The History of Joliet – Chapter 27

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

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

“Joliet has seldom if ever known such an anti-saloon movement.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

In the final months of the 19th century, the residents of Joliet were screaming that they were angry. Their anger centered around the saloons along Whiskey Row.

And at the same time, the city was visited by a president.

The saloons in Joliet were out of control. Drinking and brawls, muggings and robberies were disrupting too many lives in Joliet. Minors were being served.

During the 1880s, a city administration elected as reformers had increased liquor license fees from $50 to $1,000, which had closed half the saloons on Whiskey Row. But by 1899, the saloon business had gradually increased back to its old size with the same old problems.

In the summer of 1899, several city alderman, whose elections had been backed by saloon owners, had managed to get the $1,000 liquor license fee cut in half. The saloon owners owned a majority of the 14 aldermen, the Joliet Daily Republican reported.

On a Sunday in late November, the temperance movement spread through the city like a blazing fire in the wind. More than two dozen ministers spoke from their pulpits that morning and demanded action.

Hundreds of residents formed themselves into the Joliet Anti-Saloon League that day.

“Joliet has seldom if ever known such an anti-saloon movement,” the Daily Republican said. “It was the greatest day temperance has had in this city. The good church people were aroused in all portions of the city and the enthusiasm spread like wildfire.”

The newspaper told the stories of several young people, both men and women, who had been corrupted by the lifestyle offered on Whiskey Row. Minors were being served in the saloons, the newspaper said.

“We have a class of citizens in Joliet who deliberately and with malice, with no consideration for anybody, are carrying on a business which is destructive to their neighbors,” said a minister quoted in the newspaper. “They have no regard for the laws but will sell to anyone at any time for a dime. It is time to raise up against them. We must have character and courage enough to stop them.”

In an editorial, the Daily Republican said, “The most serious question facing Joliet today is that of saving our boys and girls from the influence of the saloon. The amount of drunkenness prevailing among our young people under 21 years of age is more appalling than many of our people have any idea of.”

Although there was a lot of noise and a lot of words, the saloons along Whiskey Row continued operating with the help of their politicians. Joliet’s anti-saloon group joined with national temperance organizations that eventually resulted in the nation approving the 18th Amendment. But that didn’t happen until 1917.

One of the highlights in Joliet during that same fall of 1899 was a presidential visit. The city draped itself in red, white and blue bunting. Flags were flying everywhere on Oct. 7.

President William MCKINLEY was coming to town. A group of a dozen community leaders with Civil War Capt. James ELWOOD leading the delegation went to Ottawa to escort the presidential train here.

But after arriving, they learned the visit to Joliet had been canceled. MCKINLEY had spent too much time visiting with Civil War veterans in a Quincy old soldiers’ home. Hoping to make up the time, the president’s staff had canceled the Joliet stop. ELWOOD‘s group appealed to the president. They told him how hundreds of workers at the Phoenix Horseshoe Co. had started their day shift at 3 a.m. just so they could see him. MCKINLEY nodded his head.

When the train stopped in Joliet, he was escorted to a reviewing stand in front of some 20,000 people. He spoke for only five minutes while praising the job being done by American workers like those in Joliet.

“All I wish for my countrymen is that this prosperity continue,” MCKINLEY said. “I am pleased to stand before the people of this city of workmen and this country of agriculture wealth and prosperity.”

While leaving, the president stood on the rear of his railroad car waving to the cheering crowd with a white handkerchief in his hand. A small boy attempted to grab the handkerchief each time it came within reach. Seeing this, MCKINLEY gave him the handkerchief.

“That was the happiest boy in all that great throng,” the Daily Republican reported.

When the train passed the Joliet Manufacturing Co. on its way to Chicago, the cheering of the workers was so loud that MCKINLEY came back out on the train platform. He bowed to those men as he passed by.

Published September 29, 2001