Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie: The Site of the Former Joliet Munitions Plant and Arsenal

The Joliet Munitions Plant was opened in 1940 in anticipation of the United States entering World War II. It combined the earlier Elwood Ordnance Plant and the Kankakee Ordnance Works. 

Blueprint of the southern end of the Joliet Arsenal from 1944. Tracing by H.J Cox

During peacetime, the extremely large facility often sat disused, but was reactivated during times of war up until the late 1970's. Located between two major railroad lines (and a third that ran through it), it had a very large number of side tracks in it, which were used to transport weapons to aid in the war effort.

From the Chicago Tribune, "Jan. 20, 1958: A fully-automated shell-filling line designed and built by Mechanics Research Department of American Machine & Foundry Company for the Joliet Arsenal. Key stations along the assembly line were observed on five television monitors by a single-operator seated at a remote console. — Tribune Archive photo / Chicago Tribune, July 29, 2014"

Today, the land that the facility once was on is home to a very large and active Intermodal Transportation Center, Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, and the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, which is what today's blog will focus on.

The Midewin came into existence in 1996, from land transferred from the Army to the US Forest Service. After subsequent land transfers, it has reached its current size of roughly 20,000 acres, 1,200 of which include bison, which can roam in the otherwise unused land.

Entering from Route 53, this is the beginning of the Henslow Trail. Where I was standing leads to where railroad tracks once lay, but itself wasn't part of the railroad lines in the facility.

In an email about this blog, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie Archaeologist Joe Wheeler writes, "One of the factors the Federal Government considered when selecting the site of the Arsenal was transportation; and the land they bought would be more or less book-ended by the Wabash on the east, Santa Fe on the west, Chicago, Alton & St. Louis through the middle along Route 66A, so there were already three long-established rail lines. 

When the Arsenal was built, the Milwaukee Road reached a leasing arrangement with the Wabash and used the Wabash tracks south of Manhattan, and then built their own westerly-running spur along the south side of Hoff Road, on the northern boundary of the plant."

Looking Northeastward on the trail. 

It's amazing how much has been done to the site, as within its boundaries, there's very little context clues that anything other than a prairie existed here, let alone railroad lines and weapons manufacturing. 

The Henslow turns southwestward towards the IL-53 Bridge.

Somewhere, The Who's "I Can See For Miles" is playing.

While the site has (mostly) returned to its desolate prairie state, during World War II, this was anything but desolate. Wheeler notes, "inside the plant there were over 100 miles of rail laid in 1941. Almost all interior freight was moved on that system. It carried and distributed TNT (on the west side of Rt 53/Rt 66A) and components and finished munitions on the east side. 

There was even a passenger rail service unofficially called the “Tunerville (or Toonerville) Trolley” that transported workers. One of the engines for the interior rail line is at the Railroad Museum in Union, Illinois."

Looking Southeast. The facility railroad tracks would continue in various areas for about five miles, all the way to the tree line. That tree line itself is the right-of-way of the former Wabash Railroad, and today's Wauponsee Glacial Trail.

Snapshot of the southeastern part of the bridge.

The Henslow was under construction when we went, as the wooden pilings were being replaced. It was necessary, given how rotted the old pilings were.

Looking east from the other side of the bridge.

Under these wood pilings, the railroad tracks are still there, albeit long abandoned. This is a little clue of their existence.

Image: USDA Forest Service, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Thank you! Inside the former Joliet Munitions Plant, which has been converted into the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, this is what a former rail bridge looked like during trail reconstruction over Route 53. This photo was taken when the railroad bridge, which now carries the Henslow Trail, was re-decked. Now this single rail is under the deck.

The Ordnance Plant had its own internal newspaper, known as The Bombshell. The next two photos come from volumes of the newspaper, showing some of the railroad operations at the site. 

Image: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, USDA Forest Service

Image: Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, USDA Forest Service

Looking from the south end of the bridge over Route 53. This is the original route of the former US-66, before 66 moved to a more westward alignment in 1940. That western alignment would be eventually upgraded to Freeway Standards, and become today's I-55.

There was even more history in the area than I'd originally realized.

The bridge passes over the active ex CA&S Railroad. There was a maintenance truck working on the day we went. 

