Published 11/8/17

We have no image of Marie. This painting is representative of other Native American women who lived in a similar time period. Indian women used cloth they purchased from traders. As a farmer in a French/Indian settlement, it is likely Marie wore a combination of traditional and French clothing. Portraits would have been done in formal dress as opposed to everyday wear. Casual clothing in the period was styled similar to dress fashions but made from less expensive fabric.
Photo credit:



Do you know Marie Rouensa? No? Maybe she’s more familiar to you by her Native American name, Aramepinchone? You don’t recognize that name either?
Marie is a woman well worth knowing.
Marie Rouensa was born in 1677. Her father was the Kaskaskia Chief Mamenthouensa, also chief of the Illiniwek Confederation, a group of approximately 10,000 Native Americans that included the peaceful Kaskaskia Tribe among the twelve or thirteen tribes belonging to the confederation. An important guy!
They lived in a village across the Illinois River from what at that time was the French Fort St. Louis, but is now Starved Rock. Marquette and Joliet had stayed at the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia when returning from their exploration of the Mississippi River in 1673. Marquette returned in 1675 to found the Mission of the Immaculate Conception there. The village grew to as many as 6000 people, and included French missionaries and fur traders among the Kaskaskia population.
Marie was educated at the mission and became a devoted Catholic. She was a gifted storyteller, and soon realized that Christian stories had similarities to the trials of the Kaskaskia way of life. She became an assistant to Father Gravier, who ran the mission, instructing both children and adults using their native language, and made many conversions within her village.
Her story does not end there. In 1694, Maria, at seventeen years of age, decided to devote her life to Christ and to chastity, but her parents had other ideas. For political reasons, they chose a marriage for her, to a fifty-year-old coureur du bois (illegal fur trader) with a reputation for debauchery. Michel Accault (Aco) came west with La Salle and stayed to trade with the Illini. Such alliances were beneficial for both Native Americans and Frenchmen, providing trade advantages, protection, hospitality, and sustenance in times of famine. Marie did not want to marry, but her father was the Chief.
Catholicism and marriage to Frenchmen appealed to Illini women. Warfare with the Winnebago and Sioux had resulted in a decline in the number of Illini men, such that there were four women to every man. Polygamy was common, marriages were demanding, and involved brutal punishments. The arrival of Jesuit missionaries and French fur traders offered Illini women an opportunity to challenge abusive treatment and seek alternatives.
Marie was very unhappy, but what could she do? Marie refused the marriage. She was stripped, banished from her mother’s cabin, and driven away. She took refuge at the mission. Her father placed guards to keep other Kaskaskia away, leaving the chapel nearly empty. He threatened more harsh methods against Marie and the mission if she did not agree to the marriage.
Marie proposed a compromise. She would marry Accault if he and her parents would become Christians. The advantages of the union outweighed objections, and the marriage took place.
Marie had become in her own right an important person in her village, and with her parent’s conversion it was not long before three quarters of the Kaskaskia had converted. Even Accault became a reformed man.
In 1703, the village came under attack by the Iroquois and was forced to move south of St. Louis and Cahokia to a spot east of the Mississippi River. Also named Kaskaskia, the history was similar to the first Grand Village. Across a major river from a French fort, a fur trade and French settlement grew from a mission and a largely Native American population along a major transportation route. Everyone had access to trade goods, which encouraged the settlement to produce a food supply to feed the traders.
Accault died near the time of the move. He had remained a fur trader until his death, and Marie married another fur trader, Michel Philippe. Neither man ever stepped outside the role of trader. Marie had two children with her first husband and six more with the second, to whom she was married for twenty years.
But here’s what else she did. Agriculture was woman’s work, and in this time and place food surplus was very profitable. Marie produced grain and vegetable harvests and her family prospered. At the time of her death in 1725, two years after that of her second husband, she left an estate valued at 45,000 livres, (equivalent to approximately $5 million today) property including several tracts of agricultural land, two houses within the village of Kaskaskia, two barns filled with hay, oxen, thirteen cows, three horses, thirty-one pigs, and forty-eight chickens. There were oxcarts and horse carts, iron plows, and large quantities of cloth, a sign of wealth. She owned five slaves, four African American and one Indian woman. Although Illinois did not become a slave state when granted statehood in 1818, prior to that time a form of slavery was practiced by both Native Americans and early settlers.
Under French law, Marie was able to own property as a woman and she left a legally-enforceable written will spelling out how each of her children would inherit, linked to specific behaviors. She denied one son, until such time as he would leave his non-Christian wife.
Marie stood out as an extraordinary woman because her accomplishments took place during the early arrival of the missionaries, the fur trade, and the first settlements in Illinois. She was able to use opportunities to establish her status and a sense of personal identity, carving out a new role not only for Native American women but for all women. She is recognized at Duke University, so influenced by her accomplishments that she was included in seminars naming women who shaped our nation, by Ohio University that offers a course on her life, and by the Illinois State Museum (now closed)  that devoted a wing to her and her tribe.
And Kaskaskia? It grew to a population of 7000, and was the county seat of Illinois County until 1787 when it became part of the Northwest Territory. It was named capital of the U.S. Illinois Territory in 1809, and was the state’s first capital from 1818 to 1819, when the capital was moved to Vandalia.
Today Kaskaskia has a population of 13. After floods in 1881, the Mississippi River changed course, diverting around the east side of Kaskaskia. Today it is the only town in Illinois west of the Mississippi River, accessible only by a small bridge from Missouri. The Church of the Immaculate Conception was rebuilt after the floods near its original location. Marie was buried beneath the pew she once used in the original church.

Published 9/20/17

Three-year-old Elsie, 1893-1896

Young girl, 1896
Photo credit:


The first permanent settlers came to Northern Illinois in the 1830s and by the mid-1800s many nearby towns had grown to be of significant size. On 127th Street in Lemont is St. Matthew’s Cemetery. Cemeteries like St. Matthew’s are not unique to Lemont. Many small graveyards like it were built in the early settlements and towns that became the Chicago suburbs.

In St. Matthew’s Cemetery is the grave of Elsie Wenzel. I have no way of knowing anything about Elsie except what is written on her gravestone. She died in 1896 at the age of three.

I can only imagine what Elsie’s life might have been like. My mind conjures up a laughing little girl with bouncing dark curls, anxious to please her family, bright, energetic and chatty. I see her running through the grass. A spotted puppy is chasing after her.

But…her gravestone says she died when she was three.

The research I did about childhood mortality was saddening. In 1908, out of every 1000 children born that year, 154 died before reaching the age of one. How many more by the age of three?

Prior to the 1880s, suburban residents typically allowed farm animals to roam. Without sewer systems, outhouses and ditches carried waste that contaminated shallow wells. Disease and epidemics were frequent: typhoid, cholera, pneumonia, diphtheria, tuberculosis, polio, smallpox, and more. In 1886 a family of seven moved to Lemont to start a new life. Within two weeks all of them were dead of typhoid fever.

In 1903 Lemont had a smallpox epidemic. Smallpox vaccine was available after the Civil War, but many people were more afraid of the vaccine than they were of the disease. Fifty deputies were sent by the Cook County Board of Health to ensure that people stayed in their homes and no one was allowed to enter or leave the town, for fear that the disease would spread.

Most children were born at home. Hospital care was scarce, far away, transportation was slow, and treatment inadequate. Many of the residents were farmers, and accidents were frequent on farms.

The early years in Lemont were not kind to children.

Was it an accident that killed three-year-old Elsie, or was it disease?

In this cemetery of perhaps 750 graves, 69 stones mark children who died before the age of 10 and prior to 1917. There are likely to be more that are unmarked.

In this cemetery are four children lost to the Pelzner family: Wilhelmina in 1874, 5 months old; Bertha the next year, 4 months old; in 1876 Johann died at 3 months; and in 1878 Augusta was 2 months.

In this cemetery are buried three children from the Boe family (Clara, age 1, in 1890; Raymond, age 8, in 1922: and Howard as an infant in 1909) and three from the Hogrefe family (Walter, age 1 in 1903; Edna, age 7 months the following year; and Werner, age 6 months the year after that).

In this cemetery are 9 children who died as infants, 21 before the age of one, 26 between the ages of one and five, and 12 between the ages of five and ten.

Let us be thankful that today our children and grandchildren are no longer subject to the hardships of a hundred years ago.

These children are forgotten. Their names have not been spoken for decades. All who would grieve them are long gone. Let us take a moment of silence to do what no one else will now do: remember Elsie and these many little lives that ended all too soon.

Published 8/16/17

America’s Love of Air Racing – 1930s –  Rudy Kling, “Speed King”

”…only when the race is over am I nervous until I get down on the ground and roll to a stop.”
— Rudy Kling, the Speed King, the Pride of Lemont
Photo courtesy of the Lemont Area Historical Society

With the Chicago Air and Water Show about to begin, I thought it a good time to tell the story of a giant of Air Racing and local boy made famous!

In the late 1920s and the entire 1930s, America was in love with the sport of air racing. No racer fired the spirit as intensely as did Rudy Kling.

Rudy was born in 1908, the sixth of eleven children of a German immigrant farm owner in DuPage Township. An otherwise quiet, ordinary child and young man, Rudy had a dream of someday owning his own airplane and flying.

In 1928 Rudy and his brother opened a garage on Rt. 66 near Joliet where they repaired cars. He made friends and took flying lessons from Art Chester of Downers Grove, a speed racer and plane designer. Under Art’s tutelage, Rudy learned the skills of speed racing and aviation mechanics.

In 1933 Rudy bought his own plane, a damaged plane that had previously won many races. He brought the plane to Lemont to rebuild and named it “Suzy.” Rudy was not able to qualify to pilot it himself initially, but Suzy went on to win with other pilots. In 1936, in his first race as a pilot, Rudy set a record for light planes of 228.07 mph.

This was just the beginning. He set his goal on the top prize in air racing, the International Air Race in California. Rudy said, “They laughed when I sat down to fly! …with all of 200 hours of solo time to my credit…”

Rudy finished fourth, earning $765, but it cost him more than he won. When another flyer crashed, Rudy crashed into a parked car trying to land Suzy, demolishing the car and his plane beyond repair. Rudy was unhurt except, in his words, he did “feel sick…after my wife got through lecturing me for the way I had scared her.”

So Rudy took his winnings and ordered a new plane from Clayton Folkerts, a self-trained designer who was inspired by a barnstorming flying circus in Iowa and began building planes between farming chores. His Speed King series airplanes were well known in racing circles. Together Rudy and Folkerts designed and built Rudy’s SK-3, Jupiter, the Pride of Lemont.

On September 5, 1937, in Cleveland Rudy won with a speed of 232.2 mph. His prize was $4,500, but the big race, the Thompson, lay ahead, the classic exciting air race of “speed plane” history.

One hundred thousand people watched as Rudy started out dead last in the field of nine. One by one, Rudy passed his competition. After seventeen laps, only one plane remained ahead. With only one lap to go, Earl Ortman eased up ever so slightly with thoughts of the 1937 Thompson dancing before his eyes. But Rudy had purposely remained in Ortman’s blind spot, and in the last few seconds took his Jupiter Pride of Lemont into a high-speed shallow dive. Rudy Kling, “Lemont’s own No. 1 Birdman” had won the 1937 Thompson trophy by a margin of 50’ and .052 mph.

Rudy came home to honors and fame. Now, he was the one to beat and various air show sponsors were clamoring for him and his SK-3 to draw the crowds.

Then in December 1937, the Argentine Trophy Race, and Rudy was pitted in a grudge match against another pilot, Frank Haines, who had been disqualified in the Cleveland race for inexperience and poor eyesight, and for some reason held Rudy accountable.

At the wave of the flag, they were off. Kling led the field with Haines close behind. Dangerously near the ground, tricky winds caught Haines’ plane, following too closely to Rudy’s. Both planes went into a snap roll and crashed within fifty feet of each other. Both pilots were killed instantly.

Rudy Kling had lived his wildest dreams.

Theresa Kling, their son Robert, and Rudy’s brother, Arnold, brought the body back to Lemont. A plain pink granite stone marks his grave. The stone tells nothing of his exploits. It reads “Rudy Kling 1908–1937”; a small airplane is carved above his name. It was seven years since he began flying. He still had less than 300 hours of solo time and it was three months since he had been proclaimed America’s number one speed pilot.

More details of this story is told in History and Anecdotes of Lemont, Illinois, available at Amazon, the Lemont Area Historical Society, and Smokey Row Antiques in Lemont. A video of the crash of Suzy is also available on You Tube.

Rudy accepting the Thompson Trophy, 1937
Photo courtesy the Lemont Area Historical Society







Published 4/4/17

Ghosts of the Quarries

Icebox Quarry, Lemont, Illinois. The Illinois and Michigan Canal was dug through limestone, and after the canal opened in 1848 business owners in Lemont turned to quarrying stone. This stone was so popular at one time that the Sears catalogue sold a paint color called Lemont Stone. In the early 1900s the stone’s popularity started to wane and eventually quarries were abandoned, in some cases leaving the pumps that had kept them dry in place. The quarries eventually filled, and during the forties and fifties became popular swimming holes. Due to a number of drownings, swimming is no longer allowed, but the quarries are open today for fishing and scenic hiking. Photo compliments of the Lemont Area Historical Society.

Many ghost hunters describe something called the “limestone theory,” holding that paranormal activity is more frequent in areas where there are large amounts of limestone. One possible explanation is that the chemical makeup of limestone is similar to that of magnetic recording tape, and therefore is prone to being imprinted, thus capturing and storing activity. Another theory is that the chemical make-up of limestone is prone to drawing, storing and releasing electromagnetic fields (EMF) on which “hauntings” depend, thus enhancing any activity that happens to be in the area.

I’m probably using a lot of incorrect language here, as I am neither a geologist nor a paranormal investigator. The point is that regardless of whether one believes in the ability of such stone to capture impressions or be used as an energy source for paranormal activity, regardless of the science, in other words, areas where large amounts of limestone exist do apparently have more reported paranormal incidents.

The stone that exists in the Lemont-Joliet region is dolomite limestone with a high percentage of crystalline structure. This adds credence to the electromagnetic field theory, should you choose to believe that.

Here are some of the experiences that have happened near Lemont quarries:

Archer Avenue, said to be one of the most haunted roads in America, is the site of many tales of Resurrection Mary, the haunted Willowbrook Ballroom, and ghosts at St. James at Sag Bridge: monks, glowing caskets, the woman in white, the disappearing carriage, etc. I’ve described these in a previous post so I won’t repeat them here, except to mention that these areas are adjacent to quarries.

Aside from the stone itself, it is known that many Irish-American canal workers died from disease, poor living and working conditions, and violence in the 1840s when the I and M Canal was being built; later quarry workers shared the same conditions and fate. Many were buried at St. James at Sag Bridge, but it is said that, due to poverty, some of the deceased were cremated and their ashes scattered over the quarries. Most people who believe in the supernatural will say that people who died violently or untimely are more likely to remain as spirits.

American Indians lived in the area since before Columbus; remnants of their villages have been found in the Des Plaines and Sag valleys. One could surmise that such burials, combined with the underlying beds of local limestone so close to the surface, could account for some of the tales of Indians on horseback being seen in the area long after the tribes had moved to western states.

