|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.
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 slats — 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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