Lemont’s quarries provide glimpse into history

September 23, 2009 at 06:30 AM

LEMONT (AP) - Today, you can wander along the banks of Consumers Quarry in Lemont and hardly see any signs of the industry that once flourished inside the deep, clear watery cavern.

Gone are the legions of laborers, the tons of equipment, the miles of transport track.

The dust has long settled on Lemont’s Heritage quarries, but their legacy lives on. Thirty-eight buildings constructed of Lemont limestone still stand in the downtown area. The famous Chicago Water Tower is made of the yellow rock. And the quarries’ history, rife with labor tension and tragic tales, remains an important chapter in the settlement of the southwest suburbs.

These days, the quarries are alive with a different kind of activity. Owned by the Municipal Sanitary District, the area is leased to the village to be used for recreation. The area is flush with flora and fauna as well as hikers, fishermen and tour groups.

“Every time I come out here, I think about how this area must have looked before settlers came, before the quarrying,” said Lemont native Doris Peterman, who is tour guide for the Lemont Area Historical Society. “It’s hard to believe you’re only 25 miles from Chicago.”

On a recent sunny morning, some 20 youngsters gathered for the first Heritage Quarries Tour for children. Accompanied by their parents, the children climbed on rocks, skipped stones and marveled aloud at the clarity of the water.

“Hey, I can see fish,” said 9-year-old Kurt Hillebrand, of Romeoville.

Louis Joliet and Father Pierre Marquette were the first to conceive of a canal connecting the Des Plaines River with the Chicago River.

In 1673, the French explorers wanted to travel up the Mississippi from New Orleans all the way to Canada by water, Peterman said.

They almost made it. They took the Mississippi to the Illinois to the Des Plaines River. But they had to portage over what is today Harlem Avenue to get to the Chic ago River and finally, Lake Michigan.

A canal, they figured, would enable travelers to get around the portage area and give them a straight shot through to the Great Lakes.

It would be almost two centuries, though, before such a vision would become reality.

While they were digging out what was to become the Illinois & Michigan Canal, mid-1800 immigrants struck dolomite.

Though hardly the equivalent of gold, the yellow, finer-grained limestone would launch the Lemont area into a new industry. And by the time the canal was completed in 1848, quarrying would become the top trade in town.

For decades, men toiled long hours, typically earning $1 a day, cutting away at the rock and hauling it off to points far and near.

But then the railroad came along and transporting materials became much faster and easier. The quarries closed soon after the turn of the century.

The first stop along the Heritage Quarries Tour is Ice Box Quarry, a sma ll pit that got its name from the refrigerator-size chunks ice harvesters would cut and haul into the streets of Lemont during the late 1800s and early 1900s, Peterman said.

“People used to like to swim in here on a hot summer day,” she told the group. They’d bring a picnic lunch and eventually jump off the rocks into the clear water.

“But there was a big problem with that.”

The quarry runs 60 to 90 feet deep and is filled with ice-cold spring-fed water. When a hot human being, sometimes brazened by alcohol, jumps into a super deep, ice-cold pool, cramping can occur.

“Many people drowned out here,” she said. “And today swimming is forbidden.”