In 1897, the skeletons of nine Indians were dug up near the quarries, followed by a rash of reported hauntings: phantom Indians on horseback riding through the town at night and other visions of roaming spirits. Fearing the hauntings were due to disturbing the skeletons, residents demanded they be reburied. Some were reinterred, but some ended up at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Bachelors Grove Cemetery in Midlothian, Illinois continues to mystify visitors with an astounding variety of paranormal experiences: ghosts, lights, mystery houses, disorientation, electronic and automotive malfunctions, among others. It is one of the most haunted spots in the Chicago area and located beside a quarry.

Not all stone in the area remained here. Chicago’s Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue is constructed of stone quarried in Lemont. Stories are told of the ghost of the “Hanging Man,” seen in one of the tower windows, and thought to be that of the “Lone Pumpman,”—the only worker who stayed behind during the Great Fire of 1871.

Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago is another building made from Lemont stone. In 1924, Chicago Gang boss Dion O’Banion was shot and killed in the flower shop he owned directly across the street from Holy Name, reportedly on the orders of Johnny Torrio and Al Capone. Bullets from the ambush lodged in the cornerstone of Holy Name and it is reported that despite numerous attempts to patch the holes they continue to reappear.

I’m not going to ask you to believe that Lemont stone caused all of this—that’s up to you. After all, the area has also been the home of many Irish, who have been known to tell a tale or two….

Photo of Consumers Quarry, Lemont, about 1890. Photo courtesy of the Lemont Area Historical Society.



Published  12/14/16

Holly sprigs secured with bits of wax to each window pane are authentic reproductions from 18th century depictions. Photo of Stephenson House provided by Diane Andersen.

When I found out my writer friend, Diane Andersen, had written about historic Illinois Christmas traditions, I invited her to write something for my December blog, and she graciously accepted.

By way of introduction, although exploration and fur trading was taking place in Illinois as long ago as the 1600s, the earliest permanent European settlements were downstate since the earliest settlers came from eastern states by way of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers after the Revolutionary War. The northern part of Illinois was not open for settlement until the 1830s.

The Stephenson House, the home of one of the earliest Illinois settlers, is located in Edwardsville, Illinois, about twenty-five miles northeast of St. Louis. Diane is affiliated with the historical home. She has recently published a book about early Illinois traditions and she has written a novel that is due to be published this spring.

Have Yourself an Early Illinois Christmas!

by D. L. Andersen

An “old fashioned” Christmas brings to mind all sorts of images from stockings hung by the fire to holly and mistletoe and perhaps wandering into the woods to chop down the perfect pine tree for the parlor. Its roast goose and plum pudding and wassail toasted among wandering carolers. Those are the things I imagined and longed to experience after reading stories of Christmas past from Dickens’ chilling tales to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s cozy log cabin Christmases . It’s a wonderful time for me to share all the history and lore of those early American Yuletides and revel in experiencing a truly old fashioned Christmas as if actually time traveling into the past. 

The 1820 Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House, a historic site in Southern Illinois, holds a Christmas Candlelight tour every Thanksgiving Weekend. We have gone to painstaking detail to interpret just what an early American Christmas in Illinois might have been like. Here are just a few of the traditions visitors will learn about and interact with as they wander through our nearly 200 year old site, enjoying a Merry Christmas together:

Decorations: You won’t find a Christmas tree at the Stephenson House. It’s the first thing most visitors wonder about. However, Christmas trees did not become popular in America until around the time of the Civil War. You might find a few families decorating a small tree, as seen in a few paintings from the early 1800s, but it was not the quintessential part of everyone’s holiday décor. Rather at most they might hang a few pine boughs, holly or ivy and mistletoe, as some old poems and carols describe. At the Stephenson House we have copied exact decorations from period woodcuts and lithographs showing a small sprig of holly in every windowpane. Each sprig is mounted with a small dab of beeswax—a natural adhesive that would have been readily available. Other decorations in the house include an apple cone and red ribbons strewn over tables and linens. Early Americans would have used what they had on hand, collecting greenery from the woods and gardens or hand making ornaments. They likely would not have decorated much unless they were entertaining guests and the decorations would only have lasted for a few days, not an entire month as is common now. Candles would have been a necessary light source used on a daily basis rather than just for a cozy glow for the holidays. Yet when the house is all done up and the candles are lit, it feels very festive and full of that old fashioned flavor worthy of a Thomas Kincaid painting, something Laura Ingalls or Charles Dickens might feel right at home in. 

Apples adorn a wooden cone in the Stephenson House dining room. Photo provided by Diane Andersen.

Carols: In the parlor of the Stephenson House is an antique pianoforte where carols are played during the Candlelight Event and visitors are invited to sing along. We bend the historical rules a bit there and allow standard favorites to be sung like Jingle Bells and White Christmas. However, our early American ancestors and the Stephenson family who once lived in the house would not recognize these carols. Yet most of the carols popular in the early 1800s would hardly be recognized today. Oh Come All Ye Faithful is one carol that has stood the test of time and would be well known by our American ancestors as well. But songs like Down in Yon Forest would more likely be heard in the homes of early Illinois as might also Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella or In Praise of Christmas.

Christmas Cuisine: Anyone who’s read Dickens A Christmas Carol remembers the scene of the Cratchet family eating dinner and glorying over the roast goose and plum pudding. These indeed were popular dishes of the 1800s and are still with us today. In learning to interpret an authentic early American Christmas, I was most surprised to find many of our holiday treats have not changed much over the years, in spite of having so many other modern options to take their place. Plum pudding, a steamed concoction of bread crumbs, dried fruits, suet (beef fat), eggs and sugar is not as tasty to some as Dickens makes it sound. Sugar plums are not all that bad though, surprisingly made of sugar coated dates stuffed with a mixture of chocolate and ground nuts. It’s most surprising of all to know that neither sweet treat is made with plums in spite of the name. Other treats of the era that we have on display are gingerbread and shortbread as well as wassail, spiced apple cider usually spiked with rum or whiskey. According to a tradition dating back to Medieval Times, wassail was served in a bowl carried from house to house by carolers. The occupants of the house were given a piece of toast to dip into the bowl, hence the beginnings of our word “toast” in sharing a drink and offering a salute or a good word between friends.

These and more traditions and the older Christmas carols were woven into my latest story, Ben’s Christmas Treasury. It is reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Story and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, based on the life and times of Benjamin Stephenson, a founding father of Illinois.  For more information on the historic site visit their website:

Thank you, Pat, for allowing me to share one of my favorite topics with your readers.

Ben’s Christmas Treasury
is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.

Published 11/30/16

A Walk along the River

by Pat Camalliere

The Des Plaines River near Lemont Road. Note the north bluff of the river in the distance, the inlets and dense grasses on the valley floor.

The Des Plaines River near Lemont Road.
Note the north bluff of the river in the distance, the inlets and dense grasses on the valley floor.

Yesterday afternoon my husband pulled me away from my computer to take a walk on what might turn out to be the last warm day before the onset of winter. I picked the place though. I had done a lot of walking and picture-taking from the bluffs that overlook the Des Plaines River Valley surrounding Lemont, but it had been a while (should I admit a couple of years?) since I checked out what was happening down in the valley, along the river.  

There is an industrial road that runs along the river. It’s private and full of potholes, but we drove down it anyway. Between the road and the river is a bike trail, which is separated from the road by a fence. At I-355 the trail meets Veteran’s Memorial Trail toward Woodridge. We looked for a parking lot so we could walk the trail, but didn’t find one. There was no real place to leave the car, and no break in the fence. So we went back to the access road near Lemont Road and entered the trail there.

Centennial Bike Trail along Des Plaines River. Note fence separating trail from dirt road on the left.

Centennial Bike Trail along Des Plaines River.
Note fence separating trail from dirt road on the left.

A sign greeted us, which explained that the fence we were looking at was not to protect bike-riders from the road, but to keep those crazy jumping Asian carp in the river! If you have read my books or earlier blog posts you will already know that the Des Plaines River is prone to flooding large parts of the valley here, and that the river runs parallel to the Sanitary Canal.

If the river were to raise significantly, which historically it has done, there is danger that the floodwaters, potentially home to voracious Asian carp, could flow into the Sanitary Canal and gain access to the Great Lakes via Lake Michigan. The fence is there to prevent that.

The Centennial Trail runs from Willow Springs to Romeoville along the south side of the Des Plaines River and then connects to the 70-mile I & M Canal Trail. We were the only walkers on the trail.

Although we did encounter a runner and a few bicycle riders, mostly we were alone and it was quite peaceful. If I ignored the dirt road and fence, it was easy to imagine I was transported back to the time when only the Potawatomi lived along the river, making their home on the north bluff I saw in the distance. I found multiple inlets on the north shore, and dense grasses—the islands and swampy areas I had written about in The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, where the victim’s body had been found. I pictured Native American homes tucked beyond the swamp on the bluff beyond. I saw piles of dead trees caught in the waters near bridges. This view couldn’t look a whole lot different than it must have two hundred years ago. (See first photo above.)

I grinned as I pointed these things out excitedly to my husband, who was at least interested if not as delighted as I was.  This is one of the rewards of being a writer: experiencing in real life what you have imagined in your stories. It is a great feeling, and it was a great walk.


Published 10/25/16

THE BONAPARTES’ HONEYMOON AT NIAGARA FALLS: Guest Post, Ruth Hull Chatlien, author of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte

This is the view the Bonapartes would have seen, although today surrounded by pavement, fences, and tourists. Photo from Niagara Falls State Park Photo Gallery.

This is the view the Bonapartes would have seen, although today surrounded by pavement, fences, and tourists. Photo from Niagara Falls State Park Photo Gallery.

When I read The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien, I was surprised to find that Niagara Falls was visited by tourists as early as 1804, by people such as Jerome Bonaparte and his wife, as well as Aaron Burr’s daughter and husband. As a follow-up to my post about Niagara Falls, I asked Ruth if she would be kind enough to tell us more, and today she has written this guest post.

Thanks, Pat, for inviting me to be a guest on your blog.

Pat asked me to talk a little bit about the role Niagara Falls plays in my historical novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte. The novel tells the story of the Elizabeth (Betsy) Patterson, the daughter of a wealthy American merchant, and Jerome Bonaparte, youngest brother of Napoleon. The two met in Baltimore in September 1803 and impulsively married by the end of the year. In 1804, they went on a wedding trip—first to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

At the time, France and Britain were at war. British warships were stalking the waters outside New York Harbor, hoping to catch Napoleon’s baby brother and make him a hostage, so Jerome and Betsy were unable to sail to France as they wanted. During their trip, the Bonapartes had met Aaron Burr, who told them about his daughter Theodosia’s trip to Niagara Falls. (Theodosia Burr and her husband Joseph Alston were the first couple ever to honeymoon at the falls.) Jerome decided he wanted to see such an impressive sight before he left the United States.

Although it’s hard to believe now, Niagara Falls was still a pristine wilderness at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The following excerpt portrays Jerome and Betsy’s arrival at the falls.

On their ninth day out from Utica, they began to hear a low thrumming sound ahead of them. The further they rode, the louder it grew until it was a dull roar, like the distant sound of violent waves crashing on shore. “That must be the falls,” Jerome said. “Burr said that you can hear their thunder for twenty-five miles or more.”

They did not reach the falls that night or even the next day, although the sound increased continually. Their tenth night out, as Betsy tried to fall asleep, she felt the noise vibrate inside her as a physical presence, and she wondered how anyone ever got used to the roaring.

Early the next day, they reached the Niagara River. Riding on the northeast bank, they passed a place where the river divided to flow around a huge, heavily wooded island. Immediately beyond it, the river was about two miles wide, but the rocky gorge through which it ran quickly narrowed.

The crashing water was deafening. Jerome gestured with his arm and led the way to a high point, where he dismounted. Betsy followed and saw that they were on a promontory overlooking two gigantic waterfalls. The near set of falls featured tons of water plummeting from a wide precipice. The more distant and even wider set of falls was curved like a horseshoe. The waterfalls were much taller than she had imagined; they looked to be more than twice the height of the Presidential Mansion. The cascading water churned and foamed, creating a thick white mist that rose for hundreds of feet.

Jerome led their horses away from the promontory’s edge and tied them to a tree in a grove twenty feet away. Returning to Betsy, he slipped his arms around her waist from behind.

The air was filled with a cool spray, and the thunderous sound enveloped them. Mesmerized by the sight of the tremendous stream racing toward the precipice, Betsy felt that it symbolized the way she and Jerome were caught in the onrush of forces beyond their control. As she gazed upstream, she saw a dark shape moving in the water. A young deer struggled in the river, trying frantically to swim to shore, but the forward crush of the water was too powerful to escape. The animal swept over the edge of the falls and disappeared. Horrified, Betsy hid her face against Jerome’s chest.

Was that to be their fate? By defying Napoleon, were they flinging themselves over a cataract to their own destruction?

Today you can catch a light show at Niagara Falls. Author's Photo.

Today you can catch a light show at Niagara Falls. Author’s Photo.

Thank you, Ruth. Those who would like to know more about this story can purchase The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte at Amazon, in both print and ebook editions.



Published 10/12/16

The Niagara Falls Portage

by Pat Camalliere


Last month I wrote about the Chicago Portage, the route used by American Indians, explorers, and others to travel from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, and the reason Chicago became one of the greatest cities in the world.

I took my family on vacation to Niagara Falls this past summer, and, knowing that originally men traveled the interior of our country on water, I could not help but wonder what it would have taken to get from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie. Can you imagine paddling a canoe up the Niagara River, encountering rapids along the way, and then seeing this in front of you?

American Falls at Niagara, New York, as seen from the base of the falls.

American Falls at Niagara, New York, as seen from the base of the falls.

The waters of Lake Erie roar along for thirty-five miles through the Niagara River to Lake Ontario, descending from 571 feet above sea level to 245 feet, a drop of 326 feet. Niagara Falls plunges 170 feet into a pool estimated to be 100 feet deep. The remaining drop of 156 feet is made over a series of rapids and around many islands in the river on both sides of the falls. Much of the river is impassable, and had to be portaged. And yes, portage routes were known and traveled, first by Seneca Indians, and as early as 1615 by French traders.

The Cascade Rapids, Niagara River above American Falls.

The Cascade Rapids, Niagara River above American Falls.

The portage began about six miles below the falls, at a Seneca Indian Village, later called Lewiston, on the American side of the river. From there, travelers climbed three elevations that they called “three mountains” to arrive a mile or two (historically debated) above the falls. The Seneca were “in charge” of the route. Travelers had to appeal to them to travel it, and hire them to do the work.

By 1719 French fur trade was prospering, and the Joncaire Trade Post and landing were established at the village, then called Frenchman’s Landing. The French cut a road through the portage to make the work easier.

In 1759 the English took control of the route and “improved” it, constructing in 1764 what was the first “railway” built in North America. It consisted of two parallel-running cars (or trams), each on a separate pair of wooden rails supported on stone pillars. A cable linked the cars, and when loaded with equal weight it required little effort to bring one car up while gravity pulled the other down. This allowed heavy goods to be passed up and down a 75-foot gulley along the route.

In 1796, the Jay Treaty established the international boundary separating the United States from Canada at the river. The earliest portage routes were on the American side, but after the treaty another route was developed within the borders of Canada. 

After the War of 1812 ended in 1815, construction began on the Erie (opened 1825) and Welland (opened 1829) Canals, and with their opening, both American and Canadian portage routes were abandoned, leaving today little if any trace of their existence.

