street featured a locomotive for a few decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, local groups developed plans to create a downtown railroad theme with one committee member saying West Chicago could become “Railroadsville, Illinois.” In the late 1980s, DuPage County planners said a railroad theme had great potential to offer something unique to families and visitors.

These efforts never quite came together. The suburb still benefits from its multiple transportation advantages – the railroad, DuPage County Airport, proximity to multiple major roads including Illinois Route 59, Illinois Route 64, and Interstate 88. But, the Illinois Railway Museum is located miles away to the northwest. West Chicago’s downtown struggles. The most attention many suburban residents pay to the railroad involves impatience when roadways are blocked by long freight trains or regular passenger trains.

When Big Boy leaves later this morning, perhaps it takes with it any hope that West Chicago can become a railroad tourist center. There is a minor chance it could happen; West Chicago has a history to build on. There is a market: thousands of visitors came out to see Big Boy. However, it would take sustained effort, resources, and some good timing.

Update 7/31/19: An estimated 45,000 people visited West Chicago to see Big Boy.

I lived in a suburban house with radioactive thorium in the front yard

The first home my parents purchased was on the southwest side of West Chicago, a small suburb in the western part of DuPage County. While the community was the known for the railroad, industry, and a sizable population of Mexican residents, what we did not know was in the ground in our front yard also came to define the suburb.

The 1954 ranch house on a quiet street with no sidewalks was relatively unassuming: the home was just over 1,200 square feet, had a one car garage, three bedrooms, and a decent-sized yard. The self-contained subdivision was near a grocery store and some strip malls and was a ten minute car ride from the suburb’s downtown.

WestChicagoHouse.png

When my parents went to sell the home in 1988, a discovery was made: the front yard had radioactive material from a local plant. A Chicago company produced lanterns and opened a facility in West Chicago in 1932. The radioactive waste material from the plant, thorium, was then offered to the community as fill. The city and residents took the fill and used it all over the suburb. The plant was later acquired by Kerr-McGee and when the radioactive thorium was discovered throughout the community (after years of struggle), a good portion of the community became the Kerr-McGee Superfund site and the last of the contaminated soil was removed in 2015.

This front yard revelation had implications for selling the home: no one would want it. Supposedly, the radioactivity in the front yard was enough to equal that of an x-ray if someone sat between the two trees in the front for 24 hours. Eventually, Kerr-McGee purchased the home and years later, many yards on that street were torn up to remove the radioactive material.

It is hard to know if the radioactivity had any effects on those of us who lived in the house. Nothing obvious has emerged yet. We may have emerged unscathed. It was not Love Canal. Perhaps this could be considered an odd footnote in a suburban upbringing. Yet, at the same time, few suburbanites would expect to find they had purchased radioactive land. Furthermore, few Americans have a personal connection to a decades-long and costly fight to clean up and remove (this cost an estimated $1.2 billion alone) radioactive thorium.

West Chicago in the news for the wrong reasons

Few of the scores of Chicago area suburbs receive national attention. Even more rarely is the spotlight turned on West Chicago, a more working-class, diverse, and railroad-based suburb roughly 30 miles west of the city. The local suburban headlines tell the story:

WestChicagoHeadlineAug1718DailyHerald

And even the DrudgeReport took note (middle column, sixth headline down):

WestChicagoHeadlineAug1718

This is not what any suburb wants. Tales of suburban violence go against everything suburbs supposedly stand for: good places to own a home and raise a family. Such a horrific headline might be easier to accept if it came from the big city but not a suburb.

Additionally, West Chicago has other issues in its past to overcome. Its distance from the city and an interest in attracting firms prompted city leaders in the late 1800s to change the name of the community from Turner to West Chicago. (This gets at the DrudgeReport headline above: West Chicago may be in Chicagoland but it would be a huge stretch to link the suburban violence with criticism of the city of Chicago and mayor Rahm Emanuel’s efforts regarding violence.) A long-time industrial firm ended up creating a Superfund site spread throughout the suburb and hundreds of properties needed remediation from radioactive elements in the late twentieth century (see my published piece “Not All Suburbs Are the Same.”) Tension between white residents and Mexican immigrants occasionally flared with discussions of English-only ordinances and changes to bilingual education options in the local schools.

