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The Historical Development of Industry and Manufacturing in Illinois

Mike Matejka

From chewing gum to farm combines, Illinoisians have devised and built an incredible array of products that have changed life not only for Americans, but for people around the globe. One significant advantage Illinois has enjoyed is its rich natural resource base and a centralized system of transportation. Lake Michigan and the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois rivers combine to give Illinois access to distant markets. The nation's greatest concentration of railroads in Chicago and in East St. Louis made Illinois the nation's crossroads. Today, busy airports in Chicago continue that central role.

Before European settlement, Illinois' natives used the rivers to trade. The Mississippian culture (c. 1100 A.D.) that centered around Cahokia Mounds had a trading network that extended thousands of miles. The earliest European settlers, in the 1700s, were interested in trading with the native populations for furs and pelts.

In the early 1800s, European settlement centered in southern Illinois, and agricultural activity followed there. Most goods were imported, and only a few were produced locally. After an iron foundry was established at Shawneetown on the Ohio River, the town quickly became the region's largest commercial center. Other regional towns also grew and prospered. Kaskaskia, the territorial capital from 1809 to 1818, had 160 houses, nine general stores, a post office, a hat shop, and three tailor's shops.

Cahokia Tablet c.1250-1550 A.D.

The first industrial boom for Illinois came in 1823 when lead was discovered at Galena. Miners flocked there to dig the hills, shipping the mineral down the Mississippi River. Early manufacturing was tied to agriculture. John Deere, a Grand Prairie blacksmith, perfected a steel, self-scouring plow in 1837. He incorporated a business under his name in 1858 and was soon the world's largest plow producer. In 1847 Cyrus McCormick opened a plant in Chicago to manufacture automatic reapers. These two entrepreneurs established Illinois as the center for agricultural products and implements, effectively opening the large open prairies to the west for settlement by thousands of migrating farmers from the East.

With the opening of the Illinois & Michigan Canal in 1848 and the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad from 1851 to 1856, agricultural produce from Illinois reached eastern and even international markets. Illinois doubled in population from 1850 to 1860, passing the one million mark; Chicago grew from 30,000 to 112,000 people in that decade. The forests of Wisconsin and Michigan were clear-cut as Chicago became a lumber center. Six miles of stacked lumber filled Lake Michigan's city shoreline. An inventive Chicago carpenter devised "balloon houses," an inexpensive and easy framing system for Chicago's many new homes. That technology soon spread westward across the timber-scarce prairies. Meanwhile, Chicago's first large-scale iron works appeared in 1857; the first steel rolled in the United States was produced there in 1865. Peoria grew as a distillery and manufacturing center, while Quincy and Belleville produced stoves and Moline built plows.

The Civil War stimulated Chicago's trading and manufacturing interests. During the war, northern and western trade shifted from St. Louis (in slave state Missouri) to


Chicago. Chicago's sixty-eight meat-packers butchered hogs and salted the meat to feed to the army. Rock Island's federal arsenal supplied ammunition. After the war the meatpackers, including Phillip Armour and Gustavus Swift, developed the Chicago Union Stockyards. Using Chicago's railroad network, they shipped cattle from western pastures, butchered the animals at their stockyards, and then sent the meat nationwide in refrigerated railroad cars.

The fuel for the industrial expansion was coal, which underlies two-thirds of Illinois. Until the 1950s, coal was the nation's primary fuel, heating homes, forging metal, and powering locomotives. In 1810 in Jackson County, coal was mined from outcroppings along the Big Muddy River and shipped to New Orleans. Belleville was also an early coal-mining center, followed by Peoria, Rock Island, Braidwood, and LaSalle. Railroad expansion fueled coal mining. In 1833 Illinoisians mined 6,000 tons of coal. By 1850 that figure stood at 300,00 tons. In 1864 it reached one million tons and, by 1880, six million tons. The Illinois coal-mining industry continued to grow, surpassing 50 million tons in 1910, mostly in the southern region.

Illinois' industrial expansion attracted foreign-born immigrants and emigrants from other parts of the U.S., although tensions were high between the "natives" and "newcomers," including African-American migrants who rode the Illinois Central's trains north to East St. Louis, Chicago, and other cities. Although welcomed by industries hungry for workers, immigrants and migrants alike were shunted into segregated neighborhoods.

Workers, upset over low wages and unsafe jobs, organized labor unions. Illinois was a center of union organizing, and workers and business owners fought over working conditions. Safety was a prime concern of workers. Safety devices were few in early factories and on the railroads. There was no accident insurance; an injury was considered the worker's fault. Coal mining was particularly vicious, killing fifty to sixty workers annually before 1900. In 1910, for example, 406 miners died in Illinois. Particularly fatal mine disasters occurred at Braidwood in 1883 when 69 miners died, and at the Cherry mine in Bureau County in 1909, when 259 were killed.