Most of this information came from articles written by Philip Vierling. Phil was largely responsible for the preservation of the Chicago Portage and the creation of the Chicago Portage Ledger. He provided careful research of early Chicago, personally cut footpaths, installed interpretive signs, and built a dam to hold water in Portage Creek, among many other accomplishments, even cutting vegetation with scissors and carrying in 1400 pounds of concrete bag by bag on his back! I was fortunate to be able to talk with Phil this spring, and regret I did not have the chance to know him better, as he passed away in August of this year. He will be well remembered and missed by all who knew this remarkable man.


Published 9/9/16

Where:Columbia Woods, Willow Springs Road and Corcoran Road, Willow Springs When: 10 am to 5 pm Saturday, September 10; 10 am to 4 pm Sunday, September 11 For info:

Where: Columbia Woods, Willow Springs Road and Corcoran Road, Willow Springs
When: 10 am to 5 pm Saturday, September 10; 10 am to 4 pm Sunday, September 11
For info:

Those of you who follow this blog are well acquainted by now with the importance of the area’s rivers and waterways to the Chicago area. This weekend you have a unique opportunity to see this history first-hand at A River Thru History Rendezvous in Willow Springs. I will be there, signing my new release, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, which is set in the time and place that Rendezvous depicts.

If you’ve never been to a reenactment event, here’s your chance. Reenactors select a character from history and play that role, dressing in period costume, camping, displaying trades and authentic items, in a campground located along the river. Visitors can circulate through the camps and talk to the participants, learning about the fur trade era. There will be voyageurs, craftsmen, musicians and entertainers, games, animals, food, storytelling, tomahawk throwing, and more…

My new release, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, has a scene that depicts a similar Rendezvous, and a main character is an Indian woman from this time period. I will have the books available for sale and signing at the pavilion. Stop by and say hello!

If you miss this opportunity to get your copy of The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, I will be at Lemont’s Art Walk on September 16 and my book release party will be on October 1. Watch for more details in upcoming announcements.

Published 9/2/16

The Chicago Portage and Its Importance

by Pat Camalliere

Photo I took at the Chicago Portage on one of my visits there, while conducting research for The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods. It gives a pretty good idea of what the area looked like in the early days—the early days being when American Indians and explorers traveled by canoe to Lake Michigan, and when they told Fr. Jacques Marquette about the route when he came this way in 1673.

Photo I took at the Chicago Portage on one of my visits there, while conducting research for The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods. It gives a pretty good idea of what the area looked like in the early days—the early days being when American Indians and explorers traveled by canoe to Lake Michigan, and when they told Fr. Jacques Marquette about the route when he came this way in 1673.

My new book release, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, has a number of scenes where the characters travel through the Chicago Portage.  It was this arrangement of bodies of water and ground level that was responsible for the City of Chicago. To understand its importance, you need to know the geography.

Thirteen thousand years ago, Lake Chicago was a pre-glacial lake. It later receded and left Lake Michigan. The curved line on the far right is the shoreline of today’s Lake Michigan.

Thirteen thousand years ago, Lake Chicago was a pre-glacial lake. It later receded and left Lake Michigan. The curved line on the far right is the shoreline of today’s Lake Michigan.

The large “island” wedged where river meets the lake is Mount Forest Island. Today that island is Lemont, Palos, Willow Springs, and Cook County Forest Preserves, the western tip near the intersections of Route 83 and Archer Avenue. Two valleys formed on each side of the island, the Des Plaines River Valley on the north, the Sag Valley on the south. A good deal of both valleys, as well as much of the Chicago area, was swamp.

Rivers were used then like highways are today. The Des Plaines River runs south and west, beginning in Wisconsin and connecting to the Illinois River, and from there to the Mississippi and Gulf. The Chicago River ran parallel to the Des Plaines, but connected to Lake Michigan. These two rivers were only a few miles apart, and a low, swampy area connected them, becoming navigable after spring rains. This distance was a piece of cake! Men in those days were accustomed to carrying their canoes and belongings (portaging) over rough areas. This was just north of what is now Harlem Avenue and Route 55.

If Illinois was to be settled, people had to get from one place to another easily. How else to transport, for instance, a crop of corn? No sense growing it unless you could get it to a large population, right? No sense to have a farm, a village, a city, until transportation could be worked out. A port on Lake Michigan would connect the area to the east, but then what? No sense anyone coming to that port unless there was a population further west, and a way to get between the two.

It was this portage or low spot that connected the two rivers that was the reason for it all. Which is the reason the Illinois &Michigan Canal was built, to link the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. The reason the state line was drawn where it is rather than across the bottom of Lake Michigan as originally planned. The reason Chicago developed into a transportation hub and one of the largest cities in the U.S.

Some historians propose—look at the old map above again—that originally the plan was to travel through the swamp to the Calumet River and then to Lake Michigan. Indians lived here for many years, and they had developed a line of villages on Mount Forest Island overlooking the “Sag,” or swamp, that lay roughly where 107th Street is today. “Sag” is a geologic term that describes a persistent low area, opposite of a ridge or bluff. Some proponents thought that would be a better route for a canal, and perhaps it would have been. It is likely that politics came into play…

The Indians, and earliest travelers and maps, referred to all the rivers as Chicago, or Chi-ca-gou, or many other spellings of the Indian word. This universal name caused a great deal of confusion when historians tried to figure out what the explorers were referring to. There are also many meanings of the name; contrary to what is commonly believed, “stinking onion” is not the only meaning. In fact, the Potawatomi meaning is “desolate,” which the Chicago Portage still is today.

Let’s try to describe what the traveler taking this route would have encountered. He would have paddled his bark canoe (bark so the canoe was light enough to carry across tough spots) upriver from the southwest, and when he passed what is today Summit, Illinois he would have come to an area where the river turned straight north, where trees hugged the bank, penetrated by many inlets. He would come to a small stream, and making his way up it, to a wider area called Mud Lake. The water would be stagnant, maybe smelly, vegetation covered, with shallow spots, and he might have to get out of his canoe and pull it. There would have been mosquitoes, gnats, leeches, other “nasties.” Eventually he could go no further, and he would stop and unload his canoe, piling his possessions on the first solid land he could find. He could not drag the canoe for fear of destroying the fragile bark. Then he would carry everything, including the canoe, a mile and a half (if he was lucky, farther when the river was low) over open prairie to a fork of the Chicago River, where he could continue (downstream now) to Fort Dearborn and Lake Michigan.

The Chicago Portage is a National Historic Site and you should visit it. You can walk the trails and view the signage on your own. The Friends of the Portage have either a walk or a lecture the first Saturday of every month. They also have excellent websites and a wealth of historic materials that are well researched. Check these websites: and

Go see it. You won’t be sorry. (Wear old shoes and bring bug spray!)



Published 8/26/16

I am very excited to announce that The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods is now available for purchase at Amazon! It is also available on Kindle and Kobo now, and soon will be available for Barnes and Noble and iBook.



Here’s the link: Buy at Amazon

Here’s the description:

 A legendary water beast, mysterious wolves,

and an unsolved murder echo through two centuries.


Wawetseka, a Potawatomi woman, is shocked when a body washes up near her village, but events soon turn worse: her only son is arrested for murder. To free him she must track down the real killer. Her investigation takes her through the wilderness of 1817 northern Illinois and to Fort Dearborn as she races desperately, fighting the harsh terrain and the realities of vigilante justice.

Two centuries later, Wawetseka’s descendent, Nick Pokagon, a charismatic young scientist, partners with Cora Tozzi, Cisco, and Frannie to publish Wawetseka’s adventures. But then Cora and her friends are attacked. What does Wawetseka’s story have to do with the present? How can the mysterious assailant be stopped?

The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods tells two related stories with unexpected parallels. It is both a fast-paced adventure and a mystery that paints a picture of the little-known earliest days of what is now Lemont, Illinois. Readers who enjoy amateur sleuths and adventure will find it hard to put down.

As you see, for those of you who enjoyed The Mystery at Sag Bridge, Cora, Cisco, and Frannie are back with new adventures. Almost two years of research went into Illinois’ pre-statehood period, a fascinating time period. My husband would ask if I was bragging or complaining about that—the truth is that I thoroughly enjoyed it. I hope you will too!

I am busy planning events at which you will be able to meet me and get signed copies of the new book, and will let you know as each is confirmed. The first event is at A River Thru History, The Des Plaines Valley Rendezvous September 10 and 11 at Columbia Woods Forest Preserve near 75th and Willow Springs Road. How fitting, since this event takes place in the same time period and location as the historic part of The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods.

There will also be a formal signing at The Inn at Smokey Row on Stephen Street in downtown Lemont on October 1. I will send more details soon.

If you can’t wait, please order from Amazon and bring your copy for me to sign at one of the upcoming events. I’d love to see you, hear your comments, and as always, written reviews on Amazon and Goodreads are very much appreciated!

Regular historical blog posts will resume shortly!

Published 7/19/16

Northern Illinois – Travel Back to 1817

I took this picture at Keepataw Preserve in April 2016. It is likely that a Potawatomi village once existed near this location, and if you ignore the modern construction, the geography would have looked very much like this, with the Des Plaines River cutting through the valley and the flood plains in the foreground. Today the end of the bridge on the right is the 127th Street exit of I-355 in Lemont, and the photo is taken from the north side of the Des Plaines Valley.

I took this picture at Keepataw Preserve in April 2016. It is likely that a Potawatomi village once existed near this location, and if you ignore the modern construction, the geography would have looked very much like this, with the Des Plaines River cutting through the valley and the flood plains in the foreground. Today the end of the bridge on the right is the 127th Street exit of I-355 in Lemont, and the photo is taken from the north side of the Des Plaines Valley.

As The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods nears completion, I’d like to tell you some of the interesting history of the time period of that story—Northern Illinois, 1817. In the story, Cora, an amateur historian, and Nick, a scientist of Potawatomi Indian heritage, collaborate to publish the story of his ancestor. The book they have written appears in its entirety in The Mystery of Black Partridge Woods. Nick begins the book with an Author’s Note explaining what the time period was like in his own words. Today’s post is an excerpt from that note.

“As the Illinois Territory awaited imminent statehood, each man, whatever his origin, was convinced the land was rightfully his. Their reasons were as varied as were their origins.

“The Indian’s belief in his right to Illinois land was rooted in semi-migratory culture and seasonal moves. We farmed in the summer and hunted in the winter. We established lodging patterns traditional to our tribes and sacred areas to bury our dead. We did not live in a single place but habitually returned to the same places.

“Indian farms in the Illinois Territory were extensive and well laid out, capable of producing crops for sale or trade. When we left our summer villages unoccupied to travel to winter hunting grounds, we expected to return to our fields, much as “snow birders” do today when they move from northern states to warm climates in the winter. We defended these home grounds from tribes that attempted to steal them and eventually from white men who thought our land was unoccupied.

“First to arrive, in the mid-1600s, explorers and priests came and established missions. Fur traders set up trade posts at approximately the same time. Missionaries taught religion to the native population, but they also taught white culture, including language and reading. Women and children attended mission schools, but our men were more interested in trade. They brought furs to the posts and bargained for items available only from white people. Native people initially welcomed them, anticipating trade for things we desired but did not have, items such as cloth, kettles, metal tools and weapons.

““Americans” of the newly formed United States did not understand the migratory nature of the Indian and thought unoccupied land was just that, available.

‘Nor did Americans understand our communities and personal customs; they thought one Indian tribe represented all Indians, and negotiated land purchase with any tribe willing to deal. A tribe may have known the land in question was occupied by others, but thought they were being presented with gifts. As a result, Americans thought they had bought our land, another tribe thought they were recipients of good fortune, and we who had resided on the land for generations returned to find our traditional homeland forbidden to us.

“By 1817, the area of Northern Illinois that presently includes the cities of Chicago, Peoria, and Rock Island was sparsely populated but widely traveled by a startling variety of people. This is contrary to the prevalent idea that prior to the Indian removal period, which began after the Treaty of Chicago in 1833, only Indians lived in Northern Illinois. Here are some people Wawetseka would have encountered, and why they claimed a right to these lands:

“French priests followed a mission to educate and convert natives to what they believed was a better way of life. They thought of everyone as God’s people, and they lived in God’s land.

“French traders and voyageurs had lived in the country since the sixteenth century and saw no reason to cease fur trade operations. Brides were sent over from France, and families gathered into hamlets. Some men lived with the Indians and intermarried. Both parties benefited from this “kinship” arrangement.

“English trading companies established trade routes and had won the right to do so in the French and Indian War. The Northwest Territories were part of the United States by 1817, but the English didn’t all agree to abandon their successful private trade interests and relationships with the Indians.

“American traders disagreed with English and French traders and attempted to license those who could trade legally. The territory belonged to America. Only Americans had rights there, and others should leave. They had fought and won a war to make it so.

“Frontiersmen had already developed paths and small settlements as they pushed westward. These men had unique appetites: they craved adventure, were wanderers and explorers. They wanted to be the first to experience a new land and perhaps stay.

“Soon to follow frontiersmen were the earliest settlers, mainly from eastern states and immigrants from Europe. Why did these people leave the comfortable eastern seaboard for the hardships they would encounter in Illinois? In the early 1800s eastern cities were already centers of industry, commerce, and finance, with factories, universities, and cultural activities—desirable places to live. But opportunity favored the wealthy. In cities, no jobs were to be had for common people who lived in crowded conditions. In rural areas the rich lived in mansions, while small farmers made small profits. Property went to the oldest son, leaving nothing for other family members. The young country was outgrowing itself. But land—and opportunity—awaited those willing to work for it in the west. Invaders fanned out like rivers and disappeared into the wilderness of the west.

“Men who fought in the War of 1812 discovered the open lands of Illinois and found them attractive. After the war, they returned with their families for a chance at a better life than they had in the east.

“Still others sought to lose themselves in the sparsely populated land. Some had miserable lives, were misfits, or unlucky at love. Some were lazy and deluded into thinking life would be easier. The poor and the well-to-do alike came, bringing all their possessions with them. Land would soon be available for purchase. Surveyors were already mapping out a new canal. The area was about to become prosperous. They wanted to be the first to stake claim to the best piece of the pie. Craftsmen and tradesmen followed the settlers, knowing their goods would be needed and their fortunes would soon be made.

“Criminals, speculators, con artists, and opportunists, knowing the newcomers were carrying all they owned and were vulnerable, looked for easy pickings in a land with little if any law enforcement. Military and rangers were sent to build blockhouses and forts to protect and attempt to keep peace between the varied groups. Volunteer militias were raised among the frontiersmen, and agents were appointed to represent and trade with Indians. Judges rode circuits, sheriffs covered vast areas, alone but for men in positions of authority at trade posts or settlers they could recruit. Vigilantes enforced their own interpretation of justice.

“And we Indians—invaded, bewildered—struggled to survive.”

Published 6/17/16

Early Days, Potawatomi, and Archer Avenue

Scharf Map, drawn around 1900, representing pre-settlement time overlaid with roads from 1900. Box in center is area discussed below. The triangular icon in its center represents the location of a Potawatomi village. The Des Plaines River runs diagonally toward the upper right and Chicago, the other valley directly east to Lake Michigan. The diagonal road in the same direction as the river is Archer Avenue.

Scharf Map, drawn around 1900, representing pre-settlement time overlaid with roads from 1900. Box in center is area discussed below. The triangular icon in its center represents the location of a Potawatomi village. The Des Plaines River runs diagonally toward the upper right and Chicago, the other valley directly east to Lake Michigan. The diagonal road in the same direction as the river is Archer Avenue.

