This week, we continue our exploration of the Illinois & Michigan (I&M) Canal Heritage Corridor by focusing on historic spots in the Village of Lemont in the Chicago Portage area of southern Cook County.
Since I know that many of you call this area home, my hope is that you will see Lemont through fresh eyes and learn something new about your community. Let's start with a quick peek into Lemont's beginnings:
Settlers first arrived in Lemont - then known as Athens - in 1833. Like many towns in the area, Lemont's history is closely tied to the immigrant workers who constructed the Illinois & Michigan (I&M) Canal and the limestone quarries that provided key materials.
While digging for the canal, workers discovered the exceptionally fine grade of dolomite limestone which led to the development of Lemont's famous stone quarries. From about 1850 to 1900, limestone from this area became one of the primary building materials for many local and regional structures.
Today, Lemont's limestone can be found in iconic Illinois landmarks like the historic Water Tower, Holy Name Cathedral and Auditorium Theater in Chicago, and the Capitol Building in Springfield.
A bit of "scandalous" trivia: In the 1890s, Lemont's downtown "Smokey Row" gained notoriety as the wildest, most "sinful" street in the country for its brothels, bars and assorted riffraff. Since it also brought jobs and revenue for the village, the city fathers chose to turn a blind eye until the last house of prostitution closed in 1906.
Its modern-day namesake, the Smokey Row Antique Shop and Inn is a family-friendly place where you can find everything from vintage jewelry to antiques, collectibles and gifts.
Lemont is so vested in its status as a true "canal town" that the village purchased its portion and developed the canal and quarries into the popular recreational spots that so many of us enjoy today.
Running through the heart of downtown Lemont, the I&M Canal provides a scenic backdrop for the five miles of trail alongside it. Canal aficionados can stop and read about its history at General Fry's Landing, a public park commemorating the first boat that traveled on the I&M Canal when it opened in 1848.
Lemont is also known for its historic churches. The Old Stone Church, completed in 1861, is the oldest church structure in the village and was used as a church for nearly 110 years.
Located at 306 Lemont Street, it now houses the Lemont Area Historical Society's headquarters, museum and genealogy library. You can pick up a self-guided walking tour and other information about Historic Downtown Lemont there. Just keep in mind that they are only open to the public a few days a week, and then only for a few hours, so call ahead at 630-257-2972.
Downtown Lemont is filled with lots of other historic buildings that date back to the 19th and early 20th century. Many now house locally owned shops and distinctive boutiques, restaurants and pubs. The Old Town Restaurant, Stonehouse Pub and La Dolce Vita of Lemont are three popular downtown dining spots, but there are several others.
Another interesting feature of the downtown area is its public art. A "can't miss" is the mural at 316 Canal Street which depicts workers digging the I&M Canal. It was painted in 1976 to celebrate America's bicentennial anniversary.
An amazing 65-foot-wide mural that honors Rudy Kling, a local flying ace who parlayed his skill as a mechanic into a brief career as an airplane racer in the 1930s, can be found on the west wall of the All-Service Garage building on Front Street. Two local artists, with the help of over one hundred community volunteers, completed it in 2009.
Just two miles from downtown Lemont, you'll find the Lithuanian Museum of Art, a little known cultural gem that reflects a different part of Lemont's heritage. Located in the Lithuanian World Center at 14911 127th Street, it features four galleries and more than 10,000 square feet of exhibit space dedicated to the preservation of Lithuanian culture via the arts.
Slightly east of downtown, the Lemont Heritage Quarries Recreation Area is a 100-acre nature park that is open to the public and features a 3.8-mile hiking and biking trail that connects with the I&M Canal trail. Its former limestone quarries are now freshwater lakes that are popular fishing and kayaking spots.
Historic Downtown Lemont is bustling with activity throughout the year. Some annual favorites to put on your calendar include:
St. Patrick's Day Parade & Festival
March 10, 1:00PM
Lemont Farmers Market
Every Tuesday, June 5 to October 30, 8:00AM -1:00PM
Lemont Legends Cruise Nights
Every Wednesday, June 6 to August 29, 6:00 - 9:00PM
Lemont Heritage Fest
July 14, 1:00 - 11:00PM
I'll be back next week and we'll spend some more time in the Chicago Portage area in southern Cook County. In the meantime, what's your favorite spot to dine, play or relax in Lemont? Have you uncovered any other hidden gems or little known historical points of interest?