Industry and the I&M canal
prowess began with the I&M Canal. The canal’s proximity to a rich bounty
of natural resources, including coal, limestone, and sand, led to the
development of new industries. Today industry is still critical to the
local economy. Petrochemical plants in Lemont and Joliet continue the
tradition of heavy industry, and there are also steel mills and numerous
sand and gravel operations in the corridor.
In the nineteenth
century the canal provided waterpower to a number of industries,
particularly in Lockport. The water level dropped 40 feet at this point,
requiring five locks. Hiram Norton became one of Will County's richest
men when he acquired the leases for the Hydraulic basin in Lockport.
This powered a variety of milling operations. The Norton family's
fortunes were tied to the canal, and they became bankrupt in 1896, as a
result of declining use of the canal.
A thriving coal
industry developed around La Salle and Morris in the mid 1850s, but it
largely died out by WWI1 as more abundant and cheaper sites were
developed further south. The St. Peter sandstone found between Ottawa
and Utica provided almost pure silica sand and was used in a variety of
industries, including glassmaking. There were many breweries in Joliet
and Morris including the Gebhard Brewery, founded in 1866. Marseilles
had a large paper and cardboard industry, later taken over by Nabisco.
The Westclox factory in Peru became one of the world's largest
manufacturers of alarm clocks.
In digging the canal,
large quantities of a magnesium-rich limestone called dolomite were
exposed. Within a few years a new industry was born, and dozens of
quarries opened in Lemont, Lockport and Joliet, creating thousands of
new jobs. This heavy, durable stone was easily and cheaply transported
on the canal, and was used in many buildings throughout the corridor,
including the Joliet Penitentiary and the Chicago Water Tower. By about
1900 the local building-stone industry was largely eclipsed when
superior Indiana stone came to be favored. Today the regional stone
industry produces crushed stone, used in the construction industry and
for erosion control along lakes. Quarries still operate in the corridor
at McCook, Romeoville, Joliet, and Lemont.
In August 1998 the
Joliet Iron Works Historic Site [INSERT PHOTO] opened, telling the story
of one of America's most innovative manufacturing plants. Located along
a stretch of the I&M Canal, this cultural park is devoted to the history
of the iron and steel industries. Originally opened in 1869, the Joliet
plant soon added Bessemer converters to convert iron into steel. As a
major producer of steel rails and barbed wire, the Joliet Iron Works
dominated Joliet's economy for many years.
Many industrial barons
played larger roles in their communities than just providing jobs. Two
German immigrants with backgrounds in engineering, Frederick W.
Matthiessen and Edward C. Hegeler, opened a zinc-smelting and refining
works in La Salle in 1858. Matthiessen donated the land for the state
park that bears his name. Hegeler bankrolled the Open Court Publishing
Company, and another industrialist, Louis Gebhard donated the land for
Gebhard Woods State Park.
nineteenth-century Chicago became famous for its slaughterhouses and
meat- packing industry. A number of former canal workers labored in
meat- packing plants, many located near the I&M Canal along the South
Branch of the Chicago River. Working conditions in these plants were
horrendous, and Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle (1906) exposed
the unethical practices and unsanitary conditions of the meatpacking
industry. This remarkable book led to tough federal regulation of the
The twentieth century
brought new innovations in industry along the canal. World War II
transformed the town of Seneca from a sleepy agricultural hamlet into a
vital cog in the war effort. Due in part to its proximity to the
Illinois River and several rail lines, Seneca was chosen to manufacture
thousands of landing ship transports. These amphibious vehicles were
used in many campaigns, including the invasion of Europe (D-Day) in
1944. At the start of the war the town's population was barely a
thousand, but by 1944 the plant employed over 10,000 workers. After the
war the town resumed its smaller size and more leisurely pace.