Did you ever wonder what it was like here before Lemont was settled, before Illinois was a state?

Start by imagining you are walking one of the trails in our beautiful forest preserves, but look at what surrounds the trail and imagine the trail is not there. How would you go from place to place through this wilderness? Where would you be going, and for what reason?

The most convenient way to travel before developed roads was on waterways, rivers and streams that ran through the area. Most American Indian villages were located near water because food was abundant there and travel easier. However, some times of the year water routes were not passable and it was not easy to transport bulky possessions by canoe, so land routes were also needed.

Many people think that Native Americans followed trails that were originally animal trails, specifically deer trails. This is not the case. Deer graze and wander, and their trails are meandering and come to dead ends, as any hunter will tell you. Deer did not develop trails over distances, nor did they have a specific place to go; they only followed the food. So we must assume that trails were developed by Indians who wanted to go from one specific place to another. It may have been to connect seasonal camps, to visit neighboring villages, or even to wage war against an enemy.

One such trail followed what is now Archer Avenue. Let’s see why.

Developed trails would have connected places people wanted to go, and would have followed as close to the familiar waterways as possible, providing a route that was free of such obstacles as swamps that often lined the rivers. Therefore, where cliffs and valleys occurred, such as in the Lemont area, the easiest routes would be on the valley’s ridges.

People coming to northern Illinois from the south would follow the Mississippi River to the Illinois River into the Des Plaines River. From the east they would come through the Great Lakes to where there was a harbor and later Fort Dearborn was built. They also came from Indiana via the Saint Joseph River and Fort Wayne to Lake Michigan, or from downstate following the Wabash River northward. Fort Wayne was the “command post” for the Northwest Territories.

Following the Des Plaines River from the Illinois River, passing Joliet and continuing through the Des Plaines River Valley, just past what is now Lemont, the valley branches to continue northeast to Mud Lake and the Chicago River to present-day downtown Chicago. The other branch went directly east to Lake Michigan via the Calumet River.

At the place where the valleys merge is a forested area on high ground called Mount Forest Island. Today this is the intersection of Rt. 83, Archer Avenue, and 107th Streets. St. James at Sag Bridge and the Cook County Forest Preserves occupy this area, but in the earliest days Indian Villages lined these routes and trails developed between them. The ancient Indian trail that became Archer Avenue connected here to other trails, such as the Vincennes, Sag, and Sauk Trails, going to the south end of Lake Michigan and to the rivers in Indiana.

Across the Des Plaines Valley from this vantage point was an area called Signal Hill. From that place, high on the north bluff of the river, signals could be sent and seen down three branches of the valleys for many miles to the west, east, and northwest. Signal Hill is now part of Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve.

Ultimately, explorers, soldiers, surveyors, opportunists, merchants, tradesmen, squatters, and finally settlers followed the same routes. When construction started on the I&M Canal, a road was needed, and the old Indian trail between Joliet and the Chicago Portage (near 47th and Harlem Avenue) was followed to create Archer Avenue.


Published 5/9/16

“Newfies” Newfoundland Dog Stories

by Pat Camalliere



Seaman, the Newfoundland that accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition

Seaman, the Newfoundland that accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition

Maine Coon Cats were the subject of my last blog so today’s post will give equal time to dog lovers and feature the Newfoundland breed. Both a Maine Coon Cat and a Newfoundland Dog appear in my next book, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, which will be released soon!

Sorry, this post is a little long, but once started I couldn’t stop sharing. So if you’re busy, pick and choose the parts that interest you most – better yet, come back when you have time to be entertained!

A little basic info before I get into stories:

Newfoundlands are in the “giant” dog breed category. Their average weight is 100 to 150 pounds, but they have been known to weight over 200 pounds, with the record being 260 pounds!

People think of newfies as large, black, thick-furred dogs with huge heads and floppy ears. Black and white is another common color, and they can also be brown or grey. They live longer than most large breeds, an average of 12-14 years. They get along well with other dogs, preferring companions their own size. They shed and drool in abundance.

Known as “gentle giants”, they are sweet-tempered. They do not need much exercise and are very people-oriented. They follow their owners and like to lean against them. They are especially fold of children, and at one time were used as “nannies”. Nana, from Peter Pan, was Luath, a Newfoundland, writer J. M. Barrie’s much-loved pet.

They are also known for courage, endurance, and loyalty. Webbed feet make them natural swimmers and they have a natural instinct for rescue. Stories of people saved from drowning or dug from snowdrifts are numerous.

Newfies are remarkably intelligent. An example is Chloe, a Newfoundland owned and trained by Hazel Carter. Hazel has taught Chloe to help with household chores that include loading the washing machine, transferring clean clothes from washing machine to dryer, taking out trash, carrying shopping bags and putting groceries away,  collecting groceries from the pantry, and pulling weeds.

The following web sites have interesting pictures and videos. You will have to scroll and click through:
Click here for video about Chloe:
Click here to see pics and video clips with newfie and giggling baby and a newfies jumping from a helicopter for water rescue:

The history of the breed goes as far back as the Vikings, and it is said that in 1775 Newfoundland Island was named for the dog, not the other way around. This is debatable.

Newfoundlands often accompanied U.S. explorers and voyageurs as early as the 17th Century. They would lope along on land, following canoes down the rivers, hunting their own food along the way, available to pull burdens, perform rescues, and for companionship.

The pictures before and after this post are of Seaman, a Newfoundland who was owned by Merriweather Lewis and accompanied Lewis and Clark’s Voyage of Discovery, probably selected because he was smart, strong, and a good swimmer. Lewis wrote in his journal that Seaman was skilled at catching and killing squirrels, which Lewis found excellent to eat once “fryed.”

The Shawnees were much attracted by the dog, but Lewis refused to trade for him. Seaman would wander and explore on his own, but each morning would return to accompany the group on the next leg of the trip. One night a buffalo bull charged into the camp, which was saved from destruction when Seaman chased it off.

Timothy Alden, in his book of inscriptions and epitaphs of the day, wrote the only known account of Seaman following the expedition. Lewis had suffered from depression for many years and met an untimely and suspicious death in 1809. Alden writes of Seaman the following: “The fidelity and attachment of this animal were remarkable. After the melancholy exit of Gov. Lewis, his dog would not depart for a moment from his lifeless remains; and when they were deposited in the earth no gentle means could draw him from the spot of interment. He refused to take every kind of food, which was offered him, and actually pined away and died with grief upon his master’s grave.”

To end this post, I conclude with “Epitaph to a Dog”, written by the poet Lord Byron, thought by some historians to be one of the most moving tributes ever written. The poem is inscribed on the tombstone of Boatswain, a Newfoundland owned by Lord Byron. Boatswain’s grave and marker are larger than Byron’s own.

Epitaph to a Dog
by Lord Byron
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
Boatswain, a Dog
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.

Statue of Seaman, the Newfoundland owned by Merriweather Lewis, outside custom house in Cairo, Illinois

Statue of Seaman, the Newfoundland owned by Merriweather Lewis, outside custom house in Cairo, Illinois


Published 4/1/16

Maine Coon Cats and Marie Antoinette

by Pat Camalliere

Maine Coon Cat and Rottweiler. Note the relative size!

Maine Coon Cat and Rottweiler. Note the relative size!

The Maine Coon Cat is the only show cat breed that originated in the United States. What does that have to do with Marie Antoinette?

The origin of the breed is speculative, but one legend has it that prior to her execution in 1793, Captain Clough was part of an unsuccessful rescue attempt to help Marie Antoinette escape from France. For one reason or another, the Queen never got on the ship, but it was already loaded with her possessions, which included six of her prized Turkish Angora cats. The ship sailed without her, but with the cats. Her pets reached Wiscasset, Maine, where they left the ship, interbred and developed into the Maine Coon Cat.

As speculative as is the origin of the Main Coon, so is the interbreeding. One legend is that they bred with bobcats, which explains the unusual size and tufted ears. Another version, due to the luxurious tail, is that they bred with raccoons. Doubtful as those theories are for genetic reasons, it is more likely they paired with long- or short-haired cats brought to the US in English ships; cats were kept on board to control rats and mice. One more story is that they may be descendants of cats off Viking ships in the 11th Century, as the breed shows much resemblance to the Norwegian Skogkatt, or Forest Cat.

Whatever the origin, the breed that developed has many unique qualities. The pictures above and below show their unusual size. They do not reach full size until three to four years, and have been known to approach 48 inches and near 30 pounds, which adds some plausibility to the bobcat theory, especially when one notes the tufted ears.

Unlike most cats, they are fascinated by and well adapted for water, with water-resistant coats and large well-furred paws, frequently with extra digits (called polydactyly, a fun word to impress friends). These features also make them well able to live in harsh weather, as the long and thick tail can be curled around themselves for protection and insulation, the wide heavily furred feet are like snowshoes, and the ears not only have tufts at the ear tips but inside to keep the ears warm.

As pets they are known as “gentle giants.” They are smart, affectionate, and playful clowns. They are also entertaining and known to be very vocal, making frequent yowling, chattering, chirping, and “talking back” vocalizations to their owners.

Why am I telling you about Maine Coon cats? It’s a way of introducing you to my next book, The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods, which is expected to be available in June. I have never personally owned a cat, but one of these charming pets is a minor character in the story, and when I was researching cat breeds to select one that could have been in the right time and place, I thought the breed was so interesting I wanted to share it with you. I hope you agree.

Maine Coon Cat—comfortable in harsh conditions. (Not to mention it’s also rather beautiful, don’t you think?)

Maine Coon Cat—comfortable in harsh conditions.
(Not to mention it’s also rather beautiful, don’t you think?)

Cover concept for my New Book due out in June is below. I’d love to hear your opinion of the cover design!

Email comments to:


Published 3/23/16

Blog Posts will resume shortly, but I’ve been busy!
Below are three exciting announcements to explain why the March post is delayed!

The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods


The Lost Town of Sag Bridge lecture

The History & Anecdotes of Lemont, Illinois

The Mystery at Black Partridge Woods

Soon to be released by Amika Press, hopefully by June 2016.

Cora, Cisco, and Frannie will be back, and this time they will partner with a young scientist, Nikan Pokagan. In this second book of the Cora Tozzi series, the characters investigate a mystery from 1817 to turn the adventures of Nick’s ancestor into a historical mystery novel.

The Lost Town of Sag BridgeLecture, 7 pm, Thursday, March 31
Lemont Area Historical Society
306 Lemont Street, Lemont
 Although it no longer exists, Sag Bridge was a thriving 19th century canal town, its land now a part of present-day Lemont.  Pat Camalliere, author of the popular historical mystery novel, The Mystery at Sag Bridge, will talk about how the background of Sag Bridge was used in the story, describing the town as it once was, including turn of the century transportation and ghost stories.  The program will include short readings and take place at the Lemont Area Historical Society, where part of the novel takes place. Participants will tour the Old Stone Church. Light refreshments will be served.  Registration required. (Lemont Public Library website, part of Good Reads Program)

The History & Anecdotes of Lemont, Illinois
6th Edition


This is not a new book, nor is it a book I wrote, but Kay Manning and I have dedicated our time as a gift to the people of Lemont, and have just finished revising and editing this fun collection of historical articles and stories about Lemont. The book was first made available in 1975 in a spiral-bound edition, written and compiled by members of the Lemont Historical Society. We have reorganized the book, added some new material, given it a new look, and made it available through Amazon. It will also be available in about a week at the Lemont Historical Society and soon other places in Lemont. Enjoy!

Published 2/17/16

Attempted robbery of Tedens Store on Stephens Street in Lemont, IL about 1930. Photo courtesy Lemont Area Historical Society

Attempted robbery of Tedens Store on Stephens Street in Lemont, IL about 1930. Photo courtesy Lemont Area Historical Society

Banking in Northern Illinois in the Early Days

Contrary to what one might expect, early settlers of Northern Illinois, beginning in the 1830s, were not all poor. Some left eastern states for expected greater opportunity in Illinois and arrived with sufficient means to purchase land. They brought food, clothing, furniture, wagons, and livestock with them. They built their homes, cleared the land, planted crops. At that time, barter was the only means of exchange, so they had no need for banks. But as they made profits on their crops and businesses sprang up around them, towns grew and so did the need for banking services.

At first all that was needed was a place to keep valuable papers, money or jewelry. There was nowhere to store valuables, police magistrate was a part time job, and in Lemont, Smokey Row with its disrespectable saloons and brothels was getting established!

Tedens Hardware Store at 106 Stephen Street in Lemont had a vault that rented boxes for that purpose. The vault was said to be so strong that three attempts to break into it failed. The most recent was in 1930. Despite what looks like a great deal of destruction in the photo above, the robbers were unable to get to the contents of the safe. Tedens vault is still in the back of the main floor of the old building today.

Other banking needs gradually developed: the need to store payroll money or to exchange currency; businesses wanted capital for further development; the occasional loan was needed, when crops failed or for funds to buy land or develop businesses.

It was not unusual for banks in those days to operate inside other businesses that housed large vaults, such as general merchandise stores or companies with large payrolls. One could enter an archway and select from a grocery, barbershop, restaurant, or—yes—a bank.

One of the reasons bank services were very different in the early years was because there was no standard currency until 1900 when the gold standard went into effect. Prior to that federal, state, and private banks all issued currency in the form of bank notes, the value of which varied from bank to bank. It was common for employers, such as quarry owners, to pay their workers with scrip, perhaps good only at the quarry owner’s company store. It was very confusing to say the least.

Adding to the uncertainty and poor reputation, early banks were prone to failure due to poor management or misuse of funds. An example of such a failure was the Lemont State Bank, started in 1891 with capital put up through the interests of notable Lemont business owners. Skeptical of the entire banking industry, the town was initially hesitant to trust this new bank. However, one person the town did trust was the bank’s president, Tom Huston, so people put their savings into the bank.

Tom Huston was the town’s Civil War hero, who, after surviving a number of battles, was wounded and sent to a Confederate prison. As the young man watched the horrors around him and the deaths of many prisoners, he asked God, “Why them and not me?” He became convinced he was meant to survive for a purpose and it became the guiding principle of his life.

After the war, he settled in Lemont and became well respected. He was elected to the village board, and then was made police magistrate, known for his honesty, courage, compassion and understanding. His task was not easy, as he held this position during some of Lemont’s most challenging years, dealing with such matters as large numbers of immigrants, labor disputes, early Smokey Row, and the Quarry Massacre of 1885. But he worked hard to develop his beloved Lemont: he helped build a subdivision, solicited manufacturers to locate in Lemont, helped start Pure Aluminum, organized the Lemont Electric Light and Power Company, and helped to form the Lemont State Bank.

At first the bank was a successful venture and helped the town. That is, until the owners started to speculate in the purchase of wheat, using bank capital to finance the investments. The bank failed, and some people lost all they had.

Huston was devastated, and burdened with guilt. The people would not have put their money into the bank, and lost it, if they had not believed in him. On February 12, 1897, he went to a hotel in Chicago and registered under a false name. On February 14, hotel management broke into his room and found him dead. On the mantle nearby was a flask of whiskey from which a single drink was gone, and an empty 3 ounce bottle of carbonic acid. The weight of the bank failure and his part in it was too much for his great character.


Published 1/19/16

Martin "Big Six" Sicks (left) and Michael Geary (right), convicted of robbery of Clearing State Bank, captured in Lemont, IL. Photo from Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1921.

