Stearns Quarry: A Beautiful Dump
Photo Credit: Gene Wagendorf III
I hemmed and hawed over the title of this article. Not the “Steans Quarry” part, of course. But would the title make people think I was trashing the place? That it wasn’t, in fact, beautiful? If I was trying to convince a friend to trek down to Halsted and 27th for a picnic, would I sell the area as a “beautiful dump”? Well, yes, because that’s what it is.
Stearns Quarry was, to its name, an old limestone quarry from 1833 to 1969, when the space was converted into a municipal landfill. Dirt, gravel, brick and other clean construction materials were transported from across the city and dumped into the excavated hole, eventually filling nearly three quarters of it.
In recent years the Chicago Park District acquired the land and began dreaming — big. Big as in 40,000 cubic yards of topsoil, a 35-foot hill, winding metal paths, tons of prairie grass and wildflowers and a whole lot of water. The construction took years and was riddled with delays caused by the various complexities and bureaucratic-nonsenseities that come with following Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and City of Chicago landfill-conversion guidelines. Was it worth it? Yes. Definitely, yes.
Going south on Halsted, make a right turn onto 27th and ditch your car. That hardly seems like an agonizing trip through a desert wasteland, but what you find is the urban equivalent of an oasis. At first, admittedly, it doesn’t look like much. Two big hills. Ok. Even the sign at the main entrance seems cold and underwhelming as it welcomes you to “Park 531”.
The path at the entrance will guide you directly between the two massive hills to a metal walking path that winds up and around the eastern-most hill, then back down into a man-made fishing pond. Cut right out of the hulking limestone, the pond is more peaceful than anything you might expect to find tucked into the bustling city. Ducks amble across the water, looking almost shocked that someone found their secret spot. The path swoops down into a fishing pier that’s perfect for anyone with a savior complex, as it literally gives you the chance to walk on water. On a day when the water levels are high, the metal pier is actually submerged about six or seven inches. I had to blink a few times at first when, on my way down, I saw a child riding his bike in circles in the middle of the pond.
If you follow the path away from the water it leads you up to some terraced wetlands and a quiet little waterfall. The park features a unique storm water containment system that collects and treats rainwater before channeling it into the pond and surrounding wetland. Another feather-in-the-cap for a city with an increasingly green conscience, Stearns Quarry features an abundance of native plants (black-eyed susans, cosmos, poppies and prairie grasses, among others) that greatly reduce the need for fertilizers and herbicides.
A swirling concrete path circles the eastern hill, leading you to a small rock circle that appears set up for pagan rituals, or, more likely, sitting and admiring a striking 360˚ view of the city, from the downtown skyline to Comiskey Park. The western hill is home to a large grass field, the prairie garden, and a somewhat dubious and possibly as-of-yet-unfinished walking path that leads through the trees surrounding the top of the old limestone quarry and inexplicably dead ends (dead ends, of course, to the less adventurous and/or those with small, wild children). With only a few calculated risks you can walk around the entirety of the pond from above, through what feels like a tiny private forest. Mixed in with the trees and shrubbery are old fences and iron rods, hopefully intentionally left behind, that offer a nice reminder of what the space used to be.
Stearns Quarry immediately vaults to the top of the list of excellent picnic spots in Chicago, as well as the top of the list of places on the south side that north side-lifers need to check out. I’m sure I’ve left out a few of the charmed nuances and hidden intrigues of this amazing park. You’d be well served to try and find them for yourself.