If you do an online search for “Thornton Quarry tour,” here’s what comes up:
“The Village of Thornton, in conjunction with the quarry owner, offers two tours a year, on the first Saturday of the month in June and October. There is a $20 charge. Participants must be at least 18 years of age.”
And then this:
“Reservations are completely filled through 2021 and will not be accepted until further notice.”
In short, most of us shouldn’t get too excited about a quarry tour in the next five years.
From time to time, however, I do get excited about the quarry, arguably the most interesting bit of topography — both natural and manmade — in our pancake-flat suburban landscape.
Last year, my curiosity led, remarkably, to a quarry tour. And I didn’t have to get on a five-year waiting list. More on that in a moment.
First, though, let me make my pitch. I hope that it makes a certain amount of sense.
I believe that the Thornton Quarry has unbelievable potential as an attraction for our area and that it should someday be developed for educational and recreational purposes. I think the sooner that development starts, the better.
I am totally aware that the quarry is privately owned, currently by Hanson Material Service, and is a busy, successful mining site. I have read that mining operations will take place for at least 70 more years.
My purpose in making this pitch is not to say that the quarry should be open to tourism this year or, perhaps, even during the rest of my lifetime. But I believe that someone, somewhere should start making plans for the day when mining operations cease and that the quarry should eventually be made available for public use.
I believe the Thornton Quarry should ultimately become our very own version of a national park. Last year, when the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) opened a reservoir in the quarry’s northeast corner, there were a number of news stories calling it our region’s “Grand Canyon.” No one will ever confuse the quarry with the genuine Grand Canyon. However, like the national park in Arizona, the quarry can remind us of how big the world is, and how small we are.
The western edge of the Thornton Quarry is just behind a row of big box stores on Halsted Street in Homewood. Still, most of us are barely aware that it’s there. Tens of thousands of cars and trucks daily pass over the quarry on Interstate 80/294 but most drivers hardly notice it.
I’d like to think that someday the Halsted exit off I-80/294 will take you to a Thornton Quarry visitor center. That the geology of the quarry — which goes back 350 million years to a time when the limestone was part of a reef in a tropical ocean — will be on full display, along with exhibits on history of the mining operations. That hiking trails in the quarry area will be available for young and old alike.
Having gone down into the quarry, my belief in its future potential has only gotten stronger.
The quarry trip came about almost by accident. Last spring Patty and I went looking for somewhere we could get a good look into the quarry. We drove into Thornton and parked near Wolcott School, just north of Margaret Street. The quarry is fenced off next to a ball diamond but you still have a good view of what’s below. There’s an overlook but it’s also behind a chained gate.
If you look north, across I-80/294, you can see another overlook. We decided to see if we could get at it and drove north through Thornton, and toward South Holland.
The north overlook was also behind a locked gate. On our way, though, we discovered an MWRD tour group that had just returned from a visit to the quarry and the Deep Tunnel operation that was nearly completed and was slated to open during the summer as a flood control measure.
We introduced ourselves as H-F Chronicle staffers and made arrangements with Justin Brown, an MWRD public affairs specialist, to get further information and perhaps go on a future tour. Justin was kind enough to set up the tour. It took place about a month later and our story about the reservoir project appeared in the Chronicle last May 28 (see http://bit.ly/1UpyhoY).
I’ve seen YouTube footage of one of the official Thornton Quarry tours and, I admit, we didn’t get a close look at the mining operations. We did, however, get to go inside the 30-foot-high Deep Tunnel and that’s something I’ll never forget.
And we got a very real look at what the world looks like at the bottom of a 350-foot-deep quarry. There is a stillness down there that can barely be described. It is very quiet. You have the sense that you have taken a brief vacation from the rest of Planet Earth.
So … I think it is time to start thinking about making the quarry more accessible. How about a webcam? Or a viewing platform that’s open to the public?
I know this will not be easy. But it wasn’t easy saving Yellowstone or Yosemite or the real Grand Canyon.
This is our own remarkable geological site. It should be saved for those who follow us.
This column first appeared in the March print edition of the Chronicle.