Martin “Big Six” Sicks (left) and Michael Geary (right), convicted of robbery of Clearing State Bank, captured in Lemont, IL. Photo from Chicago Tribune, July 10, 1921.

Cops and Robbers – Lemont Style

Bank robberies are a serious business, but the robbery of the Clearing State Bank that took place on July 9, 1921, definitely had comic aspects ala Keystone Cops, although in this case Lemont cops got the upper hand in the end.

The gang of six was led by Martin “Big Six” Sicks, a notorious bank robber with a reputation for big heists, and Michael Geary, a convicted cop murderer and prison escapee. Geary had been serving two life sentences for killing Policeman John Rowe and civil war veteran H. J. Stevens in a holdup of a Lake Street ticket station. He had escaped in 1917 from the old penitentiary, was recaptured after two weeks, and escaped again in 1920 when he and eight other prisoners tunneled under the stockade from the honor farm at Lockport, IL.

The men had planned carefully—so they thought. On a Saturday morning the bank would be full of cash from the Corn Products payroll and because it was a weekend there would be few bank employees. One man stayed behind the wheel of the getaway car, two guarded the street, and three entered the bank waving guns. They forced the customers and employees into the vault, grabbed all the cash and bonds in sight, ran from the bank, jumped into the getaway car, and headed southwest on Archer Avenue.

Laughing and congratulating themselves on the ease of the robbery, the men counted their take— $15,000. But the fun was just about to begin. Soon they heard sirens; it appeared that a bank teller had set off an alarm, and a police car was in hot pursuit. Traffic was heavy on Archer, as people came out to enjoy the fine day. Neither car made much headway as they dodged through and scattered cars right and left. When the robbers got to Main Street, they decided to turn toward Lemont in an attempt to elude the police car.

Instead they found the road full of people on foot, heading to their favorite fishing spots, picnic areas and swimming spots at the quarries on a lovely summer day. Can you picture it: hordes of children and adults watching the cars speeding toward them?

The frustrated robbers were blaming each other when one had a brilliant idea. He grabbed handfuls of bills and coins and threw them out the window of their car. Children and adults scrambled madly, crawling around to grab what they could. The following police car screeched to a halt to avoid the crowd and policemen tried to move the people from the road and recover the bank’s money. They soon realized the money was lost and made their way slowly through the scrambling crowd to resume their pursuit, having lost valuable time.

Meanwhile, the gang roared into town. Geary grabbed an armful of money, ran from the car into a private home. He threw money on the owner’s bed, and told her he would make her rich if she kept her mouth shut. Amazed, she ran from the house. Geary settled himself comfortably on the back porch and pretended to read a paper, thinking he could fool the police that way. The other robbers felt they would have a better chance to escape if they split up, so they deserted the car and ran off in different directions.

The police, led by Chief of Detectives Michael Hughes, cordoned off the area, but as word spread through the town crowds of people assembled, talking in groups in the streets, running around looking for crooks—and money—and further impeding the police.

Ultimately, Sicks and Geary were found hiding under a sidewalk, one man was said to have been found hiding in a coal bin in someone’s basement, and another was found hours later on the northwest side of town, hiding in the bushes and mumbling about bad luck and “this cursed town.” The fate and identity of the remaining robbers is lost to history.

While Michael Geary waited in county jail for transfer to Joliet, a loaded revolver and a number of saws were found in his cell. He died in Joliet penitentiary in 1935 of a heart attack.

In the end, $7000 of the stolen $15,000 was recovered. No Lemont resident turned in missing money.



Published 12/22/15

The Best Christmas Gift

The Best Christmas Gift

The best Christmas present I ever received was a painting set. I was twelve years old that Christmas. Perhaps you remember how intensely a twelve-year-old can focus on a wanted item. It was all I could think of, yet I can’t begin to tell you now why I wanted it. I had no known talent for drawing, nor had I ever shown any interest in visual art, either appreciation or the desire to create it. Yet, for some reason, I wanted the tools that would open the world of creative art to me.

My parents were baffled, and resistant. “You’ll never use it!” my mother said. This was our second year in our own home, and we were not well-to-do, still struggling to furnish the house and make ends meet. Such an expensive request was not welcome.

When the family opened presents on Christmas Day, I was handed a large heavy box, and inside was the longed-for paint set. I stared at it without a word—I had been convinced I would never get it, and couldn’t believe what I held was for me. It was not just any old paint set but the king of all paint sets! Inside were about fifty tubes of oil paint, cakes of watercolors, an assortment of brushes, palette knives, charcoal sticks, linseed oil, a wooden palette, canvases, a professional-looking sketch pad, a collapsible easel, instruction books, color-mixing guides—all very adult and awe-inspiring.

You’re probably thinking the present brought out a hidden talent that became an important part of my life; but no, my mother turned out to be right—I never used the paints. Here is what I did do: I valued them. I’d take them in secret to a quiet corner, open the box and pick up each tube, memorizing the names of the colors, opening the ones I was unfamiliar with to put the visual with the name, thumbing through the instruction books over and over, handling the knives, palette, and canvases, not wanting to get them “dirty” by using them, making a few swipes with charcoal on scrap paper. I’d assemble the easel, prop an empty canvas on it, and play-act painting for hours on end—then carefully pack it all away as it came, sparkling new and unused, hiding it until “next time.” It was so valuable I was afraid of using anything up.

What I don’t remember is what ultimately became of the set. I grew up, of course, got involved in teen activities, then married and moved on, leaving behind the things of my youth in the family home. My mother probably ran across it in the attic and threw it away, shaking her head and thinking it had been a wasted gift. But I never forgot it, nor the feelings it engendered in me. Sixty years later I can still picture it in detail, still feel the awe of owning such a thing.

Before she died, I told Mom how important that gift had been, the knowledge that she loved me enough to give me something useless (in her mind) just because her daughter wanted it so bad. Telling her made her smile, but she didn’t remember the occasion. It didn’t make any difference that she didn’t remember. That’s the way between mothers and daughters.

Happy Holidays to all!
It’s been a great year, with the birth of granddaughter Mia and the publication of The Mystery at Sag Bridge. Thank you for sharing it with me!


Published 10/31/15

Photo courtesy Richard Hoyt Lee

History for Halloween – The Ghosts of Sag Bridge

The late 1890s seems to be when ghost activity peaked in the area of Sag Bridge, Illinois, now the northeast corner of Lemont. Many ghostly tales, some well documented, began here.

In late December, 1897, a rash of new sightings and hauntings was stirred up. Some said it was due to the discovery of the skeletons of nine Indians, well documented by scientists from Chicago. Professor Dosey determined the skeletons were several hundred years old, one being over seven feet tall. This was not the first time: skeletons had been turning up in and near Sag Bridge for years. But now villagers began reporting phantom Indians on horseback riding through the town at night, and other visions of roaming spirits. Some felt this was due to the fact that the skeletons had been disturbed, and demanded they be reburied. Some were reburied, but some were sent to the Field Museum in Chicago.

Not only Indians haunted the area. There were tales of a horse-drawn hearse traveling along Archer Avenue, pulling an infant’s casket, which was seen to glow through the viewing window. A county policeman reported chasing several figures in monk-like robes until they vanished before his eyes. A priest is rumored to have seen the ground rise and fall as if it were breathing.

Much of this activity seems to have been near St. James at Sag Bridge, a church in the middle of the forest, surrounded by a cemetery dating back to the early 1800s, years before the church was built. It is said that the site was originally an Indian village and an ancient Indian burial ground. Even in daytime, the property gives off an eerie atmosphere.

A story told about St. James at Sag Bridge also happened in 1897. Two musicians, Professor William Looney and John Kelly, had provided entertainment for a parish event, which went on until 1 a.m. Not wanting to travel back to their homes at this late hour, they opted to sleep overnight in a small building on the property. Looney was awakened during the night by the sound of galloping hoofs on the gravel road and looked out the window. He could see nothing to account for the sound, and gradually it faded.

He woke Kelly to tell him what had happened, and as they spoke, the sound returned. Both men looked out, and as the sounds again faded the form of a young woman appeared in the road. The sounds again approached, and this time horses and a carriage were seen coming part way up the drive. The woman danced in the road until she entered shadow, and the horses and carriage disappeared, only to start again a short time later. Each time they appeared, something new was added to the scene, and the woman began to call, “Come on!” as she disappeared.

The men reported the incident to local police the next morning, and it was verified that NO drinking had taken place to account for the tale. Since that time, similar sightings have continued to be reported by respectable residents. It is said the ghosts were the spirits of a young parish helper and housekeeper from the church, who fell in love and decided to elope. The man told his young lover to wait part way down the hill while he hitched the horses, but as he was coming for her, they startled, bolted, the wagon was overturned, and both were killed.

Today St. James at Sag Bridge is on the National Register of Historic Places, and still operates as a Catholic Parish. If you attend Mass there on a Sunday morning, you will park on this very hill, and walk through the cemetery, and you will see ushers pull ropes to ring the church bells, and you will think you have been transported back in time.

Is it any wonder that I set my novel, The Mystery at Sag Bridge, in this very special place?


Published 10/15/15

Prohibition Days In Lemont, Illinois – An Amusing Anecdote

Previous posts have told of both Lemont’s Smokey Row and relations to the Chicago mob. You might say today’s story embellishes on that theme. The story is part of Lemont lore, and likely is essentially true, as the original versions quoted names and gave more details. I’m giving an abbreviated version here.

An establishment once existed at 108 Stephen Street in Lemont, named The Palm Garden, registered as a “soft drink parlor”. The classification was a misnomer, as many such places were in those days, as it catered to appetites for something stronger than “soft drinks.” Food, drinks, pool, and dancing in an upstairs room were available. The owner was described as debonair, and his place took on that personality. His name was not one that would normally be associated with mob activity, but who knows?

On an evening in August, 1932, federal agents entered, barred the door, and announced a raid. As patrons poured out the back door, agents arrested the owner and ordered the patrons to go home. The patrons did not go home. Typical in Lemont in those days, they were not about to be deprived of the excitement of the occasion. They gathered in the street to watch, and soon were joined by patrons of other such “parlors” when word of the raid spread. Thoroughly enjoying themselves, and likely not completely sober, they stood around listening, hearing breaking glass, and other sounds of demolition emanating from inside the building.

No place in Lemont had been raided for many years, and no raids were expected. Neither the local nor county police were participating. Was it a real raid, someone in the street asked, or a clever scheme to rob the place? The idea caught on. The county police (in Justice, IL) were called and told there was a holdup in Lemont.

The federal agents inside had become nervous of the large crowd, and called for backup. When additional agents arrived, they were stopped by the crowd, who refused to let anyone into the building until county police got there.

The county police chief and four officers soon arrived, sirens blaring and carrying sawed-off shotguns. They pushed past the crowd, ignored Lemont’s police chief and mayor who had arrived on the scene, surrounded the building and demanded the agents open the doors.

The feds didn’t open up. They were afraid of the crowd. This led the police to think it WAS a real holdup, so they broke down the doors, to cheers from the crowd.

After a brief, nonetheless frightening, confrontation, the real situation was determined and the Palm Garden owner was handed off to Lemont’s police chief, who arrested him and took him to the Village Hall.

While Lemont officials were dealing with the prisoner, a new Lemont officer arrived on the scene to assist. He was not recognized by county police, was treated with suspicion and ultimately held and brought to Justice for further processing. Lemont’s police chief now had to rescue his own officer.

When all was said and done, federal agents demolished much of the Palm Garden, hauled off or destroyed furniture and fixtures, destroyed an extensive inventory of liquor, and by 3 o’clock in the morning everyone, including patrons, had gone home.

The next day the owner was released on bail and returned immediately to clean up his place, intending to reopen as soon as possible.

There were no more raids in Lemont. One can only guess at the reason. I’ll let you in on my guess: I think the Feds decided to let Lemont take care of Lemont.

This story is typical of Lemont lore, and one of the things that makes me glad to live here.


Published 9/23/15

Railroads Promote Recreation

Postcard of Dellwood Park, ca 1901, colorized. Presently this area is part of Lockport, not Joliet. Ruins of the stairs and dam remain. Photo courtesy of Lemont Area Historical Society.

Postcard of Dellwood Park, ca 1901, colorized. Presently this area is part of Lockport, not Joliet. Ruins of the stairs and dam remain. Photo courtesy of Lemont Area Historical Society.

When I walked through Dellwood Park in Lockport for the first time, I came across a crumbling staircase and the remnants of an old dam. Only after I checked on-line did I realize what I had stumbled across, a unique treasure from the early 1900s, related to my last blog post about the Chicago and Joliet Electric Train, also called street car or trolley.

When the railway owners realized the train routes were not operating at capacity on weekends, they got into the entertainment business to increase ridership. It wasn’t a new idea. During the construction of the sanitary canal in the mid 1890s, one of the steam railroads had organized tours of the canal construction sites, capitalizing on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to offer riders sights of one of the man-made wonders of the world in progress.

The Chicago Joliet Line’s answer is pictured above—Dellwood Park. The train dropped riders off right at the entrance to the park. The park opened in 1905, and included picnic grounds, a carousel, a lake with boats for rent, a boathouse and dancing pavilion, dance bands, and a grandstand with sulky races. Up to 15,000 visitors came on weekends. The pavilion burned down in the 1930s, after operating for more than thirty years. Today the lake is gone too, but Dellwood Park remains as a picnic area, and visitors can still see the dam and the stairs that overlooked the lake, and walk along a limestone bluff.

In nearby Romeoville, about halfway between Lemont and Dellwood Park, the train stopped at another popular spot, this one privately owned. Around 1915, Ebenezer Bruce, the owner of Bruce Quarry, was struggling to keep the business going. Brick and concrete was becoming a more popular building material than the limestone the quarry had produced for many years. Ebenezer came up with the idea to let springs fill the quarry. He brought in sand for a beach, installed a parking lot, bathhouse and lunch counter, and people came by car and by train from up to forty miles away to the sixteen-acre lake and Romeo Beach. The shrewd businessman didn’t stop there. In the winter he cut blocks of ice off the lake which he stored in an adjacent icehouse for summer use. The clear spring water was an asset to both enterprises.

In 1973 the quarry was sold to Commonwealth Edison, who drained the lake, thinking it would be used as a cooling pond for their coal plant. It was ultimately resold, and today nothing remains.

I can’t conclude without mentioning one last place many south-siders will recognize, the Landmark Restaurant, also known as Marlene’s Catering—also no longer in business. The building on Archer Avenue in Bedford Park was originally constructed as a substation serving the Chicago Joliet line. After the line ceased operation, it was operated as a dime-a-dance hall, and then became a popular restaurant and catering establishment for the next forty-four years, until closing at the end of 2014.

It was also reputed to be haunted.

Published 9/10/15

Lemont Street Cars

Lemont's Main Street, ca 1913 Photo courtesy of Lemont Area Historical Society

Lemont’s Main Street, ca 1913
Photo courtesy of Lemont Area Historical Society

I find it amazing that, over a hundred years ago, before the automobile was in general use, transportation to and from Lemont offered more options than today.

