Before industry filled East Chicago’s Calumet neighborhood, children swam in a clean pond and the Grand Calumet River, picked flowers, caught green frogs and ate wild grapes and berries.

This pastoral picture, painted by historical accounts in a collection at the city library, quickly faded. Calumet, known at the turn of the 20th century as Mush-Rush or Oklahoma, already had been targeted by investors for industrial use.

During the approximately 100 years that have followed, the industrial factories that surround the neighborhood deposited the lead, arsenic and other contaminants that now pollute its soil and some of its residents’ bodies.

By the 1980s, state and federal regulators began testing the area and found evidence of contamination from industrial activities. After years of pollution, the Grand Calumet had become "too thick to navigate and too thin to cultivate," according to one historical account.

After an earlier Superfund proposal in the 1990s stalled, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed the entire neighborhood as part of the USS Lead Superfund site in April 2009.

More than 30 years after officials began to realize the scope of the pollution left behind by the Industrial Revolution, the East Chicago Housing Authority last summer told more than 1,000 residents living in a public housing complex built in the 1970s they must relocate because of extremely high levels of lead and arsenic in the soil.

That move has left the neighborhood’s other residents — living in homes built mostly before 1939 — wondering what the future might hold for them.

Early years

One of the earliest industries in the Calumet area was the Grasselli Chemical Co., which was built in 1892 just north of the Grand Calumet River and east of Kennedy Avenue. Grasselli, which was later purchased by DuPont, predominantly produced sulphuric acid for use, in part, at the Standard Oil Refinery.

East Chicago became a city in 1893.

Construction of the Inland Steel mill, a harbor, canal and housing for steelworkers began in 1901. The Indiana Harbor area, or East Chicago’s “Twin City,” increased nearly fourfold within 10 years, documents show.

In 1903, early land investors combined their holdings in the East Chicago Co. Albert C. Westberg joined the new land company in 1905, and began supervising the extension of the canal two miles south from the fork. The Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad opened around the same time, ushering in a new wave of industrial development.

The Delamar Copper Refinery began construction in 1906 on many of the buildings that later would come to be known as USS Lead at 5300 Kennedy Ave., according to EPA documents. The plant was converted in 1920 into a lead smelter.

Baldwin Locomotive announced plans in 1910 to build a plant in East Calumet, setting off a scramble for land. The factory was expected to create 15,000 jobs, according to figures published in May 1912 in the Hammond Times. East Chicago’s next largest employer, Inland Steel, employed 3,000 men at the time and was expected to add another 500 jobs.

Baldwin eventually decided not to build, and investors lost out. The area remained undeveloped for a time, serving as the pastoral backdrop described earlier in this story by Joseph M. Piekarczyk Sr., the author of one of the historical accounts on file at the East Chicago Public Library.

Grasselli Chemical Co. employed 500 men at its plant just north of the Grand Calumet River by 1910 and more than 1,000 by the middle of the Great Depression, documents show.

At the time, huge hills of lemon-colored sulphur piled up beside Grasselli’s brick red buildings, according to the Calumet Region Historical Guide. The company produced many insecticides — including lead arsenate — a product created by oxidizing pure lead and combining the powder with arsenic acid.

The East Chicago Co. sold 64 acres north of East 151st Street, just east of the canal, to International Smelting and Refining Co. in 1911.

International, a subsidiary of the Anaconda Copper Co., broke ground for the plant in 1912 and began operations the same year. Anaconda in 1912 advertised in the Hammond Times its three subsidiaries in East Chicago: the International Lead Refining, Anaconda Zinc Oxide and Anaconda White Lead plants.

E.B. Lanman Co. arrived in Calumet in 1911. Goldschmidt Detinning Co. — later known as Metal and Thermit Corp. — built a plant south of East 151st Street and east of the canal in 1912. U.S. Reduction Co. opened the same year just north of Chicago Avenue, between McCook and Melville avenues.

In 1913, Mother Maria Theresa Tauscher, of the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus Northern Province, founded the Carmelite Orphanage, 4840 Grasselli Ave., for young orphaned girls. Col. Walter J. Riley, a banker and developer of the Calumet neighborhood, was an early support of the orphanage. A park in the neighborhood still bears his name.*

After World War I broke out in 1914, many of East Chicago’s industries found labor in short supply. African-Americans and Mexicans began arriving in the city to work in the mills and factories, creating the densest population of Mexicans in the United States at that time, according to a Chamber of Commerce publication. 

In 1917, Grasselli built and provided housing just east of Kennedy Avenue on 151st Street for workers, records show.

A row of homes with “comfortable interiors” — provided for company officials — faced the maze of nearby railroad tracks. A second group of homes, built cheaply and quickly, also was erected for black workers, according to the Calumet Region Historical Guide.

