By Evan Garcia
Rick Drew remembers the first time he explored an abandoned building. As a child on a family vacation in Scotland, he spent hours searching through a deserted yarn factory.
“It was a real thrill,” Drew said. “I always remembered that, although I didn’t start exploring again until many years later.”
A former scuba diving instructor, Drew suffered a jaw injury in 1998 that’s kept him out of the water. Since then, he’s worked as a freelance photographer, which led him to exploring abandoned properties in and around Chicago. He’s the organizer of a group called Chicagoland Urbex Photography.
“There are a few different urban exploration groups in the area,” Drew said. “Some of them break into properties with bolt cutters and crowbars, but we try not to disturb these places.”
With his hiking and photography gear in tow, Drew captures the urban decay and nature’s subsequent reclamation of these forgotten sites. To this day, he’s never been arrested, seriously injured or found himself in a dangerous situation.
“When I tell cops that I’m just here to take photos, they usually leave me alone,” he said.
Drew took me on a trip to see the Damen Silos, located opposite Chicago’s downtown skyscrapers, just off of the Damen Avenue exit of Interstate 55. Since the early 1800s, this land has been used to store and distribute the city’s grain.
The silos that still stand here today were built in 1906. Both these structures and the grain elevator that preceded them were plagued with multiple spontaneous explosions and fires. Grain dust is extremely combustible. The last fire occurred in 1977, after which the land fell into disuse.
Since then, the Damen Silos have been state property. Illinois’ Department of Central Management Services tried to sell the 24-acre plot of land for a minimum bid of $17 million at a 2007 auction, but received no interest. It’s unlikely the state will sell it for that much any time soon, especially considering the high cost of demolition.
Abandoned and overgrown structures like the Damen Silos and the U.S. Steel South Works in South Chicago harken back to the city’s past life as a thriving industrial center. For some, these edifices may be obsolete eyesores, but for urban explorers like Drew, they represent a fascinating piece of history.
“People drive past these buildings every day and may wonder what’s inside of them, but never find out,” Drew said. “I act on that curiosity.”
Drew cautions fellow explorers to never travel alone and come prepared. That means bringing flashlights as well as wearing thick clothing and steel toe boots.
And urban explore, or trespass, at your own risk. After all, it is illegal.
In Chicago, watch Medill Reports video stories on CAN-TV channel 27