Nearly 60 years ago to the day, an explosion at the Elwood Ordnance Plant killed 48 people. The force of the blast was so great that only 32 bodies were recovered. Today, a group of birders young and old enjoyed a close-up look at a heron rookery that lies within the shadow of the blast site.
There’s much of Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie that is open to the public to explore at will. There remain, however, certain areas that are accessible only on guided tours. Today’s tour of a heron rookery takes us into one of the restricted areas. Our first stop was near an old arsenal-era power plant. While our bird guides – John Baxter and Lee Witkowski – searched for rare loggerhead shrikes in Osage orange trees that grew along an old arsenal-era road, I heard green frogs calling from a flooded stairwell in one of the arsenal’s several power plants.
Our caravan continued deep into the west side of the former Joliet Arsenal, where many structures from the old Joliet arsenal still remain. Among those buildings is the re-built Building 10, Group II, “where anti-tank mines and anti-tank mine fuses were packed into shipping crates and then loaded onto railcars.”
As I wrote in the current issue of Illinois Heritage, “On June 5, 1942, at 2:45 a.m., an explosion destroyed this building and three train cars. The force of the blast was so great – each mine had an explosive weight of 62,600 pounds of TNT – that only 32 of the 48 bodies were recovered, with 16 officially declared as ‘missing.’ The blast injured another 64 persons. Windows shattered 22 miles away in Kankakee and the Chicago Daily Tribune reported that residents of Chicago – located about 60 miles way – thought there had been an earthquake. Espionage was ruled out, but the precise cause of the blast has never been confirmed.”
A monument to the fallen workers stands at the entrance to the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery. But here, where the blast actually happened, a bunch of birders are more intent upon a line of dead trees just up ahead. Atop nearly every tree is a big nest of sticks measuring up to 4 feet across. And in nearly every nest is a fledgling great blue heron. Or two. Or more. The sky is dotted with adult herons foraging for food for their young ones.
And in a nutshell, that’s Midewin today – relicts of the arsenal past side by side with nests full of feathered hope for a future filled with restored nature. And people relishing both.