Even before white settlers came to Lemont, Native Americans traveled the Des Plaines River in birch bark canoes on trading trips between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan. The native Potawatomi lived off the land in this area, directly using natural resources for food, shelter, clothing and medicine. In the 18th century, French voyageurs traveled down the Des Plaines River, trading Native Americans metal, beads and cloth for animal furs and changing the Native American lifestyle forever.
Established in 1836, the village of Lemont stands as one of the oldest American communities in northeastern Illinois. It is historically significant for its role in transforming the northern region of the state from a sparsely settled frontier to a commercial, agricultural, and industrial region that supplied Chicago and areas beyond with commodities. Lemont is also unique in boasting an authentic historic district that remains intact and has been continually used since the 19th century.
Both Lemont's history and architectural uniqueness connect to the Illinois and Michigan Canal (I&M Canal). Construction of the I&M Canal began in 1837 and stands as one of the last major canal undertakings in the United States (the Hennepin Canal opened in 1907). When it was completed in 1848, it provided a continuous waterway stretching from New York (through the Erie Canal, Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan to Chicago, then through the I&M Canal for entering the Illinois River at LaSalle, Illinois, to the Mississippi River, to New Orleans) to the Gulf of Mexico.
Immigrant workers, mostly Irish, settled in Lemont to work on the canal and later moved along the corridor of the canal, improving farms within the many communities that sprang up along it. They also were for the most part responsible for the many Lemont brothels during that time.
In digging, workers discovered Lemont yellow dolomite, a harder and finer grained version of limestone. This delayed digging of the canal, but was the start of the area's second industry, quarrying. By the mid-19th century, limestone quarrying took over as the main economic factor in Lemont and sustained its growth. The town's important major buildings were faced with the Lemont limestone, abundant in local quarries. Today, 38 of those buildings remain as the Lemont downtown district. Lemont limestone was used to build the Chicago Water Tower, a building that "gained special significance as one of the few buildings to survive the destructive path of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871". In the early years, this stone was known as "Athens Marble" as a nod to its place of origin. An 1859 item in the Chicago Daily Tribune had this to say: “The Athens and DesPlaines quarries, situated on the Illinois and Michigan canal, embrace 335 acres of the finest stone in the West, known as “Athens Marble”. This stone has a high reputation for color, durability and beauty, which renders it quite an article of commerce”.
Cargo and passengers were transported on the I&M until the early 20th century, when the wider, deeper Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal was built parallel to it. The Sanitary Canal is still used today as part of the Illinois Waterway system.
Lemont's motto is "Village of Faith", and its church spires reflect the many ethnic groups who came here to quarry stone, dig the Sanitary and Ship Canal and work in other industries.
Lemont is credited with being the largest recruiting station for the Union Army during the American Civil War, and the Old Stone Church, built in 1861 of limestone, was used as a recruiting depot. It served as the Lemont Methodist Episcopal Church for 100 years, from 1861 until 1970, when it became home to the Lemont Area Historical Society. The oldest building in Lemont, it now serves as a museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
During the Civil War, Lemont was required to sign up 33 soldiers, the village recruited 293 soldiers; only 63 returned. A Lemont Civil War Memorial Committee has formed to build a statue in Memorial Park to honor Lemont's Civil War veterans.
By 1854, railroads transported goods faster than water, and the I&M became obsolete as Lemont evolved into a railroad community; the village was incorporated on June 9, 1873.
Increasingly, the canal was used to carry wastes away from Chicago. In 1900, the larger Sanitary and Ship Canal went into operation, carrying both wastes and larger, more modern barges. All use of the I&M Canal ended in 1933, with the opening of the canal's modern successor - the Illinois Waterway.
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation establishing the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor as the nation's first National Heritage Corridor. The status recognizes the historic importance of this region and the waterway that connected Lake Michigan and the Illinois River. Today, it is a cultural park between Chicago and LaSalle/Peru, representing an on-going partnership between the public and private sectors created to achieve a successful mixture of preservation, public use and industrial activity.
Lemont is home to the Argonne National Laboratory and to Cog Hill Golf & Country Club (home of the PGA Tour's Western Open and now the PGA Tour's BMW Championship). Sacred architecture is another strong suit of Lemont, whose skyline is dominated by two landmark religious edifices: the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago and SS. Cyril and Methodius church in the Polish Cathedral style. Interestingly enough, both are situated on the sides of hills, giving an even more dramatic backdrop to their monumental architecture.
On June 13, 1976, a few minutes after 5:00 PM, a killer tornado struck Lemont and took three lives. 23 were injured, 87 homes were destroyed and 82 more damaged. Damage to the high school alone was estimated at $500,000. Huddled in spaces praying for life, many people reported watching neighbors' homes explode, implode, shattering before their eyes. Then they "saw the tornado coming back." Cited as an unusual tornado, it did back up on its path before heading north somewhat parallel to the path of origin.
The 1976 tornado was "a 10-mile, 62-minute, J-shaped pattern of destruction that packed funnel winds between 207 and 260 mph...It was slow moving, going at 10 mph as compared to the 25 mph average of most tornadoes..." Its final touchdown was almost due north of its first touchdown.
On March 27, 1991, Lemont was once again hit with a twister through the town in a selective manner, demolishing one home, not touching another. The tornado destroyed 15 homes and damaged 180 more. First downing a 100 ft. microwave relay tower at 127th Street west of town, the tornado erratically veered in a northeast path through residential Peiffer, Warner, State and the Blue Hill (neighborhood around SS. Cyril & Methodius Church ) area. It then rammed the McCarthy Pointe subdivision off McCarthy Road, then traumatized Franciscan Village on Main Street (near Walker Road) and continued on Main Street, badly damaging the Powell Duffryn Terminal. Still following a northeast pattern, it tore the roof off St. James Church in Sag before dissipating.
Lives were saved by the quick thinking of Lemont Police Sgt. Tom Hess. A department policy is to station an officer at the village's highest point on 127th Street.
Hess got the surprise of his life when he saw the tornado coming right toward him in his rear view mirror. He yelled into his radio, "I'm getting hit by a tornado – sound the sirens!" The tornado had his squad car up on two wheels, pushing it across the road and flipping it over. Hess's early warning provided the cushion that helped people get to safety. He was awarded the Silver Cross for bravery and inducted into the Policemen Hall of Fame for his heroic deed. He was included in the Hall of Fame's trading cards recognizing outstanding officers for the year. He was later featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show that centered on tornado safety. Many agencies, organizations, businesses and private individuals pitched in to help. The State ESDA was very impressed with the village’s disaster readiness. The local Christian Clergy Association was assigned the task of distributing funds to victims of the tornado.