Workers made numerous attempts to organize unions to improve working conditions, often gaining international attention. On May 1, 1886, Illinois workers were in the forefront of a national day of protest for the eight-hour work day. This turned to tragedy four nights later in Chicago's Haymarket Square when a "riot" resulted in the deaths of eight policemen.

Meanwhile, sleeping-car magnate George Pullman had built a model town for his workers on Chicago's southside. In 1893, when a depression hit the nation, Pullman cut wages and laid off workers, but refused to reduce rents in his houses. The workers struck and were supported by railroad workers, who refused to haul Pullman's sleeping cars on their trains. Arguing that the trains carried U.S. mail, Pullman arranged to have federal troops sent to Chicago over Governor Altgeld's protest to escort the trains. Conflict escalated, but the union's efforts were squelched. In southern Illinois coal fields, gun battles between miners and the coal companies' private police forces were common. In 1897 a battle between miners and company guards near Virden helped spur the organization of the United Mine Workers of America. Workers continued to organize, particularly under the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the 1890s and 1900s. Skilled craft workers and railroad workers won contracts and improved conditions through the AFL. Unions also mobilized workers politically, helping pass legislation for safety laws, child labor restrictions, and workers' compensation insurance. A more radical organization, the Industrial Workers of the World, was founded in Chicago in 1905. It attracted much attention but was supressed by the federal government during World War I.

In the 1920s Illinois was an industrial powerhouse, building rail cars, rolling steel, and slaughtering cattle. Peoria, Rock Island, and Moline built agricultural implements. The sky over Chicago, Joliet, and Granite City glowed orange from steel mills. East St. Louis was a national leader in aluminum production. Rockford produced fine machine tools and knitting machines. Elgin made watches, Alton rolled brass and blew glass bottles, and Quincy and Belleville built stoves. Rural southern Illinois enjoyed an oil boom, and refineries grew around East St. Louis and southwest Chicagoland to handle the new fuel. A new industry—the manufacturing of telephone and communications devices—developed in Chicago.


Pollution was one unforeseen byproduct of this massive industrialization. Animal waste from the stockyards, coal smoke, and industrial wastes polluted Illinois' rivers, air, and land and often caused human illness. Lake Michigan, the source of Chicago's drinking supply, was also its largest sewer. Diverting Chicago sewage to the Illinois River in 1900 helped clean up that city but sent pollutants down river. Tuberculosis was a common disease in cramped immigrant housing.

The 1930s Depression forced many Illinois business firms and industrial plants to close, and tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs. But when World War II came, Illinois industry revived and aided the war effort. Aviation plants sprung up around Chicago. Ships were floated down the Mississippi to the Gulf. Shells and cartridges were manufactured in Alton, Joliet, Dixon, Rock Island, Springfield, and Crab Orchard. And the atomic age was born with Dr. Enrico Fermi's experiments at the University of Chicago.

When the war ended, Illinois was a leading industrial state. Its manufacturing output had jumped from $2.1 billion in 1939 to $6.68 billion eight years later. The new television and electronics industry was centered in in Illinois, where Zenith, Motorola and Western Electric produced the latest consumer goods. General Motors' diesel locomotives built in LaGrange replaced the nation's steam trains. Teenagers played with Bally pinball machines while listening to the latest hits on a Wurlitzer jukebox, both Chicago products. Although the Chicago and East St. Louis stockyards decentralized and eventually closed, food products from Kraft and Beatrice Foods filled supermarket shelves, alongside candy from Clark, Wrigley, and Mars, all Illinois companies.

This heavily industrialized output shifted in the 1970s. Southern Illinois coal no longer fueled the state; imported oil and natural gas took its place. Transportation networks still crossed in Illinois, thanks to the new interstate highways and jet air travel, but railroads and the related industries suffered. Chicago, once the nation's largest maker of telephones and televisions, saw whole plants shut down. Foreign competitors undercut U.S. producers, and some Illinois companies moved overseas or to other states where wages are lower. Many communities stagnated as factory gates closed and jobs went elsewhere.

In a new age, new products have supplemented the state's traditional fare. Cellular phones and the latest communication devices from Motorola and the internationally recognized "golden arches" of McDonald's call Illinois home. Food processing and agricultural products still flourish in Illinois, and newer high-tech industries are beginning to take off. Still, there are now more people employed in what is termed the "service" industry than in jobs in the state's traditional manufacturing and industrial sectors.


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