Put this all together with a negative reputation in DuPage County and the surrounding area as a community that is poorer and less attractive that others and it may be hard to find good news in the media about West Chicago. This has not stopped numerous civic leaders and residents from doing good things in the community. Yet, it can be hard for a suburb to develop a positive wider reputation.

Thorium contaminated soil out of West Chicago; still groundwater

Earlier this week, the last thorium contaminated soil was shipped out of West Chicago:

After more than 30 years and $1.2 billion worth of cleanup work, the final rail cars filled with contaminated materials from the former Kerr-McGee factory site in West Chicago have been shipped out of town.

Mayor Ruben Pineda said the occasion is cause for celebration. On Tuesday, he gathered with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, Weston Solutions, DuPage County and other organizations that have helped with removing thousands of pounds of thorium waste produced by the factory. They watched the rail cars head to Utah, where the materials will be buried in the desert.

However, this is not the end of the thorium saga:

Although the soil is gone, city officials said they are waiting for the federal government to provide about $32 million to resolve issues with the contaminated groundwater at the site.

“We still have a lot of work to do out there,” Pineda said. “If we were to get (the $32 million), we could finish the project relatively quickly and (the factory site) would turn into a beautiful park.”

Both parts of this process – removing the soil and finding the funds to completely finish the job (see earlier posts on the long search for funds) – have been lengthy.

With an end in sight, I wonder how long it will take for the idea that thorium is part of West Chicago’s character to dissipate. This has been an ongoing issue for over four decades and this industrial, working-class suburb has often attracted certain attention because of the radioactive material. But, once the thorium is gone for good, those who lived in the community will move away or pass on and newer generations have little or no understanding or experience with this part of the community’s past. Will the community want to remember how it came together to get the thorium out or would it be better to just forget the whole episode and its negative connotations?

Looking for $30 million to finish thorium cleanup in West Chicago

The decades-long fight over thorium cleanup in West Chicago may be nearing an end – if the federal government provides the needed final $30 million:

After officials spent decades and roughly $1.2 billion cleaning area sites polluted with radioactive thorium waste from the former factory, the environmental response trust overseeing the work is in jeopardy of running out of money because it hasn’t received federal funding since fiscal 2008…

So while bulldozers were moving soil Tuesday on the roughly 60-acre property, part of the site remains contaminated. Officials estimate it will cost $30 million to clean it.

The hope is to get the money from the Department of Energy’s Title X program, which provided reimbursements to West Chicago for previous work…

All that remains is to remediate one residential property and part of the old factory site. The cleanup of the residential property will be completed this year, officials said.

This has been a long saga from the functioning facility that built items in the mid 1900s but then made contaminated dirt available to property owners throughout the city, officially discovering the radioactivity in the 1970s, to extensive cleanup of properties and lots of dirt shipped to Utah. While one could celebrate the persistence of local residents and leaders, it is also a cautionary tale about how many resources it takes to rectify such pollution. It isn’t just about the money but also about the time (several decades involving recognizing the problem, securing funding, and then the time for actual cleanup) and reputation (imagine considering West Chicago as a potential community to move to knowing that there is radioactivity in the community). It is this long view that is often missing in public discussions of the environment – and pollution seems like it has clear consequences, particularlly compared to other topics like the rancor about global warming – though it is admittedly difficult to foresee some of these dangers at the time.

Another chance for DuPage County Board to review proposed mosque near West Chicago

A federal court has given DuPage County officials another chance to review a proposal for a mosque near West Chicago:

Islamic Center of Western Suburbs in August filed the lawsuit claiming that DuPage discriminated against the group by rejecting its request to use a house at 28W774 Army Trail Road as a religious institution. The legal action was taken after DuPage County Board members on May 8, 2012, voted 15-3 to deny a conditional-use permit.

Then in March, DuPage lost a similar lawsuit filed by another religious organization. That prompted a federal judge to give the county and Islamic Center of Western Suburbs a chance to resolve their dispute.

