6.7 Miles and 2.5 Million Years Ago at Midewin

According to an app on my my iPhone, I took 18,594 steps today at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, totaling 6.7 miles. In truth, I went much farther than that. As I strolled through recovering prairie lands, I traveled back in time–through 1945 and the arsenal era, through the pioneer farmer era of the 1800s, all the way back to the time of the last glacier and beyond.

South Patrol Road Prairie in a snowless mid-February

In spite of the unseasonable, 70 degree temperature, the prairie doesn’t look like much in mid-February. It’s understandable how most people driving along historic Route 66, which runs through the middle of Midewin, are likely to perceive nothing more than dead weeds.

Oh, but before the prairie wakes is a perfect time to dive deeper into the history of Midewin. The dry, matted grasses make it easier to climb the steep slopes of munitions bunkers. This provides a bird’s eye view of the Joliet arsenal era. During the 1940s, hundreds of bunkers on the west side of Midewin harbored massive amounts of TNT and its component chemicals, while even more bunkers on the east side of Midewin held the end products–bullets and bombs that were shipped overseas in support of Allied troops fighting the Good War.

Before trees and shrubs leaf out, the remains of various pioneer homesteads are easier to spy. They lie tucked within overgrown copses–originally planted, no doubt, to provide the earliest settlers some protection from the prairie sun and winds. When the government forced the farmers to sell their land in order to build the arsenal, all the farm structures were either moved or razed, leaving nothing but their limestone foundation bones–memorial relicts, really, of those who first busted the prairie sod as far back as the 1830s.

Amid yet other leafless copses lie mounds of other kinds of stones. These are reflective of the pioneer settler era as well as the Pleistocene Epoch. In the process of plowing up the prairie, pioneer farmers found they also needed to clear their fields of massive granite boulders. Known as glacial erratics, these boulders were left behind by the mile-thick glaciers that last blanketed northeastern Illinois about 14,000 years ago.

As it turns out, placing your hand on a sun-warmed rock from so long ago pales in comparison to hearing the clarion call of a sandhill crane, which speaks to Midewin’s even more distant past as well as its future.

Sorry for the lousy pic–the crane came upon me so quickly and close that I couldn’t get focused fast enough.

The oldest sandhill crane fossil dates back 2.5 million years ago. Once threatened with extinction due to hunting and habitat loss, sandhill cranes continue to make a comeback. Over the past few years, as more and more of Midewin has been restored, flocks of sandhills–or sandies–have been regular visitors to Midewin, stopping over on their migration from Florida to Wisconsin and the upper midwest.

During this time,there has been a pair or two of sandhills that hangs around Midewin throughout the breeding season. No one yet has found a nest, but expectations are that it’s just a matter of time before this largest and most ancient of North American birds raises young again amid the “dead weeds,” better known as hundreds of species of native prairie grasses and flowers, at Midewin.

South Patrol Road Prairie in high summer herbage.

A View from the Bunker

010127 bunker 1

From a certain distance, they might be mistaken for haystacks. Or Indian burial mounds. Or Hobbit homes. Even up close, it can be a little hard to imagine them for what they are: storage bunkers for millions of bombs and a million tons of TNT. Harder still, perhaps, to imagine them returning to prairie.

The bunkers are relicts from the former Joliet arsenal, without which there would be no Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

120211 bunker field

Prior to the United States’ entry into WWII, the federal government launched a massive armament campaign. It built 77 ammunition plants all across the country, with six located in Illinois. The largest and most sophisticated combined facility was the one constructed just south of Joliet along historic Route 66. The federal government originally acquired more than 36,000 acres of farmland at a cost of $8.1 million. It laid down hundreds of miles of rails and roads, built more than 1,500 buildings, and constructed nearly 400 storage bunkers (or igloos as they were originally known) for an additional cost of $113 million.

120211 bunker side view

The bunkers were constructed of reinforced concrete and mounded with earth in such a way as to withstand and direct any accidental explosions upward rather than to the sides, which might ignite a chain reaction among surrounding bunkers.

120211 bunker interior

A small number of bunkers have been removed from one wetland restoration area, but the cost of dismantling structures that were built to withstand concentrated bomb blasts is, as you might imagine, prohibitive. In the mean time, they are a good place to escape the bitter winds on such a sub-zero wind chill day as today. Even more importantly, they provide a promontory from which to survey the dynamic interface between former farm fields, former arsenal land and future prairie.

120211 bunker view pond
Across an access road to one of the bunker fields, some natural hydrology is reemerging; the likely result of failed drain tiles from Midewin’s agricultural past.


120211 bunker view osage orange
Bunkers aren’t the only non-native elements that need to be removed – the osage orange trees in the foreground are “volunteer” escapees from hedgerows planted by pioneer farmers prior to the establishment of the arsenal.