For 70 years, the Savanna Army Depot was the chief employer for a rural area in northwestern Illinois. During World War II, more than 7,000 civilians worked there. The civilians made the bombs the B-25 planes led by Jimmy Dootlittle dropped on Japan during the famous raid in 1942.
When the Army ordered the depot closed in 1995, 421 people lost their jobs. A regional development authority proposed building a state prison on the depot site to replace the jobs, but several environmental groups protested. They wanted to preserve a rare prairie at the depot, saying it was pristine. The protest grew to the point where Gov. James Edgar reversed his decision on the prison. The maximum security prison was built in nearby Thomson, but it stood empty for five years because the state didn't have enough money to open it.
Author Paul Gale, a former journalist, tells how the environmental groups rallied people during hearings and wrote letters to influential politicians and media members to get their message across. A rare plant called the James' Clammyweed was used as a rallying point by the envrionmentalists.
Many people in the small towns near the former Army depot are still bitter over the battle. They remain convinced the former Army depot was the best site to build the prison. If it had been built when Edgar made the announcement, community leaders believe the prison would have been open now. Although the army has spent over $200 million in cleanup, much of the depot remains closed today because of the amount of contamination still present.