Building boom

For the early part of the 20th century, East Chicago was, for the most part, synonymous with heavy industry and the roar of manufacturing plants.

By the 1920s, the city’s Chamber of Commerce turned its attention to better housing and parks to turn East Chicago into a livable community. Home building wasn’t easy in East Chicago, according to “Twin City: A Pictorial History of East Chicago, Indiana.”

“This was a considerable accomplishment, because transforming what some people called a waste of sand into a garden spot entailed hauling in and resurfacing the entire city with black dirt, and fertilizing trees in such a way that they would take root under the deep sand,” the publication reads.

About 55,000 people lived in the city by the 1920s.

A steel strike in 1919 led to racial tensions, after minority workers replaced white Europeans in the mill. Blacks lived mostly in areas near their jobs, including the Grasselli plant in Calumet, the American Steel Foundries and metal refining plants in New Addition and Calumet, and the Block-Pennsy area near Inland Steel, according to a chamber publication.

The Great Depression reduced demand for labor, and many found themselves out of work. American Legion Post 266 led an effort to pay the way back to Mexico for anyone who chose to go, according to a chamber publication. By late 1932, about 1,800 Mexicans had left East Chicago.

The sandy sloughs of the Calumet area had been covered with roughly 2 feet of backfill by 1939. A majority of the homes in West Calumet — which at the time encompassed the area bounded by Kennedy and McCook avenues to the east and west, and East Chicago Avenue and East 151st Street to the north and south — had been built, according to EPA documents.

Production increased during World War II, but in 1946 steelworkers went on strike again. The city’s black citizens also began to fight for their civil rights, “demanding to be seated anywhere in the local theaters, not just on the right-hand side, and seeking integrated participation in all school events,” a chamber publication reads.

International Smelting and Refining Co. conveyed the southern part of its property to the Eagle Picher Co. in 1946, according to records in the Lake County assessor’s and recorder’s offices. Eagle Picher continued to produce white lead for use in paint and other products until at least 1953, when it conveyed the land to Robinson Brothers & Co.

International conveyed the northern part of the property, the future site of Carrie Gosch Elementary School, to Mid-West Tar Products in 1949, records show. The land changed hands a couple of more times before Blaw-Knox Co., the owner in 1956, sold it to the School City of East Chicago after the nearby Garfield School burned down.

Blaw Knox, which also came to own the southern part of the site where the West Calumet Housing Complex was later built, sold that portion of the property to the East Chicago Housing Authority in April 1970, records show.

Urban renewal

East Chicago, like many cities in the U.S., experienced a bust during the Great Depression. Slum conditions and increasing demand for housing nationwide following World War II led to calls for changes in policy.

The Housing Act of 1949 expanded earlier urban redevelopment efforts and set a goal of building 810,000 public housing units within six years. It took about 20 years to reach that goal, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Housing Act of 1954 further expanded urban renewal programs, and that’s when East Chicago made its move.

The city and about 20 local industries established the nonprofit Purdue-Calumet Development Foundation, which opened its doors in 1955 and began executing urban renewal plans in the city’s Harbor section in 1960, foundation records show.

National public opinion began turning against urban renewal programs by the 1960s, with critics charging the policy led to increased segregation and more concentrated areas of poverty. At the time, the federal government paid two-thirds of the cost of redevelopment, and communities contributed the rest.

East Chicago pushed ahead. By 1968, the city had spent $9 million to acquire a total of 727 properties, including 689 by owner-agreement and 38 by court action, foundation documents show.

The Harbor project displaced 1,528 families, 299 “individual householders,” and 147 businesses by December 1968. Foundation records show 1,175 families, 242 individuals and 139 businesses accepted relocation help. About 64 percent of the relocating families chose to stay in East Chicago, records said.

However, the federal government signaled it would not approve further redevelopment plans unless the city built more housing for displaced families.

It was during these years that most of East Chicago’s public housing was built, including the lead- and arsenic-tainted West Calumet Housing Complex.

Many Calumet residents said they did not become fully aware of the extent of the contamination in their soil and homes and risks to their health until last summer, when the East Chicago Housing Authority abruptly announced more than 1,000 residents in the West Calumet Housing Complex must relocate. Since then, they’ve formed a number of community groups, lobbied politicians and established a Community Advisory Group to formally offer input on the EPA's cleanup.

Industry and investors no longer will determine their fate, they have said, as they push for answers and a cleanup that addresses all of their concerns. 

Times staff writer Lauren Cross contributed to this report.

* Editor's note: This story has been updated from a previous version. 

Correction: A story Monday contained incorrect information about the Carmelite Home in East Chicago's Calumet neighborhood. Mother Maria Theresa Tauscher, of the Carmelite Sisters of the Divine Heart of Jesus Northern Province, founded the orphanage in 1913. The Times regrets the error.


Public Safety Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.