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History

The woodlands and prairies of the Rock River Valley and Elkhorn and Sugar Creeks have been home to generations for more than 4,000 years. Members of the Hopewell Indian nation left evidence of their culture in the burial mounds and village remnants along the riverbanks and bluffs. The prairies and plains also brought the Sac and Fox Indians. In fact, the northwestern corner of Illinois, now home to Sterling and Rock Falls, was one of the last areas to be settled by Europeans – with the first settlers arriving around 1832.

The histories of the Sterling and Rock Falls communities have many similarities. As the Native American tribes moved from the area, the two cities benefited from developments on both sides of the Rock River. Following is a brief historical description of both towns’ development, which shows how they have grown together to benefit each other, local residents and visitors.

STERLING’S BEGINNINGS…In June 1834, two years after the Black Hawk War, Hezekiah Brink staked a claim on the northern bank of the Rock River. In 1835, William Kirkpatrick claimed land adjacent to Brink’s and laid out the village of Chatham. The following year, Brink and Capitan D.S. Harris founded Harrisburg, named for Harris, who had brought supplies by steamboat on the Rock River to Brink. In spite of a bitter rivalry between the towns, they agreed to unite to improve chances of becoming the county seat. By means of a coin toss, the name Sterling was chosen.

Although the Rock River never became the navigational route original settlers had hoped, it did become an important source of waterpower and fueled new industries on both sides of the river. Wyatt Cantrell became the first to harness the river by building a wing dam and mill house. Cantrell’s sawmill and gristmill operated until 1855 when a new dam and millrace, combined with the addition of the railroad, provided the power and means for developing business to market their products beyond the immediate area. A few years later, Washington M. Dillon founded Northwestern Barb Wire Company. As the focus of the company changed from barbed wire, the name was changed to Northwestern Steel and Wire and became the area’s largest employer. Although the facility closed in 2001, its contributions to the development of Sterling is evident through the investments Washington Dillon made to the community and through the buildings that are still a part of the familiar landscape along the city’s banks on the Rock River.

ROCK FALL’S BEGINNINGS…About 10 years after Sterling was created, resident Augustus P. Smith founded Rock Falls on the southern bank of the Rock River. Smith purchased Sterling Hydraulic Company’s water plant to use the dam’s power to run his mitten factory. He promoted the use of waterpower to other businessmen, motivating them to use it as well.

Because of the additional employment source, a viable work force moved to the area around the factory. Rock Falls incorporated and formed a town government in 1869.

One of the assets the city of Rock Falls had was the Hennepin Canal, which was completed in 1895 and enabled area businesses to transport goods from the Illinois River. In 1907, further work was done on the canal, and a feeder canal was finished. While the feeder kept the level of the canal suitable for commercial freight, the canal’s life was a short one due to the development of rail lines, highways and trucks. Although the Rock River and the Hennepin Canal were valuable tools to help area businesses get products to market, the arrival of the railroad caused rapid growth, encouraging new factories and industry to open their doors.

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