In the year 1905, for example, the following options were available:

  • A few passengers took barges up or down the I & M Canal, still in operation at that time.
  • Goods were primarily transported on the Sanitary and Ship Canal, which had opened in 1900, less on the I & M.
  • The Chicago and Alton Railroad had stations at both Lemont and Sag Bridge, steam trains in operation since 1858 for both passengers and freight.
  • The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, another steam train line, had passenger and freight service and a Lemont station since the mid-1890s.
  • Both lines together transported passengers through Lemont on twenty trains per day, compared to today’s six.
  • In 1899 an electric train (street car, or trolley) ran to Chicago from stations in Lemont and Sag Bridge, and was extended to Joliet in 1901. Electric trains ran every hour in the winter, and every half hour in the summer.
  • With stops along the way in both directions …

I remember green Chicago street cars I used to ride as a child. I can still hear the rumble they made over the rails, the clang when they stopped or started, feel the shiny woven wicker seats, see the man who ran from the driver’s place on one end to the opposite end when the car changed directions. It was fun for a child, and much preferable to stinky buses.

What I didn’t know was that electric cars ran for the most part on existing rails that were laid down for horse car lines as early as 1860 or so. Using rails elevated the cars from muddy streets, made a more comfortable ride, and allowed for cars equipped to carry up to 30 passengers to be pulled by only one or two horses.

In the 1890s, after a brief fling with cable cars for a few years, the same rails were used to run trolleys that were powered by electricity—huge batteries over three feet tall, up to a hundred, stacked in rows. These sent power to overhead lines to which the trolleys connected.

First constructed was a line that ran from Lockport Street in Lemont, running a double row of rails down Main Street to Sag Bridge. This extended down Archer Avenue where passengers would transfer at Cicero and Archer to the Chicago system. It was extended a short time later the opposite direction to Joliet, following much of today’s New Avenue.

Passengers loved the electric trains. They were clean and quiet, not loud, dirty and smoky like steam trains, and they were inexpensive, with frequent departures and stops along the way. They were not mere transportation—they were entertainment, an event, a good place to take a date.

They made the trip from Joliet to downtown Chicago, transfer included, in about an hour and a quarter, for five cents. Think about that next time you’re stopped on the Stevenson in bumper to bumper traffic.


Published 8/28/15

Lemont and Chicago’s Lincoln Park

Waterfall at Waterfall Glen, photo courtesy Du Page Forest Preserve District

Waterfall at Waterfall Glen, photo courtesy Du Page Forest Preserve District

Did you know that land and plants from Lemont went into the creation of Chicago’s Lincoln Park? And that you can walk the Keepataw Trail that traversed through that property?

On the north bluff of the Des Plaines River Valley, between the river and Argonne Laboratory, is Waterfall Glen, managed by the Du Page Forest Preserve District. The main trail of Waterfall Glen passes through the area, following a path developed many years ago by Boy Scouts as Keepataw Trail. The scouts earned a unique badge for hiking, camping, and helping to maintain the trail.

Once the area was farmland with a lumber mill along Sawmill Creek. It became Forest Preserve property in 1925. In the 1970s, Argonne Laboratory, adjacent to the park, donated some of its unused land to expand Waterfall Glen. In the years between the use of the property as farmland and later as recreation land, it was put to another little-known use.

Chicago’s Lincoln Park began as City Cemetery, in operation from 1843 to 1859. After the Civil War, a decision was made to relocate the remains buried there and create a park. The park was named Lincoln Park, as Lincoln’s assassination had just occurred. The Lincoln Park Commission, later to become the Chicago Park District, was created in 1869 and began to relocate the graves. The process took many years, and seems to some extent incomplete. To this day remains are occasionally found, due to the fact that grave markers were destroyed during the Chicago Fire.

In 1907, in accord with many landfill projects, 107 acres of Lemont land became a nursery that provided topsoil and plants for Lincoln Park. It was located on the bluff southeast of the present location of the Rocky Glen Waterfall, on the eastern side of Waterfall Glen.

Those who hike and bike the trail through the area have puzzled about the remnants of a small structure with “LPS 1921” carved into the stone. Although there is some ambiguity, it is thought the carving is for “Lincoln Park School”, which was actually a small administration building used by the nursery.

In front of the lookout point on the main trail the viewer will notice a broadening of the river. This is the “borrow pit” from which topsoil was removed to cover Lincoln Park with fertile soil for its lawns, field, and gardens.

Other areas of historical interest are found along the old Keepataw Trail, including Signal Hill, a high ground used by Native Americans to send smoke signals, and the picturesque waterfall shown above. Surprisingly, the name of the preserve did not come from the waterfall, but was named in honor of Seymour “Bud” Waterfall, an early president of the district.

If you find yourself with nothing to do at 8:30 am on Labor Day, September 7, why not join the Lemont Area Historical Society for a walking tour on Keepataw Trail? The one-hour tour will include Sawmill Creek and the waterfall, and maps will be distributed for those who would like to make a longer hike on their own, and tour guide Richard Lee promises some surprises. Reservations are required, and the fee is $5.00 cash. The tour will begin at the Rocky Glen parking area near Cass and Bluff Roads. Call the Lemont Area Historical Society at 630-257-2972 to make reservations and for more details.

I plan to be one of the guides on this tour, and autographed copies of my book, The Mystery at Sag Bridge, will be available for purchase.

Map of section of Waterfall Glen, courtesy Du Page Forest Preserve District

Published 8/12/15

The Women of Smokey Row

Of the hundred or so “establishments” that composed Lemont’s Smokey Row between 1893 and 1897, some called themselves saloons, clubs, gambling halls, brothels, or dance halls. Typically, in addition to liquor and gambling, women were part of the “trade”, and entertainment such as nude dancing was readily available and advertised.

Although tolerated for the income these places brought, Smokey Row was obviously not a source of pride in the community, and Lemont had little interest in recording or preserving its history. For this reason, I have no photo to post with this article, and not a lot is known about the establishments nor the women who worked in them. The women, and the saloons, also changed their names as frequently as they changed their clothes; nonetheless, a few stories have trickled down from the past.

On payday, when the workday ended, the tops of the workers’ heads could be seen bobbing along as they approached Smokey Row, and the competition for patrons began. Women didn’t wait for the men to arrive, but rushed out clothed in exotic dress—and a range of undress—to entice and latch onto a “gentleman” for the evening. Often the “ladies of the evening” fell to battling each other over patrons, sometimes in the front yard of a resident. The fun began before the establishments were even entered!

Hattie Briggs was over six feet tall, weighed 250 pounds, and her trademark dress was a long red coat. The cost of a prostitute in the house of ill repute she ran was only 25 cents, but she made her fortune by grabbing the patron, taking his money, and throwing him out the door. She kept her business going by paying protection to town officials. She was so successful that her friends flocked to join her, setting up their own businesses, resulting in increased rents in vacant buildings, so that honest businessmen profited from her trade too.

A middle-aged woman who called herself “Sarah Bernhardt” could best be described as “ridden hard and put away wet”, but was so popular among the patrons of Smokey Row that when she was arrested in one of the town’s infrequent raids, a mob estimated to be over a hundred men fought each other to post her bail.

On one of the raids, seventy or so women were arrested and put on a train to Chicago. Viewing the incident as a minor setback, feeling they could easily get protection from the mayor, they discovered him riding in their car, as he had been arrested too. (That would be Mayor John McCarthy, for whom McCarthy Road is named.) As it turned out, their confidence was warranted.

When the raid began, women streamed out of the saloons, running down the canal towpath in various stages of undress. Townspeople flocked out of their homes to view the excitement, and a crowd boarded a second train to Chicago, which actually arrived before the prisoners, who exited the train waving to their fans. A wealthy Lemont resident stood bail for all the Smokey Row residents, and by 1 am everyone was back in town, and back in business as usual.

The raids had been held at the prompting of Reverend Clancy in a struggle against immorality. In an effort to entrap him, a plot was devised by saloon owners to lure Clancy to the bedside of a young woman on Smokey Row on the premise that she was dying and wanted to repent. The idea was to either do away with Clancy or compromise him, but the kind-hearted prostitute yelled out a warning to Clancy in time.

Sort of sounds like the Wild West, right here in historic downtown Lemont, doesn’t it? But with our own unique flavor.

If you missed my last blog that introduced Smokey Row, please visit my web site,

 Much of the information in today’s blog was obtained from Sonia Kallick’s book, Lemont and It’s People.
Sonia loved Lemont and wrote articles about it for years, resulting in this book which is available at the Lemont Historical Society. It is an excellent, and often delightful, reference.

In addition to print, Amazon, Kindle, Nook and Kobo,
The Mystery at Sag Bridge
is now available as an iBook.
I am also delighted with some new reviews.
Please read them after the blog post.

Hope you are all enjoying the last weeks of summer.

If you are enjoying the information in these newsletters, please consider forwarding them to your friends, or letting them know they can subscribe at

Published 7/29/15

 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. 

If you are enjoying the information in these newsletters, please consider forwarding them to your friends, or letting them know they can subscribe at

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.

Published 7/15/15

Illinois, the Sucker State

One nickname for Illinois is The Land of Lincoln (which appears on the U.S. Mint's bicentennial commemorative quarter for Illinois).

One nickname for Illinois is The Land of Lincoln (which appears on the U.S. Mint’s bicentennial commemorative quarter for Illinois).

You probably recognize Illinois’s state nickname as, The Land of Lincoln. That’s what you read on coins and auto license plates, right? Perhaps you also recognize Illinois as The Prairie State.

What you may not know is that for much of the 19th century, Illinois had a less noble nickname: The Sucker State. Yes, I’m serious! There is no doubt that this nickname was associated with Illinois, but the origin of the moniker is subject to debate.

One explanation involves a common practice among travelers and inhabitants of the prairie. When water was needed, long, hollow reeds were thrust down into crawfish holes, and the water was literally sucked up, as through a straw. Such watering holes were called “suckers” by locals.

Another explanation derives from the earliest settlers of the state, immigrants from the tobacco states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia to central and southern areas of Illinois. Tobacco plants had sprouts from the main stem that were commonly called “suckers”, which had to be removed so as not to rob the plant of vital nutrients. Many of these early settlers were poor people who had moved to Illinois seeking a better life, but society tended to look down on poor migrants, considering them a burden. It was thought that most of such settlers would fail and perish, much as the tobacco sprouts did. Therefore, they were therefore derisively called “suckers,” and the term came to refer to the entire region, essentially most of the state’s population.

Perhaps the most popular explanation had to do with the northern part of the state instead. When the state’s first lead mine was opened in 1824 near Galena, thousands flocked to the area in search of work. Most came from Missouri and southern Illinois, traveling north on steamboats up the Mississippi River to Galena in the spring, where they would work until fall, and then return home. These travels corresponded to the migration pattern of a fish called a “sucker”, and the name was attributed to these workers by Missourians as a joke. With 6,000 to 7,000 men coming to the Galena mine each year by 1827, the mass influx and exodus generated considerable strains and rivalries. In retaliation for the derisive term “suckers”, Illinoisans started calling Missourians “pukes”, a reference to the way in which Missouri had vomited forth to Galena the worst of her residents.

Over Illinois’ nearly 200-year history, the state’s residents have been called other names, and The Land of Lincoln, as well as The Prairie State, are considerable improvements. I’m sure you’ll agree that, in view of recent events in our proud state, being called suckers presents an image problem that not even today’s best public-relations experts could handle.


 The best news I have to share this week has nothing to do with history, but everything to do with the birth of my new grand daughter yesterday, Mia Elena Dempsey! I hope to be able to include a picture for you soon.

Aside from that exciting event, everything else pales, but it has been a busy couple of weeks with Amika’s Book Signing and Reading on July 6, a delightful afternoon at Franciscan Village in Lemont on July 9, Lemont’s Heritage Fest on July 11, and the Farmer’s Market on
July 14.

If you are enjoying the information in these newsletters, please consider forwarding them to your friends, or letting them know they can subscribe at


Published 7/1/15

Lemont Waterways: The Cal Sag Channel

Doesn’t look like much, does it? This is a ditch that drained swampy areas in the Sag Valley and flowed into the Sanitary Canal prior to construction of the Cal-Sag Channel that replaced it. Photo courtesy Sanitary District of Chicago.

Doesn’t look like much, does it? This is a ditch that drained swampy areas in the Sag Valley and flowed into the Sanitary Canal prior to construction of the Cal-Sag Channel that replaced it. Photo courtesy Sanitary District of Chicago.

So here’s the bottom line. After almost 80 years and three generations of effort to improve the Chicago waterways, to allow for adequate flow away from Chicago and Lake Michigan, to ensure water levels that would not allow flow back into the lake—guess what? It still didn’t work as planned! At low water levels, that canal still flowed the wrong way, although now only occasionally—but even occasionally was not desirable. So what to do? I bet you know. Why this was Chicago—we built another canal!

A small ditch, sometimes just swampland, trickled through that other valley, the Sag Valley. At one time that ditch flowed into the Des Plaines River, but now, of course, both the I & M Canal and the Sanitary Canal flowed between the ditch and the river. If it had some more water in it, that would do the trick.

In 1911 construction began on the Cal-Sag Channel, which connected the Little Calumet River to the Sanitary Canal at Sag Bridge. It was completed in 1922. It did the job. Finally.

The Little Calumet River ultimately connects to Lake Michigan south of Chicago. “Experts” think the first canal, the I & M, should have taken this route through the Sag Valley instead of the Des Plaines River Valley. Who knows if this would have worked any better?

Lemont is the only place where all four waterways flow: the Des Plaines River in its new bed; the old unused I & M Canal, now part of the I & M Heritage Corridor and its system of trails; and the meeting of the Sanitary Canal and Cal-Sag Channel within its boundaries.

If one drives north on Archer Avenue from Lemont, just past where Archer becomes Route 83 for a short distance, is a quarry on your right, and you proceed over a bridge that takes you over the Cal-Sag Channel. This waterway replaces much of what was once the town of Sag Bridge. After this bridge, Archer splits off to the right. At this intersection, the high ground overlooks both valleys and directly to the west the Cal-Sag and Sanitary Canal meet. Proceeding north on Route 83, you pass over the I & M Canal, then the Sanitary Canal, and then the Des Plaines River. Take a good look next time you go this way. I hope you remember some of what you just read.

 There is a lot of news this week!
 First, a reminder that on Monday night, July 6, I will be a featured writer at a book signing event hosted by my publisher, Amika Press, along with more of Amika’s writers and new releases. See below for more information, and I hope to see some of you there!


Next, I was pleased to be spotlighted on CelticLady’s Reviews, a book review blog. Those of you who have read The Mystery at Sag Bridge will realize the significance of an Irish book reviewer!
You can view the spotlight

Congratulations to Amy Manta, who was selected after the Tinley Park Library Author Fair to receive a Wellness Journal.

And last, but not least, have a wonderful holiday this weekend!



Published 6/17/15

Lemont Waterways: Submarines on the Sanitary Canal

WWII Submarine in floating dry dock at Lockport, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Photo courtesy Gary Ward and the Lockport Historical Society, ca 1943.

WWII Submarine in floating dry dock at Lockport, Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. Photo courtesy Gary Ward and the Lockport Historical Society, ca 1943.

When I was in high school, boys said they took their girl to watch submarine races, meaning they went “necking”. After you read this you may wonder if this is how that old saying got started. Today I’m talking about real United States World War II submarines traveling down the Sanitary Canal.

In 1940, the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Company in Wisconsin was commissioned to construct submarines by the U. S. Navy for use in WWII. The company, who had never built a submarine before, completed the first sub 228 days ahead of schedule, and promptly was awarded additional contracts. Ultimately, 28 submarines were constructed, at a cost of more than $5,000,000 LESS than the contract price. That’s pretty impressive when one thinks about defense spending in more recent years. Perhaps, since the company was new at the submarine business, they didn’t realize it was supposed to take longer and cost more.

