Route 66 news flash:  mysterious fire strikes Collins Street Prison, a local Joliet, IL landmark

A Joliet, IL local landmark is now prompting charges of poor security and neglect in the aftermath of a fire last night on the premises.  Originally known as the Illinois State Penitentiary, Joliet Penitentiary or Joliet Correctional Center, the Collins Street Prison has been closed since 2002 – and though Illinois Department of Corrections officials claim it’s “almost impossible” for anyone to get into the property, it now appears that squatters may have been responsible for the blaze.  A spokesman for the IDC said that the fire was limited to an empty warehouse that once stored mattresses made by the inmates.  The historic administration building and outer walls were unaffected.  Collins Street Prison can be seen from a scenic lookout in Route 66 Park on Broadway Street/IL 53 in Joliet.

It once served as a backdrop and location for the original Blues Brothers film and the recent movie Public Enemies as well as for TV shows like Prison Break.  But in the wee hours of last night, Joliet’s Collins Street Prison made the news all on its own when a fire broke out in a warehouse on the closed property.  The fire was discovered about 3 a.m. by a passer-by who saw smoke and alerted authorities. Local media reported that firemen were at the scene by 3:15 a.m.

Aerial view of Collins Street Prison in Joliet, IL; the warehouse that caught fire is located halfway up and near the eastern wall, just inside the property.

Aerial view of Collins Street Prison in Joliet, IL; the warehouse that caught fire early Thursday morning is the large shed located halfway up and near the eastern wall, just inside the property.

Although the fire was basically under control within three hours, firefighters were still keeping an eye on the smoldering ruins at 7:30 a.m. lest remaining embers or a spark ignite flames elsewhere on the compound.  City officials are investigating the incident, but Deputy Fire Chief Ray Randich conceded that they may never know what caused the fire.

One thing that certainly wasn’t the cause was an electrical problem.  Utilities, including electricity and water to the hydrants on the property, were shut off after the prison was closed.  There shouldn’t have been anyone on the premises, either, but apparently trespassers have broken in over the years.  An inspection earlier today when city inspectors were granted limited access revealed graffiti sprayed on at least two support buildings.  When state officials toured the premises two years ago, they found broken glass and other indications that people had been entering the abandoned prison.

However, confusion about just who is responsible for securing the property probably allowed trespassers to sneak in.  Although IDC owns the property, since the closure it’s been managed by the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, which typically takes over vacated state properties.  Corrections officers from the nearby Stateville Correctional Center (on IL 53/Route 66 in neighboring Crest Hill) are supposed to patrol Collins Street Prison’s outer perimeter three times a day.

In addition to being used as a film location, various agencies have used the defunct facility for training purposes – city police, state police and IDC personnel as well as Navy Seals and Army Special Forces units.  Corrections officials work with CMS on the patrol detail and in granting access to the property.  Still, the facility has been languishing and improperly monitored.  Now, IDC and CMS are pointing fingers at each other.

“We secure the property as best we can,” said IDC spokesman Tom Shaer. “We were under the impression that CMS was in charge of the property.  Today we learned otherwise. CMS informed the warden [at Stateville] that it is Department of Corrections property.  We respect CMS and are happy to help in any way we can.”  However, he also admitted that the patrols don’t keep trespassers out and officers have had to go on site at times to chase people off the property.

Fire teams couldn’t get into the old prison complex because the center gates along the east wall on Collins had been welded shut years ago.  Because of this, firefighters were limited to dousing the roof of the burning building from cherry-pickers and extension ladders hoisted up along the stone wall.  Luckily, the warehouse, which had been empty even before the prison closed, is just inside the welded center gates.  The structure’s roof collapsed even as firefighters sprayed water onto the structure in an attempt to keep the fire from spreading to other buildings within the compound.

Unlike the outer walls, administration building along the south wall and the prison blocks, which were all constructed of Joliet limestone, other support buildings on the property, such as this warehouse, were built of brick and/or wood.  The warehouse is now “a charred wreck” with a caved-in roof and one collapsed wall.  The prison property is a historic site, but the warehouse itself was probably of limited value compared to the main limestone buildings.

Collins Street Prison in the rain.  Photo copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

Collins Street Prison in the rain.   Photo copyright 2012 by M.R. Traska; all rights reserved.

The prison is a spooky enough place on its own, particularly in the rain.  The fire will probably add now to its creep-value for tourists and other visitors.

Collins Street Prison occupies several square blocks fronting on Collins Street between Hills Avenue and Woodruff Road and stretches west to the rail lines that parallel the waterways that bisect the city – the Illinois & Michigan Canal and the Des Plaines River/Sanitary & Ship Canal, which coincide at that point.  The prison is located in the far northwest section of Joliet, on the east bank of the Des Plaines River.  Designed by Chicago architects W.W. Boyington and Otis Wheelock and completed in 1858, the prison and its imposing wall and towers were built primarily of rusticated Joliet limestone quarried on site by prison labor between April 1857 and August 1858.  More than 1,800 inmates – including men, women and even children – were incarcerated here at the prison’s peak. Fortunately for Route 66 roadies and architecture buffs, most of it is still standing.

Until next time,


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