My novel, Mystery at Sag Bridge is set in the town of Lemont, a suburb about twenty-five miles southwest of downtown Chicago, Illinois. Future blogs will delve into interesting facts and rants about the wonders of Lemont, but today I’d like to tell you how it was named.
Potawatomi tribes inhabited the Lemont area prior to the 1830s, at which time white settlers largely from eastern states came to the wilderness for a better place to live and more opportunities for their families. The area grew due to construction of a canal—the I & M (Illinois and Michigan)—that would link Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River, thus providing waterway transport from east coast ports to the Gulf of Mexico. The canal ran through the future Lemont, and Archer Avenue was constructed along an old Indian trail to transport construction supplies. Towns grew up along Archer, including Sag Bridge in 1838 (now incorporated into Lemont) and Athens in 1839 (previous name of Lemont).
Prior to 1840 three subdivisions made up what came to be known as Lemont: Athens, Keepataw, and Des Plaines (no relationship to the suburb of Des Plaines northwest of Chicago). In 1840 a post office was established, officially named Keepataw, whereas the canal stop was called Athens. There was also a town named Athens in Southern Illinois…all of this was confusing for postal workers, so Athens had to be renamed.
In those days, the country was experiencing a fascination with classical names. In addition to Athens, nearby towns were named Rome (later Romeo) and Juliet. It is interesting that Romeo and Juliet were once neighboring towns. It is also interesting that, although most people think Joliet, Illinois was named for the explorer Louis Joliett, the name came later. It was originally named Juliet just because that was the name the first settlers used.
In choosing a name for Lemont, the naming committee rejected Keepataw because they felt the name made the town sound uncivilized. They considered Palmyra, but decided that was as confusing as Athens. Finally, Lemuel Brown, a leading citizen on the committee, suggested Lemont. The assumption was that the name was chosen as a corruption of La Mont, French for “the mountain”, in reference to the limestone bluffs and hills on which the town was built. However, some historians insist Lemuel named it for himself, taking the first three letters of his name and adding “-ont” to it.
As a writer, I too had difficulty deciding whether to use the real name, Lemont, or create a fictional suburb in which to set The Mystery at Sag Bridge. I wanted the leeway to fictionalize as needed—I did not want the story compromised by limitations of historical accuracy (although much of it is accurate!).
As with the original residents, I started by naming my town Athens, but ultimately decided, as they did, that it was too confusing. Next I renamed my town New Athens, only to find that such a town also already exists in Illinois. I considered, as the original residents did, many of the same names they considered: Keepataw, Hastings, Emmettsburg, Haytown, Corktown, Des Plaines, and a close variant, LaMont. Ultimately I stuck out my chin and just went with the real town name. I never considered changing the name of Sag Bridge. It was just too good a name, and I had to keep it!