Local History – Lemont’s Smokey Row, Beginnings and Growth

 I thought I’d lead off with the picture I promised you of my new granddaughter, Mia Elena. She is 15 days old today, and was 5 days old when this picture was taken. Grandma is very proud, of course, and made her little hat.

Better than the map picture I would have led off with. But never fear, the map appears below. 

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Lemont’s Smokey Row, Beginnings and Growth

Smokey Row

Lemont was not always the upstanding, law-abiding, quiet suburb it is now. Before the year 1900 Lemont was notorious throughout Chicagoland for its sin strip, Smokey Row, which offered an abundance of places for gambling, liquor, drugs, and loose (or paid!) women, as well as the further amusements of bar fights and even organized (although illegal) prizefights.

As early as the 1860s, a small area on the northeast side of the I & M Canal served men brought to town by work on barges, quarries, and railroads. Many were single men, poorly paid, who worked long hours. In their little free time, they sought out places nearby—few had means of transportation—and inexpensive amusement to distract them from their hardships. Smokey Row catered to their wishes.

A tough, violent place, where assault and even murders were commonplace, at its beginning it was cut off from the citizens of Lemont, and received little attention outside of its patrons, even from legal control. The village had no police until 1873, and township marshals were not about to march into the area alone. Can you blame them?

So Smokey Row and the honest citizens of Lemont co-existed side by side for years, until the early 1890s when three events changed the picture.

The first was the beginning of construction on the Sanitary and Ship Canal, bringing a huge temporary work force of primarily single men to the area. The second and third were the closing of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exhibition, and the economic depression that the nation experienced at the same time. Lemont, due to the canal construction, was one of the few places in the area that had jobs and a favorable economy, and both seedy businesses and those who patronized them left Chicago for Lemont.

The result was an enormous expansion of Smokey Row. The original establishments stayed in place, but more opened west, and crossed to the south side of the canal along Stephen, Canal and Main Streets. By 1895, it was estimated that over 100 “dives” were in operation.

Smokey Row soon came to the attention of outside newspapers, in Chicago and Joliet, who publicized its existence, and attracted even more patrons from those cities. From the Joliet News, June, 1895:

“The scenes and orgies, the crimes and revelries around Sag Bridge and Lemont would disgrace even frontier settlements. The saloons and dives are doing an immense business and probably 60 percent of the $600,000 paid each month goes into their hands. All along the channel are saloons which sell a brand of firewater called “Canal Tanglefoot”. This drink tastes like a compound of blue vitriol and gunpowder; one sip of this concoction will either send a man on the warpath or render him unconscious. Outside the regular population of 7,000 the noisy places on Smokey Row have attractions for several thousand men who either work on the canal or make a living on those who do. Most of the good folk of the town lock their doors at night and pull the covers over their heads. Some few rake in the money.”

One might wonder why all this was tolerated, but remember that we were in the midst of a depression at the time. The town collected license fees and taxes from the establishments, to the tune of $500,000 a year by 1894. Although torn by the money or the lawlessness the dives brought, nothing was done, you might guess trustees looked the other way and took the easy way out, and I’m not about to say you would be wrong. Let’s just say, the Village Hall and an annex to Central School were among the projects paid for by Smokey Row.

About Pat Camalliere

Pat is a writer of historical mysteries. She lives in Lemont, Illinois.
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3 Responses to Local History – Lemont’s Smokey Row, Beginnings and Growth

  1. Susan says:

    Dear Pat,

    An interesting summary. I came across mention of Smoky Row related to a woman who helped with a jailbreak here in Missouri in 1895. I am working on a book about our local rotary jail. She is the only woman who was convicted of aiding in a jailbreak related to that building.

    I was curious about what the writer meant when he said she was of “Smoky Row fame.” My Google search led me here. Some follow-up articles indicated that in the early 1900s there was a movement to rid Lemont of the undesirables of Smoky Row. Related to a murder case?

    • Hi Susan –

      Thank you for your interest in my post about Smokey Row. We seem to share a love for digging into the histories of our local Midwestern communities.

      My guess is that “our Smokey Row” was not the only one, but it doesn’t negate its notoriety. Lemont is a “Canal Town,” the site of a number of canals that led to the development of Chicago. As far back as the 1840s Irish canal-diggers patronized establishments in the seedier part of town, that grew based on their presence. When that first canal was finished, barge, quarry, and railroad men, many single, kept the places open.

      Smokey Row started to grow rapidly after the 1893 World’s Fair closed, when patrons of the fair were looking for other places to have fun and discovered it. At the same time, a second canal was being dug, and the huge labor force was looking for things to do in off time. The area expanded to over 100 dives, and violence, including murder, was not a stranger to these places. In fact, some people hung out there just to fight or witness such fights for the entertainment they provided. It was beyond the control of local law enforcement.

      One of the things that is unusual about Lemont is that, unlike other suburbs that sprawl one into the other, Lemont is surrounded by a few miles of forests and abundant farmland, and sits on a bluff overlooking a river. This gives it a sense of isolation that is attractive to those looking for fun.

      I am not aware of any stories about particular murders during the time, only the fact that they were common. The movement to rid the town of such establishments was led by Reverend Clancey, a bit earlier then you mention, starting about 1984 and ending about 1896, in an almost comic, cops and robbers sort of story. At the end, his efforts had little effect. The raid jailed owners and patrons alike, but they were soon bonded out and returned to business as usual. Nonetheless, most of the dives had closed shortly after 1896 due to lack of profit once that part of the canal was finished and the workers moved elsewhere.

      Today Lemont still has colorful and popular bars, some dating back to Smokey Row days, but no larger in number nor more violent than would be usual for a Chicago suburb.

    • So sorry for the delay in responding, Susan. Your message, unfortunately, hit me at a busy time and then got lost on my desk until it turned up today. I’m sorry that I don’t know about Missouri, but as far as murders on Smokey Row, I can tell you they were common, but there is no documentation I can refer you to. Smokey Row was quite a wild place, full of undesirables and a great deal of fights and violence. Law enforcement was inadequate to the circumstances. A great number of unskilled, single laborers were looking for places to spend their time and money, and Smokey Row offered them what they wanted, largely a place to drink, women to be bought, and the opportunity for other ways to let off steam. The movement to rid Lemont of Smokey Row coincided with the end of the construction jobs that kept the men here, and despite the movement being rather a futile endeavor, many of the places of ill-repute started closing down for lack of business shortly afterward, just before 1900. I would say that just about any rumor you heard, or story you would like to make up, about murders that happened during the Smokey Row days would be believable.

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