The History of Joliet – Chapter 26

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

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“BENNITT’s regiment lost about two dozen men. More soldiers died from exposure and illness than combat.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

Like others who came to Joliet as young men, Fred BENNITT arrived in Joliet as a young man full of dreams for the future.

He was just 21 years old when he got here from New York in 1875, arriving with a lawyer’s education and two special interests. He dreamed of playing a role in the deepening of the waterway, which would open up boat traffic between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico.

His second interest was in being a soldier like his father. BENNITT‘s dad had enlisted as a cavalry private in the Civil War and rose to the rank of colonel. So the son enlisted in the Illinois National Guard shortly after arriving in Joliet.

By 1883, he was promoted to full colonel. Col. BENNITT married Anne REED that same year. Her father, Samuel REED, had helped to construct the Union Pacific Railroad, which had made him wealthy.

BENNITT‘s national guard regiment was often called upon to handle union, strike and mob problems in the nearby mining communities. He commanded a crack regiment that was known as “BENNITT‘s Boys.”

The regiment was activated into national service during the Spanish-American War. BENNITT led his troops, including one company of Joliet soldiers, into the Puerto Rico campaign of the war.

On Aug. 3, 1898, the Illinois Third Volunteer Regiment landed at Arroyo, Puerto Rico, took command of the port and raised the American flag. After some minor fighting, Spanish troops were driven into the mountains.

The battles in Puerto Rico weren’t near as bitter as the enemy forces in Cuba. But BENNITT‘s regiment lost about two dozen men. More soldiers died from exposure and illness than combat.

Returning to his legal practice in Joliet, BENNITT had business interests in the Joliet Gaslight Co. and the Western United Gas and Electric Co. He built the EJ&E Railroad extension into Rockdale, and he was considered the force behind the city’s track elevations.

But always, his chief interest was in seeing the construction of a deep waterway through Joliet.

“From the time he came to Illinois in 1875, Col. BENNITT was an advocate of the development of an inland waterway system which would give commercial connections between the Great lakes and the Gulf of Mexico,” The Herald News reported in 1933, when that project was finally completed.

BENNITT was a delegate to the first waterway conference in Memphis, Tenn. in 1907. He served on the Illinois Chamber of Commerce’s waterway committee and the governor’s waterway committee. He made lots of speeches about political delays in the project and actively supported the state’s $20 million bond issue for the Illinois portion of the deep waterway.

He though from this waterway, with its locks, dams and bridges, a new ship building industry would grow in Joliet and other communities. He had such passion for this waterway that some joked it was like Col. BENNITT‘s private project.

In 1923, the governor’s waterway committee was caught in a scandal. Members had used a $5,000 state appropriation to stay in fancy hotels up and down the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

Col. BENNITT had only spent $24.71 of that state money. He continued to defend the waterway committee and its work.

But he didn’t live to see the project completed in the summer of 1933. Catching pneumonia in December, 1930, he died three days later.

The funeral procession to Oakwood Cemetery included 52 cars full of Spanish American War soldiers. They still thought of themselves as “BENNITT‘s Boys.”

“He knew how to make soldiers and how to take care of soldiers,” said Capt. Fred PEARSON, who had commanded the regiment’s Company B, made up of Joliet men. “He made it his business to know that they were well fed, well sheltered and well equipped. He would fight for his men any time against anyone regardless of how much rank they carried.”

His wife died five years later just as the waterway traffic was growing to fulfill her husband’s dream.

“No story of the dedication of the Lakes-to-the-Gulf waterway would be complete without mention of the late Col. Fred BENNITT,” The Herald News said, when the project was completed in the summer of 1933. “Not a piece of construction on the waterway was commenced but that he was on hand, and he watched the progress of the work with an avid interest and attention as if it were a private project for which he was entirely responsible.”

Published September 22, 2001