While the City of Joliet is progressive in nature – a flourishing tourist destination and a vital industrial component to the Illinois economy – it embraces a history that can be traced as far back as 1673. It was at this time that the area welcomed well-known French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet and Catholic missionary Father Jacques Marquette, who wrote of its strong potential. Jolliet took note of the area’s position along the Des Plaines River and its abundant natural resources, from its fertile deltas to its rich prairie soil, soft coal and bountiful lumber.
New pioneers began arriving to the region in the early 1800s, establishing a settlement they named Juliet. It was officially laid out in 1834 by James B. Campbell, treasurer of the Illinois & Michigan Canal Commission, and, by 1836, was designated the seat of government for the newly formed Will County. While Juliet incorporated as a village at this time, its residents immediately petitioned to rescind the incorporation in order to cut tax expenses. Juliet eventually became Joliet in 1845 and was reincorporated as a city in 1852.
Joliet was well positioned for major growth in its early years. Its location placed it in proximity not only to the Des Plaines River, but also the new Illinois & Michigan Canal (opened in 1848) and the Rock Island Railroad (opened in 1852). The discovery of limestone deposits created a booming quarrying industry. Joliet limestone was widely used in the construction of local structures, as well as locks, bridges and aqueducts for the I&M Canal and in the rebuilding of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.
Joliet was initially nicknamed the “City of Stone” – a moniker that soon changed to the “City of Steel” with the emergence of the local steel industry. New residents piled into the area after the construction of the Joliet mill in 1869; likewise, the building of the mill attracted a variety of other industries, resulting in the establishment of numerous factories and businesses throughout town. In addition, Joliet became the proud home of the nation’s first public community college – Joliet Junior College – in 1901.
The local economy remained stable, until a period of decline in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But by the 1990s, the economy rebounded when business and government leaders formed the Will County Center for Economic Development – an organization noted for bringing riverboat gaming to Joliet. The city also opened the Route 66 Raceway in 1998 and its sister track, the Chicagoland Speedway, in 2001 – both of which helped draw (and continue to draw) much in the way of tourism.
Joliet continues to experience a surge of progress, most recently with the revitalization efforts concentrated downtown. Yet, Joliet’s history is still a significant part of community life today. Thanks to active community members and organizations like the Joliet Historic Preservation Commission, many of the city’s oldest structures remain in good condition.
•The Rialto Square Theatre (1926) is a stunning reflection of Greek, Roman and Byzantine architecture. Today it is considered one of the most beautiful theaters in the nation. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
•The Jacob Henry Mansion Estate (1876) is a nearly 17,000-square-foot, 40-room home that is said to represent the largest and best example of Renaissance Revival architecture still in existence in Illinois.
•Joliet Union Station (1912) was originally built to eliminate traffic congestion downtown by elevating all railroads in the area. The resulting elevated station exhibits an imposing facade with stately arches. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
•The Joliet Park District Airport Hangar (1930) is one of the most unique landmarks in the Joliet area. The building’s exterior, a rare and notable example of a contemporary style combining Art Deco and Streamline Moderne, has remained unaltered to this day.
•The Joliet Steel Company Main Office (1891) has remained an icon of the steel industry era. The two-story limestone building sits atop a raised basement and features an immense, single-arched entryway and gabled roofline pediment.
•The arches, castellated walls and towers of Joliet Township High School’s (1901) design illustrate the popular “Collegiate Gothic” architecture of the time. A major contributor to the Joliet community’s development, it also played a significant national role by housing the country’s first junior college.
•The Louis Joliet Hotel (1927) is a striking red brick building accented with stone trim. The eight-story hotel was once the finest in Joliet. It operated until 1964 and earned designation as a national landmark in 1989. It has been converted into an apartment complex as part of the revitalization of Joliet’s City Center.
•The Old Joliet Post Office (1901-1903) mingles a variety of architectural styles. Its pale limestone facade and granite entrance steps remained unscathed during the building’s expansion in 1931, when an addition was made to the rear of the building; the front facade remains as it was when originally constructed. The Old Joliet Post Office is a designated national landmark.
•The Patrick Haley Mansion (1891) is an impressive mansion that stands three-and-a-half stories high, with massive front and back porches. Original woodwork in oak, cherry and mahogany still adorn the building’s interior, along with stained glass windows, intricate friezes, ornate adornments and six fireplaces.