Kerr McGee: then and now


A look at the open land next to the Kerr McGee parking lot today.

By Tim Sigidin, Reporter

The parking lot at Kerr McGee, situated at the cross of W. Stimmel Street and Wood Street, has been quite a treasure over the years, providing additional parking for West Chicago Community High School and its students. But as time has passed, Kerr McGee has only been known for being a parking lot, and no one has tried to look behind the name into its history.

For countless years, Kerr McGee has been – and is currently being used as – a parking lot.

School Resource Officer Mike Levato explained, “Basically, Kerr McGee is pretty good. There are plenty of spaces for our students to park.”

Levato has served as an officer for the past 14 years, guarding the parking lot among other responsibilities. He describes Kerr McGee as a normal area over the years, used by students frequently on their way to classes at West Chicago Community High School. 

Some students, however, disagree that all is normal at the parking lot, citing incidents such as crooked parking jobs, or speeding drivers.

Students park terribly because they are sleep-deprived, after working long shifts and waking up early. Almost every car is parked crookedly, and nearly every single day, there is someone who screeches their tires while leaving the parking lot. They exit the lot far too quickly.

Some residents have complained about how kids drive when they leave after school, squealing tires or speeding.  As far as what cars park there, I’ve seen really old cars to brand new cars,” Levato said.

Through all of these conversations, the story behind the name of Kerr McGee is never brought up.

The parking lot is situated near the train track port on Ann Street, right next to the area where the flat plain is currently. Of all of my years of being at West Chicago Community High School and parking at Kerr McGee, I always questioned why there is a huge patch of empty grass right before the train tracks. 

I reached out to the Friends of the West Chicago City Museum for more information, but they did not respond.

Now, after researching this topic, I can explain the reason why, and the history behind Kerr McGee.

Back in the 1930s,  The Lindsay Light Company shipped thorium, a source of nuclear energy, from a building known as The Rare Earths Facility in West Chicago. The Rare Earths Facility processed and extracted thorium using the purest form of the element, making gaslights before electric street lights were mainstream.

The Rare Earths Facility was left with radioactive waste, which was given to truck drivers to dump at set destinations, including Reed Keppler Park. Additionally, radioactive waste in the form of mill tailings was given out to the public to use on their lawns, gardens, etc. Kerr-McGee, an energy company, purchased the facility in 1967.

Radioactive waste is removed from the area by Kerr McGee. (Photo by ABC7 Chicago)

When the people of West Chicago become ill from all of the radioactive exposure they had, Kerr McGee was finally forced to clean-up. The thorium had to be excavated from properties around the area – sometimes up to 25 feet deep – and properly disposing of the radioactive waste would take years. Some homes had to sit 6 feet off of the ground on stilts during this process, but the area was left with a better, cleaner environment for West Chicago people to live and breathe in.

Even with its old history, in which the sins committed by Kerr McGee were largely forgiven, the normal day-to-day of the Kerr McGee parking lot gains little traction besides some students deciding to burn rubber or play music a little too loudly. The lack of concern about Kerr McGee gives a solid reminder that this town is a small and quiet place to live, overall, with good neighbors.

“Cars screeching their tires everyday is just a regular day,¨ senior Brendan Prebis said, “It’s too many people leaving at the end of the day.”

He worried “sometimes even people would crash into families living in West Chicago.”

However, Levato said, “We generally don’t write tickets in the lot anymore. Since the school stopped charging for parking permits to be there, there aren’t very many tickets to write. Since I’ve been assigned to the school, about 14 years, there haven’t been very many issues in the lot.”

In the end, though the history of Kerr McGee is very interesting, it is now just a quiet place for the people of West Chicago, interrupted occasionally by the screeching of tires and the loud music by Pooh Shiesty.