The subs were tested in Lake Michigan, a process referred to as “shakedown training”, and were determined fit for service. The question then should occur to you—how to get the subs from Lake Michigan to sea? The St. Lawrence Seaway had not been opened yet.

Our Sanitary Canal, the engineering marvel constructed 40 years before the war, to the rescue again! The subs had a draft of 15 feet, and the Chicago River and Sanitary Canal could well handle that. Not to say the process was clear sailing (forgive the pun, please!). Here’s how the trip was accomplished:

Periscopes and radar masks were removed in order to clear bridges. One railroad bridge remained too low for passage of the subs, at Western Avenue. The Navy paid for lift machinery to elevate the bridge so the subs could clear. The subs then traveled down the canal to Lockport, where they were loaded onto a floating dry dock (or barge) for the remainder of the trip down the Illinois River, towed by the tugboat Minnesota, through the 9-foot-deep Chain of Rocks Channel at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. There the periscopes and radar masts were reinstalled.

Residents turned out to stand along the sides of the canal and watch submarines travel down the canal to war. So if you run across an oldster from one of our canal towns who talks about watching submarines on the sanitary canal during “the war”, he or she is not inventing a story to impress you, but describing a truly rare event.

My thanks to Gary Ward and Candace Hrpcha from the Lockport Historical Society ( ) for assistance with this article. If you have further interest I suggest you visit the website of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. This link is to a photo I especially liked:


Published 6/3/15

Lemont Waterways: Admiral Dewey and the Battle of the Ship Canal

Post card, ca. early 1900s, courtesy of Lemont Area Historical Society. Post cards were very inexpensive during this time period and a popular way of communicating.

Post card, ca. early 1900s, courtesy of Lemont Area Historical Society. Post cards were very inexpensive during this time period and a popular way of communicating.

I promised you a story about the opening of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The truth is, not everyone was in favor of the canal. St. Louis filed a lawsuit in 1899 to prevent the opening, fearing it would do little more than dilute Chicago’s pollution, move the contamination further “downstream” and poison the waters all the way to New Orleans. A battle ensued at the end of 1899: Missouri was preparing a case for a federal court to issue injunctions to stop the canal, and the Sanitary District was racing to complete the job before that could happen.

On New Year’s Day, 1900, the Sanitary District trustees declared the canal ready to open. That night, with no ceremony or official notice, a dredge began to work its way through a small barrier at 31st Street and Kedzie Avenue in Chicago, a thin strip that separated the Chicago River from the canal, and water began to trickle its way into the new canal. It worked its way to the dam by January 17. Once begun, the damage was done, and no injunction could now stop the flow.

Later that spring, Admiral Dewey, the great hero of the Spanish-American War at Manila Bay, paid a visit to Chicago. He was tremendously popular at the time, such that he was being considered to run for President. Seeing an opportunity to correct the negative feelings that had been generated about the canal, he was invited to perform an inspection tour to demonstrate to the world the great accomplishment.

Construction workers along the canal were once again involved in bitter work disputes, but suspended strikes planned for the day, and built a platform for boarding. Accompanied by Mayor Harrison of Chicago, Admiral Dewey and a host of 200 canal dignitaries boarded the cutter “Hilda” on May 2, 1900, for a trip down the canal to the Bear Trap Dam at Lockport.

Each town they passed along the way attempted to outdo the rest with ceremony, large numbers of people, children waving flags and singing patriotic songs from the canal banks, and much cheering and setting off of cannon volleys. An elaborate luncheon was held on board, with an abundance of food and drinks for all—not a wise choice, as things turned out.

In order to ensure adequate flow, the chief engineer had ordered extra water in the canal, and as the boat neared Lockport, it began to rain heavily. The increased water level was creating an undertow, a hazardous situation as the cutter moved toward the dam.

Seeing this, Dewey suggested Harrison warn the captain to stay well clear of the controlling works at the dam. High on the excitement of the day and the honor of carrying the Admiral down the canal, undoubtedly affected by the drinking of a good deal of spirits, the captain blustered that this was his boat, he knew what he was doing and did not require any interference.

When Harrison returned to the deck, Dewey could not at first be found. Returning to the bridge, Harrison found Dewey alone at the helm. The captain was being held in a stateroom, ranting about mutiny and cursing Dewey. Dewey reassured Mayor Harrison that he was successfully getting the boat clear of the dam, but noted that he had felt in greater danger than he ever was in Manila.

Meanwhile, the rain stopped, the people, unaware of what was occurring, cheered their hero, and the trip back to Chicago was made not on the canal but by train.

This story is taken from anecdotes available at the Lemont Area Historical Society. Today the power house is operated remotely by the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, and the dam is not accessible to the public. However, during the City of Lockport’s upcoming Old Canal Days celebration, free tours of the lock will be given on a first come, first served basis on June 20 and 21, beginning at 10:15 am and hourly thereafter. Boarding passes will be issued and buses will depart from Heritage Village, at 2nd and State in Lockport.


Published 5/20/15

Lemont Waterways: The Sanitary Canal

Picture of men in crane basket during construction of the Canal in Lemont, 1895. Photo courtesy the Lemont Area Historical Society.

Picture of men in crane basket during construction of the Canal in Lemont, 1895. Photo courtesy the Lemont Area Historical Society.

This is my favorite canal—okay, I know—that’s strange, to have a favorite canal. But what a canal!

The ambition was huge. Nothing like this had ever been done. The Sanitary District of Chicago was going to move the Des Plaines River into a new bed, and use the old riverbed to excavate a new canal, with a system of locks to reverse the flow of the Chicago River. It became known locally as “The Chicago School of Earth Moving”.

And the canal was huge. It ran 28 miles from Chicago to Lockport, averaging 150 feet wide and 22 feet deep. It took 8500 men and an assortment of newly-designed machines to remove 29 million cubic yards of soil and 12 million cubic yards of rock. In comparison, the Suez Canal is 82 feet wide and is excavated in sand, not stone. The machines and techniques developed to construct the Sanitary Canal were used to train people who constructed the Panama Canal some years later.

The equipment, newly designed just for this project, was remarkable: a grading machine pulled by 16 horses, fifty steam shovels, and a dredge 23 feet wide and 50 feet long, for instance. The picture above shows the capacity of a large crane basket, in this case filled with tourists rather than stone. I thought the dog was a nice touch. Construction was occurring at the same time as Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the country, indeed the world, was in the midst of an age of technology; the automobile had been invented but was not yet in general use.

Canal construction was such an event that the Chicago and Alton Railroad ran excursions of the construction sites, urging sight-seers to visit the sites for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to view the outstanding geological and mechanical features, describing it as “…the most stupendous and miraculous example of canal construction and channeling which the world has ever known….” People on the tour were encouraged to get off at any of six train stops, walk around the sites and machinery, and bargain for fossils, which were plentiful in the exposed stone walls.

Construction began in 1892, the Lemont section was finished about 1896, and the canal opened on January 2, 1900 (more about that in a future post). The terminus is Bear Trap Dam, now the Lockport Dam, which regulates the flow of the canal into the Des Plaines River. It is the only shipping link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

It is of note that the depth of the Lockport Dam is the same as that of the Niagara River, which connects to the Great Lakes, as does the canal. One might wonder what would happen if the dam were to fail. It has been said that Niagara Falls would run dry and Central Illinois would become a lake. I’m not going to comment about the truth of that supposition.

Published 5/13/15

The I & M Canal – Part Two

This is a photo of the I & M Canal as it looks today. The canal channel runs across the back of the photo following the stone wall. In the foreground is a turning basin that a barge would pull into to allow another barge to pass. There were a number of these between each canal port. There were ports in both Lemont and Sag Bridge.

This is a photo of the I & M Canal as it looks today. The canal channel runs across the back of the photo following the stone wall. In the foreground is a turning basin that a barge would pull into to allow another barge to pass. There were a number of these between each canal port. There were ports in both Lemont and Sag Bridge.

The Lemont section of the I & M canal was dug initially by French and Irish men who were recruited from Canada, where jobs for unskilled laborers were scarce. Later they were joined by Irish and German immigrants. Irish men from certain regions of Ireland had a great deal of difficulty getting along with each other, and the Germans and Irish didn’t get along either. Quarrels were serious and frequent. Adding to the long days and hard labor, much of the Lemont section was dug through rock or swampland, and the men stood in water a good deal of the time, increasing the incidence of disease. They lived primarily in tents, dormitory style, and overcrowding and poor hygiene added to their difficult living and working conditions. The typical workday lasted fourteen hours.

Many of you know the rest of the story: the canal was finished in 1848; promises were broken as the contractors ran out of money. Canal workers were treated badly and paid not with money but with paper to buy cheap land; the population of Chicago, after the canal opened, jumped to 30,000 by 1850 and 110,000 by 1860, and Chicago became established as the major transportation hub of the United States; the canal workers left Lemont or took jobs in the quarries—oh, you didn’t know that part? Well, that’s a story for another time, but here’s a hint: the quarry workers weren’t treated any better than the canal workers were.

Note the rock on the left. This is what the canal was dug through. Construction of the canal led to the discovery of a popular limestone that was quarried commercially after the canal was completed. The canal was dug 6 feet deep and 60 feet wide, by hand remember, through this rock. It was also used to construct the canal walls.

Note the rock on the left. This is what the canal was dug through. Construction of the canal led to the discovery of a popular limestone that was quarried commercially after the canal was completed. The canal was dug 6 feet deep and 60 feet wide, by hand remember, through this rock. It was also used to construct the canal walls.

So here’s the final word on the I & M Canal. It led to the growth of Chicago, but as the population grew a serious problem developed: the waterways became polluted and disease, especially fear of cholera, became of great concern. Homes, farms, the stockyards, and other industries dumped waste into the Chicago River, which carried it out into Lake Michigan. The lake was the area’s source of drinking water. NOT GOOD.

Oh, mules pulled barges up and down the canal to the thriving canal ports, and enough water to float them was diverted into the canal. But the dry spells that affected the Des Plaines River also affected the canal, and waste management became a serious concern. The Chicago Sanitary District was created in 1889 to solve the problem.

Something had to be done…a better canal was needed to fix that, and it ultimately replaced the I & M Canal. The new canal was called the Chicago and Sanitary Ship Canal (by locals “the drainage ditch”) and it was a marvel of engineering. It reversed the flow of a river!

The I & M Canal did not officially close until 1933. Today remnants of it remain. Lemont has well developed walking and biking trails extending from its historical downtown area both east and west along the canal, which also travel past picturesque old quarries. The pictures above were taken there just this week. There are similar sections in other communities along the way, including a loop that can be accessed from Archer Avenue in the forest preserves east of Red Gate Woods and from Willowbrook. Walk them, or bike them. Or fish the quarries. You’ll enjoy it.

Published 5/6/15

Lemont Waterways – The I & M Canal

Look closely – this isn’t what it seems! Keep reading… (Photo courtesy of Sanitary District of Chicago)

Look closely – this isn’t what it seems! Keep reading… (Photo courtesy of Sanitary District of Chicago)

Following a smattering of frontiersmen, explorers, and fur traders who moved through the area, early non-native settlers were predominantly farmers and tradesmen who settled here after the War of 1812 until the early 1830s. The construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which began when the first shovel of dirt was removed symbolically on July 4, 1836, caused tremendous changes in Lemont. With the sudden availability of jobs for canal workers, immigrants flocked to the area.

Before construction could begin, roads were needed to transport construction supplies. The first road to be laid out, between Chicago to Lockport, was Archer Avenue. It followed an Indian trail, developed from what probably was originally a deer path, and was named for Colonel William Archer, one of the canal commissioners. It cost $40,000 to build, and this created somewhat of a scandal at the time, since Colonel Archer was not only a canal commissioner, but had extensive property in Lockport and would clearly benefit personally from the road. It would seem that the patronage system in the area got an early start.

Be that as it may, the road was important not only to the canal, but to the settlers, who needed road transport to get their produce to market; they competed for land close to the crucial roadway, as completion of the waterway was still long off. As a result of proximity to Archer Avenue, Lemont farmers did quite well, due to the demand for food to supply the canal workers.

The canal was to run 96 miles, from the Chicago River at Bridgeport to the Illinois River at LaSalle.  It was to be 60 feet wide and 6 feet deep, and drop a total of 140 feet from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River, requiring 17 locks and 4 aqueducts.

Surely you’re familiar with locks, but aqueducts? You probably know aqueducts carry water from one location to another. But did you ever think about what happens when a canal meets another body of water? A body that might carry its water off in an entirely different direction? The photo above shows a solution, in this case, a wooden aqueduct, or water bridge, that carried the I&M Canal over Aux Sable Creek east of Morris, Illinois. There were four like this along the I&M.

Towpaths were laid out along the sides of canals so that mules could pull barges the length of the canal. Towns were located at intervals the mules could traverse, as rest stops, with barns to change the animals, and perhaps a saloon or two. Initially not only merchandise and supplies rode down the canal, but also passenger travel via barges was popular, until railroads, developed alongside the same route, opened in 1853.

You can probably guess that, although the canal greatly affected transportation, those mules didn’t set any speed records. The average rate of travel was about three miles an hour, providing there was sufficient water in the canal and it wasn’t frozen. Passengers, tired of sitting for long periods, often got out to stretch their legs and walked along the towpaths with the mules. Others just relaxed from the long hard hours of everyday life and watched the peaceful scenery pass slowly before their eyes.


Published 4/29/15

Lemont Waterways – How the River Got Its Name

This is a view of the Des Plaines River taken in August 2015, when the water was low. Note the calm ripples and vegetation mid-river. Note the shallow banks. Imagine how this same spot would look with the river at flood stage and how much of the surrounding area would be covered.

This is a view of the Des Plaines River taken in August 2015, when the water was low. Note the calm ripples and vegetation mid-river. Note the shallow banks. Imagine how this same spot would look with the river at flood stage and how much of the surrounding area would be covered.

Native Americans called the Des Plaines River She-shick-ma-wish-sip-pe, or “soft maple tree river.” I for one am glad that name didn’t stick. Most of the earliest non-native explorers spoke French, and historians propose the river was named after the plaine tree, a type of maple which lined the banks of the river. I would suggest another possibility, based on the experience of our old friend Father Marquette. I use the word “old” meaning that we are long familiar with him, not that he was aged, as he died just shy of his 38th birthday, on May 18, 1675, not long after the experience below.

Father Marquette well knew the river’s reputation for overflowing its banks, and in 1675 recorded this experience:

“On the 28th (March 28, 1675) the ice broke up, and stopped above us. On the 29th, the waters rose so high that we had barely time to decamp as fast as possible, putting our goods in the trees, and trying to sleep on a hillock. The water gained on us nearly all night, but there was a slight freeze, and the water fell a little, while we were near our packages. The barrier has just broken, the ice has drifted away; and, because the water is already rising, we are about to embark to continue our journey… (March 31). The very high lands alone are not flooded. At the place where we are, the water has risen more than twelve feet.”

A French word for “high water” is “plein”. I don’t know about you, but I like this story better than a “plaine” old maple tree, as it gives the river credit for its troublesome behavior. Take your pick.