According to Wheeler, "if [one] were to look north from the west end of the viaduct, there is a clump of slightly taller trees. That is the location of the old “Hampton Station.” It had been a farmhouse on the west side of the Chicago and Alton tracks that was converted to serve as a country “station.”

West of the bridge, this land becomes part of the US Forest Service.

South of here, a group of roughly 50 bison call this area home. 

As we were leaving, I found this spike next to the trail. Just another reminder of the days when this was more than a simple walking trail.

In the time of the Joliet Munitions Plant and its immediate aftermath, this land was controversial. During the Vietnam War, protesters often attempted to block trains leaving the site. 

On the west side of the plant with its former connection to the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad. From the Chicago Tribune: "April 16, 1973: Protesters stand on train tracks at Joliet Army Ammunition Plant, blocking a freight train for two hours. The protesters said they were members of the Religious Resistance against U.S. Imperialism and were protesting the bombing of Cambodia. Five people were arrested." — Roy Hall / Chicago Tribune, July 29, 2014

In addition, the transformation from munition plant to Federally protected prairie was not without controversy either, as a number of private industries vied for the land. The only successful one was the aforementioned CenterPoint Intermodal Facility, however.

The land was considered a Superfund site for a long period, given that explosives and shells were buried at the site following its disuse. 

From the Chicago Tribune:"Jan. 24, 1994: An aerial view shows part of the 19,000 acres of the former Joliet Arsenal that eventually became the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie." — Tribune Archive photo / Chicago Tribune, July 29, 2014

While almost all the buildings are demolished from the site today, the farthest East area where, according to the blueprints, the Standard Fixed Ammunition Storage Area was located. 

This was a really neat trip that I suggest visiting yourself. Its sheer vastness is such that it really puts into perspective just how much land was needed to manufacture weapons. It's quite a beautiful hike or bike ride today. 

In addition, I would like to thank you for reading this article, and extend a special thanks to all the Forest Service volunteers at the site, who were out in full force, and were extremely helpful and friendly during our visit, and in subsequent communications! It was how I was able to procure the copy of the blueprints for the site from the 1940's!

If you have any pictures or other information you'd like to share about the area, please do so in the comments. 

Thanks as always for reading!


  1. Thank you for this information. The summers of 1966 and 1967 I worked as college summer help at the Arsenal. The first summer I worked unloading full box cars of 105mm howitzer shells made at the Baraboo WI foundry. Your picture of the train arriving with empty shells brought back many memories. The second summer I worked on the track gang. Uniroyal (the Arsenal contractor) hired 60 of us for replacing cross ties. The original ties from 1940 were still in place. At the end of that summer I could triple spike a 12 inch long spike with two others and not miss a stroke. Hard work but very rewarding. Thanks again!

  2. Neil,

    Thanks for your comment as well as your story about your college job here. It is the stories and memories of places which keep them alive, so thank you for your contribution to that end!

  3. Greetings. My name is Susan Boblitt and I am still going through my Dad's (William T. Bryant) misc. records and things since he passed away in 1993. He was in Joliet in 1940-42 and was fascinated with the building of the Arsenal during those years. (After the war, he was a research physicist for the Harry Diamond Ordnance Fuse Laboratory ). Anyway, he put together a scrap book of mostly Joliet Harold News articles that are quite interesting and which he kept the rest of his life. If there is anyone out there who would be interested in this scrap book please give me your name and mailing address sent to Susan.boblitt@gmail.com. Thanks and regards, Susan B.

    1. Hi Susan. I'm Joe Wheeler, the Heritage Program Manager and Archaeologist at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, USDA Forest Service. We would very much like to see your late father's scrapbook. Although we can't preserve everything on the ground at the old Joliet Arsenal, we try to preserve whatever records we can locate. Please email me at: Joseph.Wheeler@USDA.GOV. And Forgotten Railways, Roads & Places, if you or your readers would like to learn more, or share anything about the facilities, I would ask them to contact me too.

  4. What an amazing blog post! I was just there today taking photos of some of the buildings on the Group 61 site, and am only now realizing what came out of there! This is going to make a very fun YouTube video :)


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