The History of Joliet – Chapter 19

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

But he was built in a greater mold than that of the skilled workman.

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

After the Civil War, John LAMBERT looked to the west for a new home. And he came to Joliet, where he founded a fortune in the steel business.

At the age of 15, LAMBERT had enlisted in a cavalry regiment during the Civil War. He fought under the command of Gens. George Armstrong CUSTER and Philip SHERIDAN. In 1865, he was wounded at the battle of Five Forks.

When he left the Army and came west, LAMBERT first arrived in Grundy County, where he worked as a farmhand. But the prison in Joliet offered him a better job as a guard. Later he worked in a mill.

From there, he organized his own business, the LAMBERT and BISHOP Wire Fence Co. That small steel business eventually merged with the Consolidated Steel and Wire Co., which became part of American Steel and Wire. The company was a major employer in Joliet with hundreds of employees.

LAMBERT was the company president, the king of steel in Joliet. From that base, he branched into railroads, banks and other businesses. As the city’s most prominent Republican, he was the friend of presidents, governors and congressmen as well as the industrial leaders of the nation.

After serving on the advisory staffs of two Illinois governors, LAMBERT was given the honorary title of colonel. He had built a mansion on Herkimer Street.

His home — complete with stained-glass windows, a wine cellar and many bedrooms for guests — had a full ballroom on its third floor. There, he entertained wealthy friends.

In the dining room, there was a large round oak table. With millionaires playing poker at that round table, tens of thousands of dollars were won and lost on the turn of a card.

Col. LAMBERT was known throughout the city for his generosity. He founded and built the Joliet Public Library. He never said no to a request for money for a charity. He was active with Silver Cross Hospital, the Red Cross and several churches.

He was widely known in Joliet as a philanthropist as well as an industrialist.

LAMBERT owned the Joliet Herald newspaper, helped to establish the Gerlach-Barklow Co. and was active in business in California.

In the spring of 1922, LAMBERT died at his winter home in California. His body was brought home to Joliet for burial in Elmhurst Cemetery.

Perhaps a few details from his funeral can show just how much of a giant shadow that LAMBERT cast upon the business world. First, the entire city shut down to honor him. Governmental offices closed as well as stores.

The Chicago Board of Trade sent two train cars full of traders to the funeral. Railroad presidents, bankers, steel barons and business captains from everywhere arrived in Joliet to pay homage to LAMBERT. Three former governors were here.

Among the funeral guests with famous names, some bearing honorary pallbearer titles, were Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the baseball commissioner; Robert Todd LINCOLN, son of President Abraham LINCOLN; and W.A. PINKERTON of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

“The funeral witnessed the most notable gathering ever assembled in Joliet, the names of prominent men of affairs throughout the country being listed among the pallbearers and mourners,” the Joliet Evening News stated.

The minister told a story about when LAMBERT had once worked in a Joliet mill. LAMBERT had told him those were some of his happiest days coming home with a lunch pail to his wife and little daughter.

“But he was built in a greater mold than that of the skilled workman,” the minister said. “The challenge of a growing country with its rapidly unfolding industrial history met in him the response of a master, and he began his upward climb with irresistible force and sure step. Position after position he carried, until, in but a few years, he had gained what to most men are dizzy impossible heights of power and success.”

The minister pointed out that only God knew how many people had been helped through the years by Col. LAMBERT.

“God was generous with his material when he endowed John LAMBERT with his mortal powers,” the clergyman said. “A big body pulsating with energy, urged by unusual ambitions, and guided by a mind of remarkable clearness and judgment. To these powers was added a heart of warm, affectionate nature, loyal to his friends and reverent toward God.”

Col. LAMBERT‘s portrait hangs in the Joliet Public Library, his one lasting memorial in this city.

Published August 4, 2001