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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