David Alanis is touching up his car in front of his house on 27th Street, talking to a few friends. As he slowly maneuvers a piece of cardboard and a spray can, there is a sudden burst of loud, booming sounds, and the entire street begins to shake and rumble. Moments later, a torrent of small gravel pellets and a cloud of chalky dust blow across the pavement, and everybody ducks to shield their faces. Everybody, that is, except Alanis.
“Don’t worry about it, it’s those trucks and a little rock slide,” Alanis says as he pulls down the brim of his Panama-style hat and adjusts his thick sunglasses. “We get this all the time, living next to the hole.”
“The hole” is a giant limestone cavern three blocks long, two blocks wide, and deep enough to support what looks like a small forest of mature trees. Known as Stearns Quarry, it’s located in the heart of Bridgeport just south of the Stevenson Expressway, between 27th and 29th streets and Halsted and Poplar. Locals like Alanis refer to it as “the quarry” or simply “the hole.”
“They say the quarry is over 100 years old, and that they started mining it right after the Chicago Fire, and that the stone from it helped rebuild the city,” Alanis says. “I know my father was working there in about 1931, and at that time the place was going full force, 24 hours a day.”
Alanis pauses, and there’s another faint rumbling in the distance. Then it becomes louder, as six semis packed full with large chunks of broken cement enter the quarry, which is now used as a municipal dump. They open their hatches and release probably tons of rocks, which go cascading into the hole. Once again the street seems to vibrate, and a cloud of dust blows overhead.
“Damn trucks get the whole house shaking like a peanut,” Alanis says. “Come racing through here at 50 miles an hour, God help the poor soul that gets caught standing in their way.” He then pauses and begins to gaze at the chain-link fence that surrounds the area.
“Of course when my dad worked here, from ’31 to ’46, they were dynamiting the place, and you had explosions going off all day,” Alanis says. “One day he got hit in the head with a rock, and they had to put a steel plate in his skull, but that didn’t slow him or the quarry down any. They would work all day, and at night they’d set up lights and torches and go around with a mule train, then tractors and a conveyor belt, scooping all the stuff up.”
Alanis puts down his spray can and points over to the northwest corner of the quarry, near 27th and Senour. Standing there is a weathered cement platform with an arrangement of rusted iron pillars; it must have worked as some kind of pulley system back when the quarry was in operation.
“They stopped digging here during the 50s when old man Daley wanted to make a fallout shelter here, and connect it to those railroad tunnels that flooded in the Loop,” Alanis says, gazing at the barren rock. “But nothing came of it, and they dug a little more, till around the time Daley died. [Actually, Material Service Corporation sold the quarry to the city in 1969.] About the time they stopped, you would see steam coming out of the hole, so they must have dug about as far as they could, and since then they have been filling it back up as a dump.”
Across the quarry there is quite a bit of dumping going on. A series of construction trailers has been set up near the entrance at Halsted Street, and just beyond there is a constant stream of large trucks on a wide gravel road. Every few minutes a truck releases its load into the pit. As the giant chunks of cement and rubble go cascading down the hill, they seem like mere handfuls of dirt being tossed into a cavern.
“I’ve seen some of the stuff they dump in here: giant marble columns from banks, terra-cotta facades, old statues. It was unbelievable where they got all that stuff.”
Alanis then looks back to the northwest end of the quarry, near the old loading dock. Looking west from the dock you can see a giant white limestone cliff rising from the floor of the quarry, like a misplaced piece of Bloomington, Indiana. Water has collected at the bottom of the cliff, forming what looks like a murky pond at its base.
“Towards the end of the time they were digging, and before they started dumping, it was pretty nice here,” Alanis says. “People would walk down and have picnics, and there was enough water for people to go canoeing by the cliff there. And when it snows, the cliff is really pretty in the winter. Otherwise it’s pretty quiet around here. No traffic, no crime, not many neighbors except the guy who lives over there, and he’s a hermit. Yep, I lived here for 23 years,” Alanis says, pointing toward his gray wood and tar-paper house, “and I plan to stay.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.