Illinois Valley History
The Illinois Valley, originally inhabited by native Americans, boasts a rich history. The first explorers to enter the area were Frenchmen Louis Joliet and Father Jaques Marquette, who stopped here in 1673.
A decade later, another Frenchman, Robert de La Salle, established a fort at the present Starved Rock, but that was abandoned within a few years and few pioneers settled the area until the early 1800s. The Illinois River and fertile soil of the Illinois Valley attracted settlers to the areas that today make up LaSalle, Bureau and Putnam counties.
As coal mining became a booming area industry, many laborers, including European immigrants, settled in the surrounding communities. With the abundance of coal and zinc, manufacturing became another area industry. In 1836, workers moved here to hand-dig the Illinois & Michigan Canal, which linked LaSalle-Peru to Chicago. In the early 1850s, work on two railroads brought even more growth to the area.
Shortly after the completion of the I&M canal, the Illinois Valley became an important hub for the transportation of agricultural products and is today the home of several agricultural businesses. The rich resources of the Illinois Valley, ranging from coal early in its history to silica sand that is ideal for the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process today, mining remains an important part of the local economy.
In the late 19th century, the Illinois Valley became the hub of the country’s zinc smelting business. The philanthropy of those early zinc entrepreneurs remains present in many of the Illinois Valley’s cultural institutions. The early zinc plants brought with them a substantial manufacturing infrastructure that persisted through many technological changes and remains today. Once the home of Westclox, the Illinois Valley remains the home of several large manufacturing facilities ranging from specialty chemicals to fasteners to building products.
Some of the companies that were founded back then, such as the W.H. Maze Company (1848), Putnam County Record (1868), News Tribune (1891), American Nickeloid Company (1898), Unimin Corp (1897) and Carus Chemical Company (1915), are still in operation today.
The era of coal mining came to an end with the closure of most mines in the 1920s, and the area economy continued to diversify. The Illinois Valley now has a wide variety of businesses, including retail, hospitality, services, media, distribution, industry, farming and agricultural businesses.
Over the years, the area has been witness to many historic events, including the tragic Cherry Coal Mine disaster in 1909, in which 259 men and boys died, prompting the state to establish better mine safety laws.