Unlike the fabled walls of Jericho, it takes more than blowing a trumpet to bring down the bunker walls at Midewin. Knocking down walls meant to withstand – or at least direct – accidental explosions of armaments requires big bucks and heavy equipment.
From a distance, the bunkers – or igloos or magazines – of Midewin seem sort of natural. Like moguls. Or glacial kames. To those with a literary bent, they blend into the landscape as seamlessly as Hobbit homes of Middle Earth.
Up close, it’s easier to see them for what they were – each one a mini-fortress to cure TNT and harbor bombs. Each bunker is made of concrete reinforced with rebar. The walls are 12 inches thick near the rounded top and flare to 15 inches at the base below ground. The theory was that in the event of an accidental explosion, the force of the blast would be directed upwards rather than to the sides, which would lessen the likelihood of a chain reaction among neighboring bunkers.
All the interior widths measure 26 ½ feet, but the bunkers vary in length – between 40 and 80 feet – depending on what was stored in them. The bunkers on the west side of Midewin – the site of the Kankakee Ordnance Works – typically harbored “various chemicals and compound products that went into the making of bombs and other armaments.” Bunkers on the east side – the site of the Elwood Ordnance Plant – generally held finished shells and bombs.
Topping off each bunker is a layer of soil approximately 2 ½ feet thick. This helps keep the interior at a constant temperature, which was as good for storing ammunition as it is for over-wintering prairie plants.
When Midewin was established as the nation’s first National Tallgrass Prairie in 1996, the US Forest Service inherited nearly 400 bunkers (along with about 1,500 arsenal-era buildings and related infrastructure.) To date, several bunkers have been demolished as part of an effort to restore a rare dolomite prairie.
Currently, the National Forest Foundation has secured the funding to help the Forest Service take down several more bunkers – the first of about 50 that need to be removed to restore a 2,000-acre inholding to its native prairie state.
Once this 2,000-acre parcel is restored, it will link existing restoration areas – South Patrol Road Prairie, Lobelia Meadows and Grant Creek – comprising the largest, contiguous stretch of tallgrass prairie in the entire state of Illinois.
Now that’s something to trumpet.