Monday, June 20, 2022

Nothing lasts forever, but a manhole cover comes close.

A new manhole cover shakes off its mold sand. (Photo for the Sun-Times by Ashlee Rezin)

     Visiting the Neenah foundry was a longtime dream of mine. I pestered them for years, and it was thrill earlier this year when they finally agreed. As far as I can tell, this was the first time Neenah allowed a Chicago newspaper reporter to visit their operation in its 150 year history.

     NEENAH, Wis. — This is where they undergo their fiery birth, those overlooked essentials of urban life.
     Most of us seldom notice them, even though they can brave the extremes of weather for 100 years while being run over by trucks without deteriorating, and we depend upon their steadfast operation to keep us from falling into open sewers.
     They are literally everywhere, around the world and at our feet, on every block, every street corner: the manhole covers, stormwater intake grates, bumpy rectangles where the sidewalk slopes to meet the street (formally known as detectable warning plates) and other cast-iron infrastructure that help keep Chicago from reverting back to the swamp it was at its beginning.  
     “It’s stuff that’s always there, but no one thinks about it,” said Joe Falle, director of research and development and application engineering at Neenah Foundry in Neenah, Wisconsin, 190 miles north of Chicago, between Oshkosh and Appleton. “It doesn’t do anything special but cover a hole.”
     Many, many holes. The city of Chicago Department of Water Management, which wrangles the city’s manhole covers, estimates there are about 148,000 sewer covers on Chicago streets, plus another 205,000 catch basins.
     “We have a manhole cover down the middle of every street, going directly into sewers,” said Matt Quinn, deputy commissioner of the Department of Water Management. “Six catch basins per block and three manhole covers.”
     Manhole covers are solid — to keep sewer odor from wafting up to the street. Catch basin covers have slits — to let stormwater in. And, in case you’re curious, no, gender neutrality has not reached this realm of society.
     “Yes, we still call them ‘manhole covers,’ ” Quinn said. “Most people don’t care because it’s a cover over a sewer.”
     But what a cover. Two feet across, about two inches thick, solid cast iron.
     While there are other suppliers, many Chicago covers originate here, in the sprawling, loud Neenah Plant No. 2, the main facility of a company that has been producing cast-iron products for the past 150 years. Ever since William Aylward started the Aylward Plow Works in 1872. The company expanded from plow blades to sugar caldrons and barn door rollers. Alyward’s three sons entered the business, which added cast-iron stoves. In 1904, it began making manhole covers.
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  1. At least Chicago buys the lids from an American company, unlike NYC which has them brought in from India. According to a NY Times article several years ago, they're made in crummy little foundries by men in rags & bare feet. The Indian ones are also cruder looking.
    I also see them from the East Jordan Iron Works [EJIW] in Michigan, mostly the various private utilities get those.
    As for long lasting, in Lincoln Park, there are still lids that have "Lincoln Park Park District" on them & they are from before 1934, when all of the 22 different park districts in Chicago were merged into one big district.
    As for them getting stolen, I remember seeing Chicago sewer lids in a private driveway in Lincolnwood & in a large parking lot for an apartment building in Wilmette.

  2. That guy had 4650 pounds loaded into his pickup. I think the 31st manhole cover must've been the one that broke the camel's suspension. No wonder the police were able to apprehend him.

  3. Neil - masterful article - one of the best ever. I hope to live forever, but failing that, I hope you outlive me because one of the joys of my life is starting each morning being engaged and stimulated by your work.

  4. The manhole column was obviously a work of love, given its length and breadth. As always, it's a fascinating look at something almost all of us take for granted. And it was particularly timely for me and others who camp out on 63rd Street, as the City is paving 63rd, redoing sidewalks, and replacing manhole covers en masse. They even left one off right in front of the office for a perilous length of time and I was just getting ready to advise them to put up a warning sign at least when the cover was put back when I wasn't looking.


  5. OMG, as the kids say... I have to confess to mountains of jealousy right now. As a metallurgist for over 40 years now, I have always found... foundries... (sorry) to be simply wonderful places to see.

  6. When I was in the Navy, I met a molder second class. I don't know what his official job entailed, but he made machine parts on the side. I watched him pour aluminum in a sand mold in his basement and the color of the molten metal was uniquely beautiful until it cooled to a dull grey. I've never seen the like in the almost 60 years since.


  7. Great column. I'll never look at manholes the same. Just riding my bike today looking down at them, every one from Neenah. Sounds like it was a great place to visit. Hope they gave you one to take home. Make a nice end table.

  8. Congrats, Mister S, on being the first Chicago newspaper reporter allowed to visit the Neenah operation in its 150 year history. Small-town Midwestern businesses with long histories, and multiple generations of family ownership, have often tended to be tight-lipped, highly paternalistic, and fiercely conservative.The nearby Kohler Co (manufacturers of plumbing fixtures).was strongly anti-union, and endured two infamous and violent strikes (in 1934 and 1954) during its long history.

    So it may not be coincidental that I remember extensive Daily News coverage of a bitter strike at Neenah Foundry in the early Sixties...a throwback to the earlier days of organized labor. Picket line riots, police clubbings, tear gas, rocks, the whole megillah. Not sure what union called the strike. Today, Neenah employees are represented by the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers International Union.

    The company history notes that Neenah Foundry barely survived the Depression. In the mid-Thirties, their iron products were selling for as low as three cents a pound, and complete manhole and catch basin sets were being sold to the City of Chicago for as little as eight dollars each.

    The manholes and catch basins in front of my house in Cleveland are sealed along their edges with tar, but one of them is clearly marked with the letters EJIW...East Jordan Iron Works. The manhole covers don't seem to be labeled at all. They just say SEWER on them.

  9. As a retired DPW Sewer maintenance employee for the City of Milwaukee I found your article very comprehensive and a pleasure to read. Well done Sir!


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