Brief History of Waukegan

By Ty Rohrer, Manager of Cultural Arts
Happy birthday, City of Waukegan!
This year, 2018, the people of Illinois are celebrating 200 years of statehood.  On December 3, 1818 Illinois became the 21st state in the Union.  At that date, this area was years still from being settled.  In fact, today’s Waukegan is lucky to be part of Illinois.  When the Illinois Territory applied for statehood in 1817 the original boundary as proposed in the Northwest Ordinance ended at the southernmost point of Lake Michigan.  Two major factors helped to move the border to the north, transportation and the threat of slavery.  First with transportation, if Illinois had access to Lake Michigan, then it would open trade with other northern states on the Great Lakes.  Trade would flow through the north rather than using the rivers that would take it south.  The issue of the expansion of slavery was also factor.  Without connecting Illinois to the Great Lakes it was more likely that the state would be more economically tied to the southern states since trade would have been forced on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.  Without the economic ties to the north, along with not having the transportation routes for the anti-slavery settlers from New England, it is quite possible that Illinois could have become a slave state just as Missouri eventually did.  Imagine how history could have changed?  Would an anti-slavery lawyer from Springfield have been able to gain political traction in Illinois if it was a slave state?

The northern extended boundary of Illinois was granted and had it not been, we would have been routing for the Packers and not the Bears.

In the earliest years of Illinois statehood, this land that is the City of Waukegan was considered open wilderness.  It had not yet been settled, but that does not mean that it was unoccupied.  The history of people living here started at the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago.  It was during this time when the natural environment of the area formed and also when the first people started to arrive.  Various Native American tribes would inhabit this land for the next 10,000 years or so.

By the 17th century, various European countries had staked their claim in North America.  In 1673, France set out explorers, Marquette and Joliet, to find a great river that was said to cut through the land.  Marquette and Joliet found this river, the Mississippi, and upon returning to the colony of New France, they stopped on the shores of Lake Michigan at today’s Waukegan.  France would expand the Fur Trade into the area and a trading post that would eventually be known as Little Fort was built.

The United States gained independence and then the country started to grow westward.  The northeast part of Illinois did not open up to settlement until the 1830s.  The first white settler arrived here in 1835.  More settlers arrived and the first town was given the name Little Fort, carrying over the name of the early trading post for the fur trade.  By 1849, over 2,000 people lived in Little Fort and it was decided that the town needed a new name as they weren’t “little” anymore.  Early French maps showed the name Wakaygagh, which was the Algonquin word for the trading post.  It was decided that the new name of the town would be an adaptation of Wakaygagh.

Waukegan, as it became known, started out as an agricultural hub with farm goods being shipped out via Lake Michigan.  Waukegan’s natural harbor helped secure the city as the county seat of Lake County.  The population grew steadily but that changed after the first major industries arrived in the 1890s.  These large lakefront industries required a large work force and people from all around the world moved to Waukegan to work.  As Waukegan was growing in population and size it was also growing in diversity.  The demographics of Waukegan started as people from primarily England, Germany, Ireland, and Canada.  By the 1890s, new groups were coming in from places such as Poland, Slovenia, Lithuania, Sweden, Finland, Croatia, and Armenia. During the WWI era, the African American population saw a boom as they were coming to the north for the available jobs.

Waukegan was a melting pot community but generally each of the groups that moved in, moved to areas of the city where they were surrounded by others from their native homelands.  These ethnic enclaves would blend together over the years as future generations grew up in Waukegan.

Today, one half of the city’s population is Hispanic. Natives of Puerto Rico were among the first to settle here, many coming from the 1920s through 1960s.  Immigrants from Mexico make up the largest group of Hispanics today.  They began arriving as early as the 1930s.  A surge took place in the late 1960s, but it was the 1980s when the population increase was really noticed.

Waukegan has a rich history and there is much more to the city than what I just mentioned.  Today, it is the 10th largest city in Illinois with a diverse population of nearly 90,000 people.

Waukegan has not been around for all of the 200 years of Illinois statehood, however; that does not mean that the city has not made major contributions.  During America’s greatest trial, the Civil War, at least 470 Waukegan citizens represented the State of Illinois fighting for the Union cause.  14 year old Orion Howe of Waukegan, a drummer in the Illinois 55th Infantry, was wounded at the Battle of Vicksburg.  Despite his wound he completed his mission and for his bravery on the battlefield he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  Orion Howe is the youngest recipient of that distinction.

In all wars, following the Civil War, Waukegan men and women have fought.  Waukegan born Richard L. Conolly, who rose through the ranks of the United States Navy to become Admiral, was part of the Doolittle Raid, the United States’ initial response to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Through the late 19th and early 20th centuries Waukegan played various roles in the development of the American west.  Our first mayor, Elijah Ferry was elected the first governor of the State of Washington.  The patented Waukegan Barbed Wire was made at the Waukegan wire mill and sent out to the ranchers and farmers of the west to help claim lands and contain livestock.

Jane Addams, the mother of social work and co-founder of the Hull House, found that a piece of land in Waukegan was the most beautiful that she had seen around the Chicagoland area.  This land became the Hull House’s Bowen Country Club, a summer camp for the underprivileged children of Chicago.

And what would the entertainment world be without Waukegan?  The early history of moving pictures can be traced to Waukegan inventor, Edward Amet. From there, George Spoor of Waukegan co-founded Essannay Studios, one of the first movie production studios.  Movies helped to inspire a young Waukegan boy to dream in the realm of fantasy.  This along with visits to his local library as well as an encounter with Mr. Electrico at a carnival on the Waukegan lakefront inspired Ray Bradbury to write.  As the United States focused on getting a person on the moon, Bradbury had already inspired our first astronauts and scientists to travel among the stars.

And of course, Waukegan’s favorite son, Jack Benny.  He was a pioneer in radio and television.  He never forgot where he came from and fans of Benny were always reminded that he was from Waukegan, Illinois.   Somehow Jack Benny always stayed 39 years old and for that we’re all still laughing.

But in the 200 years of Illinois statehood, the most important thing to ever happen in regards to Waukegan, well, why Waukegan of course is the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln’s beard.  Of course this story told by the barber Philip Brand is in jest since Lincoln was still clean-shaven seven months later when he was elected President.  Or maybe it was just one really close shave.

As the bicentennial celebrations of Illinois take place around the state, we can be proud of the role that Waukegan has played.sealWaukegan Park District Logo