Before we leave the river and move on to the I&M Canal next week, I wonder if there are a few of you who still remember the days before refrigeration was generally available and our kitchens depended on ice boxes. I lived on the south side of Chicago as a child, and I can remember when “the ice man cometh” for his weekly visit to the few homes that still needed ice. The children would flock around his truck begging for chunks of ice to nibble, and he usually obliged. I had no clue then where the ice came from, but I bet you know what I’m going to say – yep, it was local rivers, and perhaps most abundantly from the Des Plaines, particularly a few miles upstream from Lemont near Willow Springs. Huge blocks were cut from the frozen river, weighing about eighty pounds, layered with straw and stored in warehouses near the river banks until needed in summer months. I suppose the river was cleaner in those days, but I still wonder how we survived nibbling on those chunks of ice.

One might also note that, despite our complaints about the miserable winter we had this year, the river did not freeze solid, as it regularly did a hundred years ago. How much more miserable were our grandparents and great grandparents? But if one listened to our weathermen the winter of 2014–15 was one for the record books.

Published 4/22/15

Correction: In last week’s article, in my desire to point out the reason the golf course and Argonne laboratory could not exist side by side, I inappropriately referred to Argonne as a “secret atomic bomb complex”. This shortcut to making a point resulted in an inaccurate statement, as I should have explained that the experiments done at this site were to set up and build a nuclear reactor and create a sustained and controllable nuclear reaction. The use of that research to create a nuclear bomb was done at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge, not at Argonne. Argonne is a highly respected facility and good neighbor, and has always been devoted to the peaceful uses of energy, of which nuclear energy is only one source.

Lemont Waterways – The River

This picture of the Des Plaines River was taken by me in the fall of 2014. I selected this photo so you can see the hillocks, calm flow, and low banks of the river at this time of year, compared to how the river would appear after heavy rain.

This picture of the Des Plaines River was taken by me in the fall of 2014. I selected this photo so you can see the hillocks, calm flow, and low banks of the river at this time of year, compared to how the river would appear after heavy rain.

I get excited when I talk about the Lemont waterways, because they are so important to the growth of the entire Midwest, and the only place they all come together is Lemont. They started here, as a glimmer in the mind of Father Jacques Marquette in 1674, and today the junction that finally made his ideas work is in Lemont.

Scores of books, or more, have been written about the canals, and I’m not going to repeat all that here, but I do want to share some of the excitement and interesting facts.

Before the canals there was the river, the Des Plaines River, running through the Des Plaines River Valley, and creating bluffs that are unique to the Chicago area, as well as the only canyon in Cook County, Sagawau Canyon off Route 83 near Route 171. Native Americans made their villages along the river, notably the Potawatomi, the predominant tribe when the first white men came to the area.

Potawatomi and other Native American tribes depended on rivers not only for food and water, but as the primary way of getting quickly from one place to another, by canoe. Although trails, developed along deer paths for the most part, existed, these were not as convenient nor as fast as rivers and streams. The Des Plaines River was heavily traveled, as it connected south and west to the Illinois River, flowing into the Mississippi and to the Gulf of Mexico, and north and east it connected, after only a short portage (short land area between two waterways) to the Chicago River, then to Lake Michigan, to the Saint Lawrence River, and the Atlantic Ocean.

This was not a perfect system. The Des Plaines River was greatly affected by seasonal, climatic, and weather changes. In the spring or during heavy rains, the river rose up to twenty feet, flooded its banks and became a raging torrent that was difficult to navigate. In the summer it dried up to the point that it became unnavigable swampland, full of mosquitoes and disease. In the winter it froze with treacherous mushy spots, making it unfit for either canoe or foot travel. Despite that, the natives learned the moods of the river and how to profit from them.

When Father Marquette explored this area in 1674, he is said to have stayed at or near what is today Saint James at Sag Bridge Catholic Church, off Route 171 near Route 83. Can you picture him, standing on a bluff overlooking both the Des Plaines River Valley and the Sag Valley, having been shown by local Indians the portage between the Chicago River and the Des Plaines, and conceiving of an idea to build a canal to create a water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico?

Father Marquette’s idea refused to die, but it was not until 1822 that the federal government finally set aside land for the creation of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which would link the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan, and not until 1836 that sufficient funds were found to break ground. Lemont would become a major player in its construction.

As canal construction began, the population of Chicago mushroomed from 350 to about 2000 in anticipation of an expected boom. Lemont’s population was similar, in anticipation of a need for canal workers.

To be continued …

Published 4/15/15

The Lost Golf Course of Sag Bridge

Palos Golf Club ca 1920s. Photo courtesy Lemont Area Historic Society

Palos Golf Club ca 1920s. Photo courtesy Lemont Area Historic Society


In an earlier post about Al Capone’s connections with Lemont, I mentioned a lost golf course. There has been a lot of recent interest in this topic, so I’m going to tell you more about it.

The photo on the right above is the clubhouse of the Palos Golf Club. As you can see, it is no little outpost, but a building that would interest someone like Al Capone as a hangout, since it was in an isolated area and provided comfortable amenities to someone with expensive tastes.

The land, farmland which had been cleared of forest by early settlers, was purchased by the Cook County Forest Preserve in 1918, and 10 holes were opened in 1921. An exhibition match was played there in 1924 by Chick Evans, who was defeated by Jock Hutchinson. In 1925 or 1926 it was opened as an 18-hole course, and it hosted the United Golf Association Open, the USGA Amateur, and the Women’s Amateur championships in 1940. The entrance was off 107th Street across from Saganashkee Slough, an unincorporated area where Sag Bridge (now part of Lemont), Palos Park, and Palos Hills meet.

The course was listed by the USGA as Palos Park Golf Course, as an 18-hole, 6220-yard, par 70 course, described as hilly (an understatement!), with one water hazard, seeded greens, and dirt tees. Charles (Chick) Evans set the amateur record of 71 there in 1921. Green fees at the time were 50 cents on weekdays (75 cents for all day). Caddies were available for 75 cents. The course was popular in its day, unseen from the road, and carved into the side of a hill, which prompted golfers to say it was a great course for players who had one leg shorter than the other.

The course was closed in late 1941 or early 1942, when the Manhattan Project Atomic Pile No. 2 was moved from Stagg Field at the University of Chicago to Red Gate Woods and the newly-constructed Argonne National Laboratory. Obviously, the top-secret atomic bomb complex and public golf course could not exist side by side. It is clear from looking at both photos above that reforestation of the area, converted from farmland, would have been far from mature, and that the secret complex would have been easily seen across areas of open land. Another aerial photo is said to exist that shows the course, with Argonne’s reactor complex whited out in the photo.

You may be wondering what kind of golfer Al Capone was. According to his caddie, he was terrible, but he loved the game. He relates that a slew of bodyguards followed Al around the course. “He could drive the ball half a mile, but he always hooked it, and he couldn’t putt for beans.” Al was kind and generous to his caddie, who on occasion dropped a ball from his pocket near where Al’s ball disappeared and pretended to find it. He also tells a story about how Al shot himself in the foot one day when he was lifting his golf bag and a revolver inside went off. If you have interest, refer to this article that was written in November 1972: Recollections of Al Capone’s Caddie

Other golf courses in Lemont have survived since opening in the 1920s, notably Cog Hill’s four courses and Gleneagles two courses, but today both the original site of Argonne and the golf course are gone, and the land has been reclaimed by forest. Some people claim they have been able to find suggestions of the old bunker formations and signs of the foundation of the clubhouse, others that there is little there but leaves. Nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project has been buried in a clearing in the woods, designated by a marker near one of the many Forest Preserve trails that traverse the area today.

Published 4/8/15

Sag Bridge – Gone Town

1910 Photo of farmland where the Cal-Sag Channel now is. The town of Sag Bridge is behind the buildings in the background on the left. On the right the land can be seen to rise, and Saint James Church is on that bluff. Photo courtesy Sanitary District of Chicago.

1910 Photo of farmland where the Cal-Sag Channel now is. The town of Sag Bridge is behind the buildings in the background on the left. On the right the land can be seen to rise, and Saint James Church is on that bluff. Photo courtesy Sanitary District of Chicago.

Sag Bridge is now part of the Village of Lemont, but at one time it was a village in its own right. It boasted a hotel and it had its own post office, a number of businesses, a railroad station, a stop on the electric line between Chicago and Joliet, and a port on the I&M canal. Joshua Bell, who came to Sag Bridge in the 1830s, was the postmaster and owner of the hotel. Although the town soon found it too expensive to continue as a village, it had a school district composed of one of the last one-room schoolhouses in the state, which did not close until 1961. The center of the “town” was roughly where Archer Avenue (Route 171) and Bell Road intersect today.

When the glaciers retreated from Northern Illinois, prehistoric Lake Chicago remained, which eventually receded leaving Lake Michigan. As it receded, it left two valleys, the Des Plaines River Valley and the Sag Valley, on either side of an elevated triangle of land called Mount Forest Island. Sag Bridge was located on the south side of the Sag Valley, and the historic Saint James at Sag Bridge, the oldest continuously-operating Catholic Church in Cook County, was built on the north bluff, in the forests at the western edge of Mount Forest Island. The cornerstone of the church was laid in 1853, but it took six years for the men of the parish to dig stone from a nearby quarry and haul it up the bluff to complete the building.

Before permanent settlement, Mount Forest Island had been inhabited by Native Americans, who valued the land for its vantage point and strategic location. Saint James is said to have been built on the site of an Indian village, possibly an Indian graveyard, and later a French fort. Father Marquette and Louis Joliet stopped there during their exploration.

Many immigrants to Sag Bridge came from Ireland to find jobs digging the I&M canal in the 1840s, and when the canal was finished they stayed to farm or work in the local quarries. In the 1890s the sanitary canal, the waterway that reversed the flow of the Chicago River, brought more Irish to Sag Bridge and Lemont, as well as the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago. The colorful history includes many prizefights that were held in Sag Bridge around the turn of the 19th century. The fights were staged there because “the Sag” was easily accessible by canal barge from Bridgeport.

What does “Sag” mean, and what was the bridge? The answers are speculative, just as the history is murky. The term Sag probably derived from a Potawatomi Indian word, Saginaw, which may have meant “swamp”. The Sag Valley was a low-lying swampy area, and it is presumed that a bridge may have provided transport across it. The name could also refer to the geographic coming together of the two valleys. When one considers that recorded history relates that the first white settlers to arrive in the area came in 1833, and that the oldest grave at Saint James Cemetery is that of Michael Dillon, buried in 1816, further fuel is added to doubts about the accuracy of the history.

Published 4/1/15  

Lemont and the Capones

  Saloon at Smokey Row ca. 1900. Photo courtesy Lemont Area Historical Society

Saloon at Smokey Row ca. 1900. Photo courtesy Lemont Area Historical Society

Okay, so this picture isn’t the Capones, but this early Lemont saloon does show you what taverns were like in the early 1900s. Note that there are no stools, and men gathered at the bar or around the stove. It was also common to allow children in saloons, although it wasn’t likely they were served.

Many Chicagoland suburbs claim ties of various kinds to Al Capone, and Lemont is no exception. There are a number of credible reasons that make it likely he had some attachment to Lemont.

Al’s brother, Ralph (Bottles) Capone, had a business in Lemont for many years. A major business for the Capones was the distribution of illegal alcohol, which of course needed to be bottled, and profits were greater if their own “business” provided the bottles. Wold Beverages in Lemont manufactured bottles for local distribution of “Wold’s Wonder Water”, a soft drink, and Ralph’s granddaughter, Deirdre Marie Capone, remembers the bottle manufacturing company in Lemont. It stands to reason that Al would have spent some time with his brother and possibly that he financed and controlled the business to some extent, although this is conjecture.

Al was an avid golfer (but terrible, per his caddy). In the forest preserves along 107th Street between Archer and Kean Avenues there was once a golf course, built in 1921 and managed by the Cook County Forest Preserves. It was know by a number of names, most commonly as Palos Golf Club, and is one of the courses Al played. The course was located in a geographic area called Mount Forest Island, which in prehistoric times was an island in Lake Chicago, before the water receded, leaving Lake Michigan. One approached the golf course from 107th Street, across from Saganashkee Slough.

The course was popular in its day, secluded back in the woods, unseen from the road, and carved into the side of a hill, which prompted golfers to say it was a great course for players who had one leg shorter than the other. It had a large, attractive clubhouse, which was said to be one of Al’s “hideouts”, or at least a meeting place to discuss business with some expectation of privacy.

Today the course is forgotten, because its closing was shrouded in secrecy. During World War II, when at the University of Chicago, U.S. scientists were racing German scientists to produce the atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project was moved from Chicago to this secluded area, adjacent to the golf course. The project was, of course, top secret, so the golf course was closed, demolished, entrances to the area secured, and any mention of its very existence discouraged. It is hard to find anyone who remembers it.

“Suburban” legend has it that Al Capone also had a home along Bluff Road on the outskirts of Lemont. Deirdre Capone denies that Al ever had a home in Lemont, however, she does remember Al and Ralph golfing in Lemont. She also shares that he was fond of the toboggan slides at Swallow Cliff, which have since been demolished, leaving only a sledding hill and steps popular today for exercise. She used to accompany them on these trips, and also to other places they frequented in Lemont, but cannot remember the other names.

Deirdre has written a book about her famous family and what it was like growing up as a Capone, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Her book is titled Uncle Al Capone, and you can also visit her web site at

Published 3/26/25

Lemont – What’s in a name?

Lemont ca early 1900s (Photo courtesy of Lemont Historical Society)

Lemont ca early 1900s (Photo courtesy of Lemont Historical Society)

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!


10 Responses to Blog

  1. JOhn P Kudia says:

    if you would like to see the map of northern Illinois Indian camps (St James Church being one of them) towns and trading posts visit my website Jack Kay from Facebook John Kudia

  2. Rick Runaas says:


    Thanks again for welcoming us at the Historical Society. The kids want to come back! Would you be open to us returning on Friday, September 30 to see the museum in the basement and the archives in the alcove? Please let me know. Thanks again.

  3. Marty Stack says:

    Hi… Great Site!

    About six months ago I came across a map of the land in between the I & M Canal and the Des Plaines River in the Forest Preserve in Willow Springs. It showed what was fill and what was undisturbed land. Now – I cannot find it! Anyone know of it?

    • I don’t know of that specific map, but I have viewed some materials from the Willow Springs Historical Society and I know that both the Cook County Forest Preserve and Metropolitan Sanitary District have some of these materials. Maps are a wonderful resource for tracking historical periods, but I don’t know what date the map you saw was drawn.

  4. Rick Runaas says:


    We didn’t forget about you!! We’d like to feature you in one of our upcoming lessons. Our remaining dates are Friday, December 2; Tuesday, December 6; Thursday, December 8; Monday, December 12; Wednesday, December 14; Friday, December 16 and Tuesday, December 20. Our class meets from 11am to 1pm. We could either have you come to the school or meet us for lunch at Gelsossomo’s and be our featured speaker. I think the class has been a great success in at least sparking a greater interest in local history for some of our students. I think we’ve created a little buzz in the community as well. I know we’ve just scratched the surface and having you come in would serve as a great example of how far an interest in local history can go! Please let me know if you’d be available on any of these dates and then we can talk about next semester as well. By the way, I do have a copy of the Argonne Nuclear sub presentation digitally recorded if you need it for the archives. Hope to hear from you soon.

  5. Rick Runaas says:


    I’m rolling along with second semester students and would love to have you in for a talk. Please let me know if we can make it work. We’d also like to visit the Lemont Historical Society with the new group.

  6. Therese-Marie BLAZEK says:

    Hi Pat
    Here is my email.
    Can’t wait to read your new book…what is the title or proposed title?
    Is it another mystery set locally?
    I loved Sag Bridge as St James is my Parish church.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *