Potential Central site has somewhat dirty history
Each year, just before soccer season starts, Central High School coaches walk the practice field behind Franklin Middle School — not for exercise, but to look for trash.
Really old trash: Broken glass from the 1930s or '40s. Bricks from old buildings. Even, legend has it, a piece of an old gun.
Decades ago, it turns out, the area where part of Franklin now sits apparently was an unofficial dump.
At least that's what school and city officials think after studying old photographs and the odd bits that keep turning up at the site.
City planner T.J. Blakeman said he found evidence of the old dump after a man who worked on the school's geothermal installation in 2012 contacted him about what excavation crews had found. Among the items dug up (literally): hubcaps, a meat hook and old car parts from Model A and Model T Fords.
After some research, Blakeman found an old aerial photo of the site, most likely taken to document a directional air marker on the ground — giant letters spelling out "Champaign." The markers were used to show planes how to get to nearby airports, in this case the old Champaign Airport located near present-day Mattis Avenue and Anthony Drive, Blakeman said. The private airport operated into the 1950s, according to city historian and former Mayor Dannel McCollum.
The photo, dated May 1935, shows Lottie Switzer School, built in 1927 along Prospect Avenue (and now Judah Christian School); new houses along dirt lanes and newly paved streets to the south and west; empty fields behind Switzer; and what seems to be a dump along the west side of Harris Street, right where Franklin now sits.
"You can tell there's all this stuff on the ground, and there's kind of a circle drive through it," Blakeman said.
"I don't think it was ever any kind of city landfill, or anything like that. I'm sure it was probably unofficial," he said. "At some point back in the '20s and '30s, people were using that as a dump."
Superintendent Judy Wiegand has asked attorney Michael Tague to look into old property records to find the full story, as the Franklin-Spalding Park site is under consideration for a new and expanded Central High School.
Would the existence of an old landfill rule out the property for a new high school?
"It depends on what we find," Wiegand said. "There's a number of items we still need to have answers for."
Most of the old trash has been found on the soccer practice field immediately west of Franklin. A second soccer field next to it, closer to Judah, is relatively trash-free, and that's where games and most practices are held, officials said.
Central athletic director John Woods said the practice field is used mostly for individual ball drills because coaches don't want the players to trip and fall on something sharp.
"It's just not safe," he said.
The field has been a problem for at least a decade, he said. Grounds crews would check it several times a year to remove any broken glass and bricks that had worked their way to the surface, he said.
The situation got much worse last spring, after the geothermal work at Franklin, said soccer coach Mick Galeski. The entire practice field had been dug up for that project, and "when they put the dirt back in, everything from the bottom was now on top," he said.
Galeski and his staff found corroded 3-inch nails, inch-thick glass jars still intact, pieces of clay planters and chunks of glass "as big as the palm of your hand," he said. "I've never seen glass that thick before. We just found hundreds of them."
"It was a mess, it really was," he said.
The soccer team and coaches combed the field and filled buckets with glass and other debris, Woods said. The district also rented a Bobcat-style sifter to dig up four inches of soil and sift through it, he said.
The team was forced to move its practices to other schools and UI fields for the 2013 season while the field was cleaned up, Galeski said. Though the game field was usable, he didn't want to risk the girls getting hurt chasing a ball onto the other field.
"Especially with it being that old, any girl who was bleeding I was terrified I'd have to send her to get a tetanus shot," he said.
This year, he tries to check the field two or three times a week before practices and games, just to be safe.
"I still find inch-thick glass around every so often," Galeski said.
Officials aren't sure what was uncovered at the site when Franklin was built back in 1958.
"One would have thought that the engineers and architects who would have been involved in building Franklin might have said something about, 'Hey, you're building on a dump,' or they would have made sure that there was the ability to do excavations," Tague said.
Blakeman said it's possible the district removed most of the trash and the latest material is just what turned up when the site was excavated in summer 2012 for the geothermal system.
"I find it hard to believe that some of that wouldn't have been hauled away and they would have just built on top of it," Blakeman said. "If you're digging for whatever reason, there's a chance you might come up with stuff."
Tague said Wednesday he has asked a title company for a chain of ownership for the property for the past 100 years to find out who owned it and how the district acquired it. He's also researching old district files.
Records show fill dirt was brought in for playing fields there in the late 1950s, but he's not sure if that's related to the trash problem. The infill caused some drainage problems with neighboring property owners, and that was remedied by putting in a drainage ditch, he said.
McCollum doubts that anything hazardous is under the site. He's unaware of any official landfill there, but said it wasn't uncommon for people to dump trash in semi-rural areas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries "when we began to manufacture things that didn't decompose very easily."
"I would say the good news probably is that there would be very little organic or biodegradable stuff, which would pose more of a health threat than cans and broken bottles," McCollum said.
That part of town was on the northwest fringe of the city in 1935, Blakeman said, with just a few new houses and roads. Two railroad lines run on either side of the land in question.
"It's more industrial along the tracks. It doesn't surprise me that off this side street there's this junkyard," Blakeman said.
Check out the site
Here's how to look at aerial images of Champaign-Urbana from 1940 through 2011 on the Champaign city website:
Go to http://bit.ly/CUaerialmap. You'll see an aerial map of parcels in Champaign, zoomed to the Franklin/Judah/Spalding area.
Go to the upper right corner of the map, where you will find two dropdown menus. If the left button says "Map," click to select "Aerials 2011." Click the right button to select whatever comparison year you choose. (See screenshots attached to this story.)
A horizontal slider will appear below the two buttons. Dragging it will change the image from one to the other.