History of Waukegan

The story of Waukegan begins with a small log building on a bluff overlooking the entry of a small river into Lake Michigan along its southwestern shore. It’s not clear when it was built or who built it. Most likely it was a simple trading post built by fur traders around 1700 to mark the portage from the Lake to the Des Plaines River to the west.

It was at this spot in 1835 that Thomas Jenkins settled, soon to be followed by other enterprising, industrious New Englanders who recognized the importance of access to Lake Michigan to transport goods in and out of the area. This area was opened up to these easterners by the land transfer from the Indians to the US Government in 1833 and the building of the Erie in 1830. As more people arrived from the East, the creation of a village took shape. The area was platted and streets designated, and in a contested election in 1841, “Little Fort,” as it was then called, was named the county seat of recently formed Lake County.

Growth continued during the 1840s and beyond with Little Fort becoming the commercial and governmental center of Lake County. This growth was facilitated by the arrival of the railroad in 1855, and no longer considering itself “little”, the community incorporated as the City of Waukegan in 1859. Waukegan is a close variation of the Algonquin name for a wood enclosure or fortification.

Waukegan experienced another major population increase from 1890 to 1930 during the rapid industrialization of the Midwest. This plus the rising political tensions and war in Europe brought large numbers of immigrants to the area, primarily from southeastern Europe and Scandinavia. Each ethnic group established its own residential enclave, usually anchored by a church or social hall, in south Waukegan or neighboring North Chicago. In the 1920s and 30s, African-Americans migrating from the South also added to this population growth.

Waukegan’s role as the industrial, commercial and governmental center of Lake County extended well into the second half of the twentieth century. But like much of the Midwest, it fell victim to the attraction of suburban living and the movement of industry to cheaper labor markets. By the end of the twentieth century, three of the four major industries along the lakefront had closed. At the same time, it has seen a significant influx of Latino immigrants from the South, creating a new set of challenges to the community. Although no longer the center it once was, Waukegan today is still an attractive urban community with a rich and varied history, eager to create a new role for itself in this century just begun.

City of Waukegan Landmarks

In December of 2001, Waukegan's Historic Preservation ordinance created a commission that is charged with surveying the city and recommending areas or structures for local landmark designation. This Historic Preservation Commission does not grant landmark status but rather makes recommendations to the City Council. Proposed changes to landmarked properties are also reviewed by the commission.

Local landmark status gives property owners and local governments access to grants, low-interest loans, tax relief programs, technical assistance with building preservation, and the ability to network with communities facing similar challenges.

Landmarking can be a confusing issue. Many are not aware that the National Register of Historic Places lacks the power to protect and preserve its listed structures. Local landmarking provides the highest level of protection. Also, local landmarks designated by the City of Waukegan should not be confused with the Society's historic marker program which provides informative plaques for the purpose of education.

The designation of local landmarks ensures that Waukegan's identity is retained for the future through the preservation of architecturally and historically significant buildings and sites. A list of local Waukegan landmarks can be found on the City of Waukegan's web site.

National Landmarks

The National Register of Historic Places is maintained by the National Park Service (under the U.S. Department of the Interior) and is the official list of historic places worthy of preservation. The Near North Historic District, a largely residential neighborhood, was Waukegan's first entry.

Other Waukegan listings include Hotel Waukegan (102 Washington Street), Karcher Hotel (405 Washington Street), Waukegan Building (4 S. Genesee Street), and Bowen Country Club (now Bowen Park). You can search for these sites on the National Register of Historic Places web site.