You get into the Damen Silos through a hole in the wall. You’ll know you’ve found the right place when you spot the gaping entry, crumbling edges marking what was probably an explorer’s breach in the cement. What remains is a narrow entrance framed by plywood and concrete, a place that can only be accessed if you’re willing to abandon the outside world. Your feet will land in dust, soft and thin as it clouds around your knees and settles at your ankles. Your shoes add their own imprints to the existing tesselation of soles. Since there’s no way for the wind to reach inside the tunnels, they’ll probably stay there forever like footprints on the moon. If you go far enough, you’ll find them. In the farthest corner, against the back wall, cloaked in a chilly darkness that not even spiderwebs dare interrupt: a row of massive metal machines, a testament to the place this once was. With their various arms in eternal freeze frame, it’s difficult to imagine that these monstrous devices once rose to the silos’ peak. These steel pulleys are what makes the place an elevator. But before the Damen Silos became Michael Bay’s pyrotechnic playground or the first search result for “urban exploration in Chicago,” they were just the Santa Fe Grain Elevators. It’s been 186 years.
This was a different Chicago.
Without skyscrapers, the tallest structures in the city are these cylinders, 30 feet high. The people of the city are insanely proud of these primitive silos; what they hold might as well be gold. It’s only grain, but it’s the commodity that will define Chicago’s 19th century. The epicenter of agrarian America, the grain trade is the way to fortune. The way of the future.
The first iteration of the Damen grain elevators stands at an ideal intersection – round towers rising between the Illinois-Michigan Canal and the Santa Fe railway (which, ironically, can access virtually any big city except Santa Fe).
These aren’t the only grain elevators in the city, but they are among the largest. Even in the earliest stage of their development, they cover as much area as a five-story-high football field. There are hundreds of places like this scattered around the city, but Damen stands out: A towering symbol of Chicago’s prosperity like a firm punch on the skyline. A firm punch, with a 35-fingered knuckle.
This year, they catch on fire for the first time.
The 1832 fire inspired a new solution from grain industrialists: build new silos from concrete. They do, not realizing that the original container was not the cause of the earlier inferno. They won’t discover the truth until it blows up before their eyes 73 years later.
A spontaneous combustion roars on the bank of the Chicago River, the second explosion in a series of chain-smoking resurrections. A cloud of hot dust tears through layers of sheet iron, chunks of cement torn apart like ice cubes splintering on a kitchen floor. Within an hour, a million bushels of grain are aflame. Nothing remains. Several workers are dead.
If the composition of the structure isn’t fireproof, the industrialists assume that maybe architecture is the problem. To solve it, the railway hires an accomplished civil engineer. His name is John Metcalf, and he adds vents and windows. In the new silos, there’s a powerhouse, an elevator and 35 storage silos. There are driers and bleachers and oat clippers and cleaners and scourers and dust packers and boilers fed by water from the Chicago River. It can hold one million bushels of grain.
This is his Titanic, unburnable and incredible and inextinguishable. His goal is to build something that can last more than 30 years without catching on fire.
Instead, he builds something that will outlive the grain industry itself – despite constantly catching on fire.
After a couple decades of uninterrupted operation, the third explosion hits. John Metcalf’s design has failed, though he’s not upset. He has been dead for 20 years.
At this point, it’s time for industrialists to accept that grain silos will just blow up whether you want them to or not. The grain dust, when mixed with oxygen, creates a volatile gas that will explode at high temperatures. For the silo workers, there’s a constant fear that any dusty summer day could be their last.
For a while, the silos were lucrative despite constant reconstruction. Libby Mahoney, senior curator for the Chicago Historical Museum, emphasizes their importance. “A lot of people made fortunes off the grain industry,” Mahoney explains. “That’s where many of our city’s greatest fortunes were made.”
Since it’s the peak of Chicago’s grain reign, the site is rebuilt and expanded to hold twice as many bushels. It’s sold to the Stratton Grain Company after the reconstruction. From the flames come even better, stronger silos – a concrete phoenix rising from dusty ashes.
The fire took a lot of things away. But every time, the industry keeps roaring back.
The fourth explosion comes too late.
By 1977, self-destructing silos are enough reason for grain industrialists to give up. By this point, the interstate highway system has made Damen’s location little more than a convenience. Like the meat-packing industry, most agriculture has moved outside of Chicago. It’s not lucrative to rebuild the silos for a fifth time.
Instead, they are sold to the Department of Central Management, who will hold on until an investor buys the land. At this point, they don’t look completely destroyed – just defeated. There are scorch marks on concrete, but the place is still there. Bridges link the towers, staircases reach the ground and wooden slats form a functional dock on the riverbank that doesn’t yet overlap like piano keys.
This is the year the workers stop their machines and empty the grain reserve. Someone left the grinders, boilers, driers and bleachers at rest. They will never move again.
Thirty-five years after the death of the grain industry, the story has yet to end. The grain elevator is no longer a source of pride, little more than a backdrop to a city that has left it in the past. To some, it’s an eyesore, especially as it accumulates grime and graffiti. Yet Chicago’s undemolished trash is Hollywood’s treasure. Enter Michael Bay, stage right.
During location scouting for the fourth installment of the Transformers franchise, the crew is determined to turn the riverbank ruins into a movie set. The silos are supposed to look like they’re in China.
They replace the skulls and swear words with giant Mandarin characters. Michael Bay and Mark Wahlberg set foot on the site, the same place that marked the start of a glorious era of gluten. With a mixture of CGI and dynamite, the fifth explosion hits. For the first time in history, the silos blow up on purpose.
The next year, Transformers: Age of Extinction comes out. Anyone watching the movie assumes the Damen Silos truly are in China, which just goes to show that they were more talented at acting than the rest of the cast.
And just like that, the Damen Silos are alive again.
Perhaps all they needed was another explosion.
At this point, the Silos have breezed from industrial grain grinders to Hollywood actors, but despite the impressive resume, no one’s buying. The price drops almost 500 percent to $3.8 million while the Department of Central Management attempts to sell the place off. Northwestern History Professor Henry Binford explained that it’s a difficult sell, since you’re buying more than just the property. Not only do you have to buy the plot of land, you’ve also got to test the soil for chemicals.
“There are a lot of unpredictable costs that go into a place like that,” Binford says.
And so, the silos sit in varying stages of decay, waiting for the sixth explosion. The one that will mean the end.
Picking through the towers that remain, it’s obvious to you that the Damen Silos haven’t gone anywhere. Today, they belong to no one. But in another sense, they belong to everyone. For a hundred years, they’ve been here. They’ve been here longer than Willis Tower or Wrigley Field. They’ve suffered countless blasts. The city around them rises and falls and rises again, but the silos stand still. A point of convergence in a world of chaos.
To teenagers and explorers, they’re an urban playground. To Binford, they’re a “museum piece,” an artifact of a technological system long gone, a system that once made Chicago feel like it ruled the world. To Mahoney, they’re a symbol of the old city; a memorial to Chicago’s gold-hued heyday as the industrial capital of agrarian America.
A lot has changed. Grain is stored in truly fireproof containers now. Michael Bay is making a documentary on poaching elephants. The Transformers franchise is up to its seventh installation. The Santa Fe railroad still ships grain, but you probably know it as the Metra. The industrial world was born and replaced with something faster, something less flammable. The graffiti-torn ruins that stubble the south branch have become relics. Relics that have suffered through eras of film, factory and flame. Only ten floors remain standing.
Only ten floors – but countless stories.