The History of Joliet – Chapter 25

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

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“Business was booming in Joliet. People were working. And growth was happening rapidly.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

In the summer of 1887, 35 years after the city was incorporated, The Joliet News bragged about the city in a special Business Men’s Edition of the newspaper.

Business was booming in Joliet. People were working. And growth was happening rapidly.

“The city has no debt,” the newspaper said. “The licenses pay all the expenses of the city government, except the schools.”

The main part of these licenses paying all the costs were liquor licenses. There had been a mighty political struggle a few years earlier to increase the license fees of saloons.

The goal of increasing those license fees was to close down some of the saloons. There were more than 125 saloons in Joliet, the majority of them along Collins Street, which was called Whiskey Row.

Whiskey Row problems dominated the city’s crime rate. With brawls, fights and drunks, there were almost daily beatings, muggings and robberies.

But then Mayor Thomas KELLY led a reform ticket in a city election. In 1882, the reformers had increased the liquor license from $50 to $500, which closed down 65 of the city’s 125 saloons. The following year, that license fee was doubled to $1,000 and dropped the saloons down to just 45.

The reforming aldermen proposed in 1883 to increase the liquor license to $5,000, but that proposal lost by one vote. Among the 14 aldermen in the seven wards were several who represented the interest of saloon owners.

The city also had brought in Frank MURRAY as police chief to crack down on the saloon problems. MURRAY, known as a smart detective, had a tough reputation and was successful in fighting the crime on Whiskey Row.

That’s why the city was bragging about itself in 1887.

“Our city government has been pushed out of the ruts and placed in the hands of progressive, competent men,” The Joliet News said in that special edition. “So thoroughly has the work been done we need only mention that for the last three or four years there has been no part of the city where a lady or child could not walk unmolested.”

In the bragging, the newspaper pointed out the city had 65 miles of graded streets, 16 schoolhouses, eight clothing stores, 10 dry goods stores, six boot and shoe stores, four daily newspapers and five weeklies, 13 drugstores, 60 grocery stores, four harness shops, eight hardware stores, six ladies shops, five jewelry stores, five dentists, three greenhouses, two national banks, four private banks, three loan associations and…

And 29 stone companies, nine wire mills, the largest steel rail mill in the world, a stove foundry, the finest gravel beds and sand pits in the state and manufacturing interests that were extending every year.

“Our railroad facilities are excelled by none,” the article said.

City government had a street department with an engineer; two fire stations fully equipped with steamers, hook and ladder and tankers pulled by eight fire horses and a chief making $800 a year; the Police Department had a $1,200 chief, a captain and 14 patrolmen, who were equipped with a patrol wagon, two big gongs and a 10-cell jail.

Three new public schools had just been built. Two large grain elevators had just been built on each side of the canal.

So the newspaper praised its outgoing Mayor KELLY.

“We may indeed state that Joliet owes the largest part of her progress in morality and good government to Irishmen of the stamp of Mr. KELLY. When a line of duty seems plain to him, there has been no shirking or quibbling,” The Joliet News said.

John Dean PAIGE, who as chief had turned the fire department professional, had just been elected as Joliet’s new mayor.

“Tied to no party or creed, he expresses himself freely upon all social and political questions,” the newspaper said. “He votes as his conscience and judgment dictate. Vigorous and tireless is his search for truth and practical knowledge.”

At this time, the city had a population of 23,000. The steel mill was the largest employer, with more than 2,000 workers. The newspaper said there had never been a strike or “a moment of delay in operations” at the mill, which paid its workers from $2 to $9 a day.

Joliet was proud of itself in 1887. But the saloons on Whiskey Row would make a comeback and continue to be a problem throughout the 1890s. Such a problem that the citizens would form a Joliet Anti-Saloon League and become a part of a national movement against saloons in 1895.

Published September 15, 2001