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A Brief History of Metalworking and Welding in Chicago
Chicago is home to some of the most skilled metal fabricators and welders in the industry. This is likely due to the rich history the city shares with the US metalworking industry, with Chicago’s famous iron and steel mills greatly contributing to the US iron and Steel industry boom of the 19th to 20th century.
Simply put, metalworking and welding is in the blood of many Chicagoans. You do not need to go far in the city to find someone with a relative that worked in the industry, with many fathers, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers having worked in the various steel mills, stamping plants, and fabrication factories in and around Chicago.
While the decline of the industry in the 1980s has led to the closure of most of the major industrial metalworking facilities, you will still find some of the best custom ironworks, metal fabricators, and welders in Chicago - there is simply too much history in the city for it not to be the case!
19th Century Chicago - The Start of the Steel Production Boom
For much of the 20th century, the steel and ironwork industry employed tens of thousands of people in and around Chicago. This massive industrial presence traces back to the mid-19th century, with the geographical location playing a huge role.
An abundance of iron ore deposits located in the Lake Superior area meant easy and affordable access to metalworking resources. Midwest metal mills in Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan could buy resources cheaper than most parts of the country, while their nearby location meant a steady and reliable source of materials.
As a result, during the latter portion of the 19th century, the population of Chicago exploded, growing from a relatively small town to a sprawling metropolis. During this period, countless metalworking businesses were located throughout Chicago, the largest of which manufactured rails for the emerging railroads of the United States.
Early 20th Century Chicago - Steel Manufacturing Employs Over 10,000 Chicagoans
By the beginning of the 20th century, Chicago’s metalworking mills were numerous, while the metalworking industry itself became much more diversified.
Chicago was not just making steel and iron - they were also manufacturing all kinds of metal goods, from automobile components to the skyscrapers appearing across the city’s growing skyline.
One of the major events in the history of the Chicago metalworking industry was the creation of U.S. Steel in 1901. This saw most of the independent iron and steel mills around the area become absorbed into a single corporate entity.
Following this, the subsidiary Illinois Steel was formed, which was responsible for employing over 10,000 metalworkers in Chicago. These employees worked at the South Works steel mill, possibly the most famous steel mill in the city.
Mid-20th Century Chicago - Unionization and Post-War Success
While the steel industry was now employing over ten thousands employees in Chicago alone, many of these workers faced long hours, low pay, and unsafe conditions.
This led to years of unrest as workers fought for better working conditions and against immigration laborers, punctuated by the Memorial Day Massacre, where 10 protesters were shot dead by police outside of the Republic Steel plant in the East Side of Chicago.
Unionization would soon follow, with the creation of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) in 1942. Now the largest steel worker union in the country, USWA had 130,000 members in the Chicago area alone!
By the end of World War II, the United States was making around half the world’s steel, and mills around Chicago were responsible for producing around 20% of this. As a result, Chicago remained at the heart of the US metalworking industry up to the 1970s, being home to all of the major manufacturing and fabrication processes, before the eventual collapse during the 1980s.
21st Century Chicago - A Smaller Industry with a Massive Legacy
Today, metalworking continues to have a strong, albeit smaller, presence in Chicago. There are custom ironworks in Chicago that manufacture on smaller scales, while various fabrication facilities are present in the area, utilising the latest innovative processes in modern metalworking.
While the industry is no longer at its peak, Chicago metal fabricators and welders take great pride in their heritage, embodying the hard work ethic that helped to establish an economic powerhouse and shape the history of the nation.