Where U.S. Steel went, so did Universal Atlas Cement, a fact I learned long ago when living in Duluth and exploring the ruins of the USS steel mill and its cement plant.
Duluth’s plant was a speck, however, compared to the size of the Gary, IN plant, which was the largest factory of its kind in the world for decades. Even though most of the works has been demolished, what has been abandoned near Buffington Harbor is bigger than most cement plants today.
Portland cement uses many byproducts of the steel industry, so building Universal Atlas Plants beside the USS mills made sense. At the cement plants, limestone, leftovers from the steel blast furnaces, and gypsum were ground and baked in long rotary furnaces. The building material was primarily used for paving streets and highways, but it was also an ideal material for improving waterways and harbors. Every year, the plant’s 500 some workers would help to ship 1,250,000 barrels around the world.
Gary’s plant dates to 1903 and was simply called “The Cement Department” of the Illinois Steel Company, a branding mistake that would be remedied in 1906 with the organization of the Universal Portland Cement Company. In 1930, the company merged with Atlas Portland Cement and thereafter made ‘Atlas’ a part of its name. The company was acquired in full in 1980 by Lehigh Cement Company, which showed little interest in keeping the plant open, due to its size and age.
Donald Trump and an associate expressed interest in buying the west section of the plant, which includes Buffington Harbor in 1995. In a desperate bid to raise tax income, Gary had allowed gambling in the city, but not on land. To make the most of the loophole, Trump and his partner planned to outfit a pair of large casino boats and permanently install them at Buffington. They acquired the property for $13.5 million and began demolition work on the western end of the cement plant while a skeleton crew of about 80 manned the eastern end. The last shift on the opposite end of the plant came in 1999, when Lehigh sold it to the city for $25 million.
Present & Future
Today, the drive to the casino boats passes the former headquarters for the cement company, while the boats and the hotel Trump built (but no longer owns) is strangely nestled between skeletal industrial ruins and active US Steel mills. The hotel parking lot is built on the foundations of the western half of the plant, while the eastern half awaits demolition.