Spring Break 2018: Restarting the Insane Abandoned Place Checklist.

When you can't go to the beach, you go to Savanna, IL.  It is on the banks of the Mississippi River. Or you go to Harvey. There was standing water in a basement of an old power plant.  Or is that just me?

I'm pretty sure it isn't just me. I might just be the only person you know who does it though.

After a great week with the kids, I had a little bit of time to go exploring. A long time ago, I wrote about eventually making my way to Thrillist's Most 28 Insane Abandoned Places in the Midwest. Here's the link if you need a refresher. 

https://www.thrillist.com/lifestyle/chicago/the-28-most-insane-abandoned-places-in-the-midwest

I've been slowly checking these puppies off of my list. I have more to visit, but I am happy with my  recent efforts. Ha.

These places can be checked off: 1. City Methodist Church in Gary, IN; 2. Damen Silos in Chicago, IL; 7. Joliet Correctional Center in Joliet, IL; 17. Searsboro Consolidated School in Searsboro, IA; 27. Alexian Brothers Novitiate in Gresham, WI; and 28. Solvay Coke & Gas Company in Milwaukee, WI (now demolished). 

And after this last week, you can also add two other great spots: 5. Wyman-Gordon Power Plant in Dixmoor, IL and 13. Savanna Army Depot outside of Savanna, IL.

Exciting, I KNOW! 

Both spots were definitely worth the research, planning, and in the Depot's case, a somewhat extreme effort, but both also came with a little risk-taking, so I guess what I am saying is that if you decide to go to either of these locations, make sure you research and think ahead. 

So actually, I want to show a little of what I found at the Savanna Army Depot location, which I found to be surreal. Let me say that I have actually been a little … scared … to go to this site, mostly because of what it was used for and because of what I read about it from beginning my research of it over two years ago. I decided to go actually go for it and to try to experience it for a couple of reasons.

First:

It was Easter. I don't have the kids every year. I hate sitting around all day, so instead moping, I have decided these are perfect days to go to places I usually don't have time to hit up.  I go early and take a long-ish trip to a place where I hope (and was correct this time) that I will be the only person around. This method of operation has it's advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage is that on holidays, most people are eating big meals with their families and friends, so it's a good time to explore a place that might usually be monitored carefully. The overriding negative is that if anything goes wrong and you're alone, you could be toast, especially without wireless service, WHICH I DID NOT HAVE FOR HOURS, and I have had service just about everywhere the last year or so. My provider is AT&T. Maybe it's different for other carriers. But this is doubtful. I was literally in the middle of nowhere. The good news is that I lived. So count that as a win for me.

Second:

I have a reason to go to some of these places now. I recently signed with a publishing company known for its photograph/history heavy titles. They are publishing a new series of books, "Abandoned America." I picked up Illinois and one other state. So, I have to get my a$$ going. The first draft is due July 31st for Illinois, and I know nobody thinks I have enough to do, so I added this little project onto my "to do" list. It's actually been a goal of mine to write a book - like my entire life - so this unsolicited opportunity came out of nowhere and actually fits with my love for exploring, history, writing, and photography. It also motivates me to get out and do something I love, and it's something I haven't made enough time for recently. It's also a valid reason to be exploring when explaining WHY I am at a location if questioned. It's exciting for me. And I want to thank my friends Dave, Chehalis, and Michael for helping me make some decisions regarding it. I'm so grateful. No idea how it will turn out, but I knew I needed to get to at least four more significant sites in Illinois in order for me to feel good about content, and this is one of them. 

A Tiny Bit of History and Context:

This place is so interesting to me. I often don't understand how there are some places out there that still exist, especially massive places with hundreds of buildings that are left to disintegrate. This is one of them.  I guess I do understand that cleaning this site up isn't necessarily a priority for the DNR, seeing as I read there is currently ONE full time employee overseeing the entire area. It makes sense because it is obvious that this is a place where not much money is flowing in effortlessly, and The Savanna Business Park is a little different than any other business park I have ever seen - no offense to anyone there. It's just the way it is. That's kind of unfortunate because the actual land sits overlooking the Mississippi River, and the land contains the largest natural dune system in the state of Illinois. It is 7.5 miles long and sits 70 feet above the river. The land is also known as the Lost Mound Unit of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. So far only around 3000 acres has been transferred, as the remaining acreage needs to be freed from environmental contamination and will be turned over when deemed safe. This could take forever though, because it is a long-term clean up plan, and the plan will supposedly be updated every 5-10 years through information gained by monitoring habitat, wildlife, and recreational use (www.fws.gov).

The Lost Mound is pretty intriguing too. It is this geographic oddity and is part of local folklore concerning a post-glacial hill set as the backdrop for the sand prairie found around it. Funny enough, "the mound did not appear on early maps of the region, however the lost 'mound' has since been found as is {now} featured on recent topographical maps" (www.fws.gov). This mound is super easy to find. It sticks up high above the rest of the land, although the area in general is hilly, and it is kind of oddly shaped and placed, but the land is aptly named, for sure.

