LaSalle is a city in LaSalle County, Illinois, United States, located at the intersection of Interstates 39 and 80. It is part of the Ottawa-Peru, IL Micropolitan Statistical Area. Originally platted in 1837 over one square mile, the city's boundaries have grown to . City boundaries extend from the Illinois River and Illinois and Michigan Canal to a mile north of Interstate 80 and from the city of Peru on the west to the village of North Utica on the east. Starved Rock State Park is located approximately to the east. The population was 9,609 at the 2010 census, and was estimated to be 9,418 by July 2013. LaSalle and its twin city, Peru, make up the core of the Illinois Valley. Due to their combined dominance of the zinc processing industry in the early 1900s, they were collectively nicknamed "Zinc City."
LaSalle was named in honor of the early French explorer, Robert de LaSalle.
Canal Port (1836-1933)
The Illinois and Michigan Canal was first thought up by French explorer, Louis Joliet. Much later, when Illinois became a state, the idea of a canal connecting Lake Michigan to the Illinois River was supported by many, including Abraham Lincoln. The 96 miles long canal was finally constructed between 1836 and 1848. Upon its completion, Chicago became the eastern terminus and LaSalle became the western terminus. LaSalle boomed as a transshipment point from canal boats coming from Chicago to steamboats going to St. Louis and New Orleans. It became a place where Northern and Southern culture met.
It is difficult to imagine the level of frenzied activity that once took place at locks 14 and 15, where the canal boat basin and the steamboat basins were located. Steamboats from New Orleans unloaded molasses, sugar, coffee, and fresh oranges and lemons. Canal boats from Chicago brought lumber, stoves, wagons, and the latest clothing styles from the east. Local farmers hauled corn and wheat to be shipped to Chicago and points east. Passengers hustled to make connections to canal boats bound for Chicago or steamboats headed to St. Louis and beyond. Hotels and other services were available to travelers. Many stores grew catering to canal trade.
Today the story can be told at the La Salle Canal Boat, the Volunteer.
Zinc City (1858-1978)
By the mid 1850s, LaSalle had begun to exploit the coal that lay underneath much of the city. The LaSalle Coal Mining Company completed the first shaft in 1856 and many other companies soon followed suit. By 1884 there were six shafts in the area, the deepest 452 feet. The history of LaSalle would have played out very differently were it not for the arrival of two immigrants in 1858. Frederick W. Matthiessen met German born Edward C. Hegeler at a prestigious mining school, and after graduating in 1856, the two traveled together to the United States. In 1858, attracted by the abundance of coal, coupled with the excellent transportation links provided by the canal and the Illinois Central Railroad, they chose LaSalle as the site for an innovative zinc smelting plant –the first in the United States. Before the plant opened, nearly all of the zinc used in the United States was imported. Zinc is needed to make brass and was a common fire-proofing material. Most significantly, zinc was used to prevent corrosion of iron and steel. With the opening of the first steel production plant in Joliet in the early 1870s, zinc became an important part of the local industrial economy. In a decade the Matthiessen and Hegeler Zinc Works became the largest producer of zinc in the country, and one of the largest in the world.
The Matthiessens, Hegelers and their families were very involved in developing the community. They helped found industries such as the LaSalle Machine and Tool Company and the Western Clock Co. that would later become Westclox. Mary Hegeler married Dr. Paul Carus, who founded the Open Court Publishing Company in 1887, whose mission was “establishing ethics and religion upon a scientific basis” and was a key figure in introducing Eastern thought to the United States, making LaSalle “Buddhism’s Gateway to the West.” Matthiessen was a philanthropist, who served as Mayor of LaSalle from 1886-1895. He gave thousands of dollars to help build the sewer system, the electric light plant, and various roads and bridges. As the first president of the LaSalle-Peru High School Board, he was a generous donor to the school. In 1914, Matthiessen established the Hygienic Institute to combat epidemics. A public benefactor in the best sense of the word, Matthiessen opened much of his estate, called Deer Park, to the public with the nominal entrance fee going to charity. In 1943, this property was named Matthiessen State Park was named in his honor. One the day of his funeral in February 1918, the entire community suspended all business between 11 and 12 o’clock.
Today, this story is told at the Hegeler-Carus Mansion.
Little Reno (1933-1953)
With the end of Prohibition in 1933, saloons no longer operated under the euphemism of “soft drink” vendors, and these and related gambling concerns flourished. Although illegal, gambling proliferated in LaSalle, supporting the abundant and related tobacco, liquor, food, and lodging businesses.
Travelers arrived by car or via the Rock Island Rocket from Chicago for a Saturday night’s revelry in such numbers that the streets of LaSalle are said to have been standing-room only. There was wall to wall entertainment along First Street, at the heart of which was the Kelly and Cawley liquor and gambling house. LaSalle became known as “Little Reno” and boasted dozens of clubs. With between 60 and 80 saloons in LaSalle from 1940 to 1950 this continued to be the town’s primary commercial enterprise. In 1953 a federal raid on Kelly and Cawley’s ended the era.
The following businesses have more than 100 people staffed, making them the six largest in LaSalle: