Just over 40 miles southwest of Chicago, the city of Joliet sits, quite literally, at the crossroads of history. Joliet is where those iconic paths, the Lincoln Highway and Route 66, intersect, imparting to passersby that here lies a town with true American stories to tell. Those stories tell of a city with humble beginnings that rose to have a population of more than 150,000 and many modern industries.
According to Kim Shehorn, educator at the Joliet Area Historical Museum, Joliet’s history shows “a diversity that remains today and creates character for the community.” The story of Joliet’s growth is a microcosm of the growth of our nation as a whole and a testament to the fact that the American dream is forever a work in progress.
The first inhabitants of the Joliet area were Native Americans. The Hopewell culture of mound-building peoples settled the area early in the first millennium A.D., followed by the Mississippian society, the Illini and later the Pottawatomie cultures. In 1673, Europeans arrived nearby, notably the town’s namesake Louis Jolliet and Father Frances Marquette, who camped on a mound near present day Joliet while traveling down the Des Plaines River. Because of the river, the two explorers found this area to be navigable, fertile and full of game. For these reasons, a settlement arose in the area and the favorable farmland brought more and more people looking for their piece of America during the period of western expansion. émigrés from New York came in especially high numbers. It was not until 1834 that the town was laid out in earnest, and was originally incorporated under the name of Juliet in 1837. For economic reasons the town annulled this incorporation, and in 1845 reincorporated as Joliet.
At this time, industry began to boom and Joliet became known as the “City of Stone” in reference to the nine limestone quarries that operated in the area. The promise of work in the harvesting and transportation of the rocks brought immigrants from many different places. Additionally, the construction work on the Illinois and Michigan Canal encouraged many Irish immigrants to Joliet. When completed in 1848, the canal further expanded Joliet’s waterways and allowed the stone to be sold throughout the upper Midwest.
The industrial revolution was gaining momentum, and Joliet grew along with its industries. The next surge of residents into Joliet occurred following the opening of the Joliet Steel Mill in 1869. Many employees from southeastern Europe, especially Slovenia, came to work the mills of Joliet and before long, the “City of Stone” became the “City of Steel.” The population increased as companies like Phoenix Horseshoe and Moore Stove Works began supplying its goods to the entire country.
Joliet was rapidly becoming a destination city for those willing to work in the ever-expanding industrial economy.
As the turn of the century approached, the steel of Joliet was shaped to fit the needs of another fledgling industry that was taking hold of the city and the rest of the nation: automobiles. The city was home to the Economy Motor Buggy Co. in the early 1900s. That company’s building remains in present-day Joliet on Bissell Street. Also, Checker Cabs were made in Joliet until the 1940s. Throughout the 1900s, Joliet’s mills and enormous workforce brought countless other industries into the city, making it prosper further.
The 1970s and early 1980s saw Joliet’s economy take a downward turn and its unemployment soar, but it bounced back from this decline and is again growing due to its traditional industries (Caterpillar, Inc. still manufactures here), as well as the more modern industries of education and tourism. The University of Saint Francis, Lewis University and Joliet Junior College all call the city home, and thousands of people every year come to Joliet to visit the Chicagoland Speedway, the Harrah’s and Hollywood casinos, the Joliet Autobahn Country Club and to take in the history of this amazing city.
The Joliet Area Historical Museum is located downtown, in a church structure dating back to 1909. The museum has many exhibits detailing the history of this remarkable city and even has a refurbished model of a 1909 Economy Motor Buggy on display. People come from everywhere in the country to learn not only about the story of Joliet, but also to learn a little more about the American experience as a whole.
In few places is that experience captured as well as in the city of Joliet. It is a place of history, industry and diversity where hundreds of thousands have come throughout the past to find their futures.