The neighbors to the property are still not happy about the proposal:

Still, neighbors remain strongly opposed to the conditional-use request. About 50 of them attended Monday night’s public hearing.

Several of the neighbors voiced concerns about the possibility of flooding, increased traffic and lower property values. They say the house should remain a single-family home.

“We have a right to enjoy our properties without the intrusion of a commercial property butting into our neighborhood,” said Laura Wiley, who lives adjacent to the property. “It is changing the landscape of our neighborhood. It is going to inhibit our personal enjoyment of our property.”

Sounds like a typical NIMBY situation: the neighbors say the property will harm their quality of life while studies by the group bringing the proposal suggest there will be few issues. I’ve just been reading Colored Property: State Policy and White Racial Politics in Suburban America and there seem to be some parallels here. Suburbanites continue to make an economic, rather than racial, argument that they should be able to defend the value of their hard-earned property versus what they view as intrusions.

What happens if the DuPage County Board rejects the proposal again? The article suggests the Board can’t really do that as a similar case in Naperville (see here) has moved forward and the Islamic learning center will be built. So, it will be interesting to watch this upcoming vote…

Update on radioactive thorium cleanup near West Chicago

The Chicago Tribune has an update on the thorium cleanup in western DuPage County. The story provides an overview of the issue: a rare earths plant in West Chicago closed down in 1973, leading to a long battle between the company that had acquired the facility and different government bodies to get the radioactive thorium removed. Here is where there is still some thorium awaiting cleanup:

About $21 million is needed for work scheduled this year on the West Branch of the DuPage River and an adjacent creek, officials say. But more than a third of that is still up in the air.

“We are so close to being at the finish line,” said John “Ole” Oldenburg, director of natural resources for the DuPage County Forest Preserve District, who has been working with Naperville, Warrenville and other local municipalities along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the cleanup since it began in 2005…

Cleanup has occurred along 7 of the 8 river miles where thorium was identified, including Kress Creek and the West Branch of the DuPage River from the West Chicago Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant to the northern end of McDowell Grove County Forest Preserve in Naperville. Three sites remain: an area near Bower Elementary School in Warrenville, part of Kress Creek that runs under the Illinois Highway 59 bridge and a part of the forest preserve…

The river and creek constitute one of four sites in DuPage County designated by the federal government as Superfund sites, all of which were left in the wake of the Rare Earths Facility. Work at two of the sites has been completed, and remediation efforts continue at the site of the factory.

Hopefully this gets cleaned up soon so these suburbs can put this story behind them.

Here are few things that are understated in this story:

1. While the article suggests there wasn’t much scrutiny until 1976, there were signs in earlier years. At several points, residents complained about various issues (plants dying, for example) and the city was also worried about contaminated water. But no one knew the full scope of the problem until a bigger investigation was started and then radioactive waste was found on many properties in town that had once used the fill-in material with thorium waste offered for free by the facility.

1a. I’ve never seen the story about an “unnamed tipster” alerting people to the radioactive waste. What I do know is that a West Chicago resident filed a civil suit in US District Court in July 1976 questioning the competence of Kerr-McGee in properly handling the radioactive waste.

2. There is not much mention of the protests and legal wrangling over the issue between the mid 1970s and late 1980s before the Thorium Action Group (TAG) came on the scene. A small early 1980s protest consisting of roughly 50 to 100 people marching through the town even drew the attention of the New York Times. The court case bounced around as the courts sorted out who was responsible for regulating the clean-up (with national, state, and local governments all involved).

3. The negative effect the radioactive waste had on West Chicago’s image. One Chicago media source dubbed West Chicago the “radioactivity capital of the Midwest.” It wasn’t until plans for removal came together in the early 1990s that West Chicago was able to start turning a corner.

4. Something hinted at the article as officials think “the thorium does not pose an immediate public health risk”: one of the issues in the last two decades of cleanup has been the adoption of stricter standards for “acceptable” radioactivity. This has led to more cleanup sites and even repeat cleanup sites.