Really quickly, the Savanna Army Depot had about 3 different titles from the time it opened in 1918 until the time it completely closed in 2000. It also had many different uses. This depot is often called the "Area 51" of the Army because of it's secret operations and missions, and because of it not being well known. It was also easy to confuse with other bases having "Savanna" or "Savannah" in their names. Savanna, OK; Savannah, SC; Savannah, GA … Savanna, IL? You get the picture. In basic terms, this place was used mainly as an ordnance, or a branch of the Armed Forces that deals with the supply and storage of weapons, ammunition, and other items related to that. This specific place was used to test and store different types of highly explosive and powerful ammunition such as 75 and 155mm howitzers, or short cannons that shoot on high trajectories in order to reach targets behind cover or within trenches. It was also used to produce, test, and ship out explosives during and after WWII. Later, it was also used as a U.S. Army Defense Ammunition Center and School that provided technical, logistical, consulting, engineering, training, and other types of specialized services to the U.S. Department of Defense. HAD NO IDEA, right? There are lots of interesting little facts about this little known of place, but one that sticks out to me is that this Depot contained a plant that loaded bombs and explosives during WWII, including the that were used in General James Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in 1942. Also, this area contains over 400 steel-enforced, earth-covered igloos with up to 2000 square feet of storage underneath  that were used to store such things as highly explosive ammunition, "mustard" gas, Ammonium Nitrate (actually over 260,000 tons of it for war reserves), and actually later and still today, data and computers. Crazy right? These are highly visible, all over the place, and are covered in grass so that they were undetectable by air. 

Needless to say, this land is highly contaminated. Scary too, is that there are said to be unexploded devices in some areas. That's what scared me most. I wore a respirator because I knew of the contamination, yes. I have heard many of the unexploded devices are taken care of, but you know, after being there, I'm not so sure. There are still signs explaining what to do when you happen to come upon one. Backwater areas are also still closed to the public due to "unexploded ordnance" being present, so I stayed far away from that space. I know 1948 was a long time ago, but there was actually and explosion that left a 150 foot wide by 50 foot deep hole you can still find. The 4 ton door from that steel-enforced igloo was never found. That says a lot.

It really is a beautiful location on the edge of the River, and it only took me 2 hours and 10 minutes to get there. Easy drive.

My start at the overlook at the end of the "public permitted" part of the Lost Mound Unit path. Cold but beautiful.

I've seen many shots of this Depot from the outside, and maybe a few shots from the inside of a barrack or a mess hall, but I have never seen what I got into Sunday. I'm not saying to do it yourself. I was actually relieved to get home, as I felt like I was constantly pumping adrenaline. It started as a pretty boring expedition actually, since I couldn't figure out where to go to find what I was looking for, and then it got frustrating because I wasn't seeing what I wanted to photograph. But, after I kept searching just "one more time" or for "one more thing," I finally figured some things out, and without getting into the details of how I accessed these things, I can only say wow. I am glad I went, but I am just as happy to have finished exploring it. I wanted to do more, and I could have done more because I basically had access to all that I wanted in the end, but I felt like I needed to get out of there. One thing I have learned through all of this abandoned hunting is to not push my luck. A lot of it is based on instinct, and my instincts were telling me to get out and to go home. So although there is a lot more to see, and I have a feeling it is a lot more of the same of what I will show, there is still a little curiosity there. It is such a huge area; it's hard not to be curious about what else there is out there. But I am done. I saw enough, and it was worth it.

If you look at the link to this map below, I was all over the place, but many of the most interesting shots came from within the CL and CF Loop Roads. The entire area  is over 14 miles long and over 2.5 miles wide, so I'm sure you can imagine how overwhelming the size is. The question for me was where to start.

https://www.bing.com/maps?osid=da2d1d2d-8124-46c5-9155-351f6031ba0c&cp=42.19038~-90.280748&lvl=16&style=h&v=2&sV=2&form=S00027

There is so much more history I have learned about this place, and it is really fascinating, but I'll save that for another time. 

Here's the easier-to-get-to stuff:

 Barracks. At one time, in 1942, over 7000 employees worked here. Many stayed here as well. Eventually the numbers of people employed and/or stationed here plummeted, and rather quickly.

Barracks. At one time, in 1942, over 7000 employees worked here. Many stayed here as well. Eventually the numbers of people employed and/or stationed here plummeted, and rather quickly.

Storage facility by tracks.

storage.jpg
 One of many dilapidated guardhouse easily found.

One of many dilapidated guardhouse easily found.

 The Headquarter Building, which is near the barracks.

The Headquarter Building, which is near the barracks.

 A guard station near the entry into the Depot.

A guard station near the entry into the Depot.

 A larger "recreational building." These are scattered all over the place.

A larger "recreational building." These are scattered all over the place.

 Another easily seen building from the publicly -accessible roadway.

Another easily seen building from the publicly -accessible roadway.

 This building is located within a barbed-wire fence, but it is easy to see.

This building is located within a barbed-wire fence, but it is easy to see.

 There are SO MANY of the long, rusted out buildings. They are unheated and not air-conditioned.

There are SO MANY of the long, rusted out buildings. They are unheated and not air-conditioned.

A little more challenging and interesting ...

So far, it was ok. Interesting, but if I didn't know why it was interesting, a pretty far drive for some crumbling buildings. Until I searched the grounds for about an hour. 

And then it got much better - on the outside and inside of the buildings.

This was an amazing place, but like I said, everything in me was telling me to leave. So I left the way I came. It was enough for me. I actually hope that someday this place is cleaned up properly. It is a beautiful area of Illinois, largely undisturbed, full of wildlife, and on a gorgeous riverbank. Maybe in the not-so-far future clean up will become more of a priority for the remaining 5000+ acres of land that can be transferred over once safe for public use.