The History of Joliet – Chapter 5
By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)
Submitted by Nancy Vargo
MATTESON once was the most influential man in town
Matteson, a Democrat, avoided the slavery dilemma. By taking the middle ground on this controversial issue, he became an enemy of Abraham Lincoln.
By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News
Joel Aldrich MATTESON was the most influential man in Juliet. And in Joliet. He made a fortune, rose to the top in politics and became governor of Illinois.
But his life ended in disgrace.
As a young man with business ideas, MATTESON came to Illinois from New York during the early 1830s. Along the way, he sold a wagon load of boots and shoes. He bought and sold land for profits in Chicago and Kendall County before he showed up in Juliet with money in his pocket.
MATTESON quickly established himself as the young city’s most prominent businessman. He built the finest home in Juliet at the corner of Jefferson and Chicago streets.
He made the basis for his fortune as a contractor digging the I&M Canal. In 1845, he built a wool factory along the river. The factory employed 50 workers and was turning out 2,000 yards of cloth a week. The wool factory was the city’s largest industry.
Across the street from the factory, he built a store. On its second floor, he organized the Merchants and Drovers Bank, with himself as the main stockholder.
“He was the most energetic and enterprising of our citizens,” wrote George H. WOODRUFF, the local historian.
In 1849, the roof of MATTESON‘s wool factory started burning late at night. Residents gathered to watch the fire until one man noticed just how close the building was to the river. The man started a bucket brigade, which saved the building. Shortly after that, the young city organized its first volunteer fire department.
As MATTESON continued making lots of money, he also dabbled in politics. First as a Juliet trustee, then as a state legislator, and in 1852, he was elected governor. Joliet celebrated the election with a great jubilee. There were speeches and bands, and they fired a cannon. But a police officer lost an arm when the cannon accidentally exploded.
By this time, MATTESON‘s business interests had expanded through the state. He was heavily involved in building railroads. He had opened banks in Peoria, Quincy, Shawneetown, Marion and Bloomington.
As governor, MATTESON had several political accomplishments. He managed to reduce taxes and at the same time reduce the state’s debt by $7 million. He pushed the concept of public education financed by property taxes through the Legislature. In addition, he brought the state’s first maximum-security prison home to Joliet on Collins Street.
MATTESON built a huge mansion in Springfield for his wife and seven children. This was to be their permanent home.
If the state constitution had then permitted a second term as governor, MATTESON could easily have been re-elected in 1856. But MATTESON, a Democrat, avoided the slavery dilemma. By taking the middle ground on this controversial issue, he became an enemy of Abraham LINCOLN.
After completing his term as governor, MATTESON ran for a U.S. Senate seat. But LINCOLN helped to swing the election to Lyman Trumbull.
“MATTESON‘s defeat gives me more pleasure than my own gives me pain,” LINCOLN said.
Shortly afterward, MATTESON got involved in the scandal that ruined his reputation. When first in the governor’s office, he had taken custody of a trunk stored in Chicago. The contents of the trunk was scrip that had been used to pay for the construction of the I&M Canal in 1839. Much of the scrip had already been redeemed by the state. Some scrip had been unissued and was like blank checks.
MATTESON began to redeem the scrip again, which went unnoticed until 1859. In effect, the state paid some $223,000 twice for the canal scrip. The Legislature held hearings, but MATTESON was surrounded by lawyers. He denied the fraud. But a Sangamon County grand jury indicted him for larceny, and then later changed its mind. There were allegations of bribery and jury tampering.
But the Legislature determined that MATTESON owed the state some $253,000. His mansion and other property in Springfield were sold at public auction, which paid back part of the money to the state.
MATTESON was never convicted of any charge. But the scrip fraud was followed by his loss of control of investments in railroads. By 1861, economic dislocations from the Civil War had forced the suspension of his banks.
Remembering his feud with LINCOLN, MATTESON campaigned for Stephan A. DOUGLAS during the 1860 presidential election. During the Civil War, he toured through Europe for two years.
Joel MATTESON died on Jan. 31, 1873, while living with a daughter in Chicago. His body was brought home to Joliet and buried beside a 20-foot gravestone in Oakwood Cemetery.
Published April 28, 2001