Waukegan has a long and interesting history of business and entrepreneurship that has adapted and changed over the years.
The area was first inhabited by various Indian tribes. They were able to prosper by living off the land and Lake Michigan. The first European explorers came to the area around 1693 and saw the potential in fur trading with the local tribes. From there a trading post was established to aid in the fur trade—it was known as Little Fort.
The first white settlers started to move into the area in the 1830s for the prospect of good farming soil. Not all early settlers were here to farm, though. The first permanent settler, Thomas Jenkins, built a store below the bluff at Water Street in 1835. Another early business was a mill on the river that was owned by Burleigh Hunt. In February 19, 1841, the area had a large enough population to incorporate a town, and they named it after the original trading post.
Little Fort grew to become an agricultural hub with products able to be shipped in and out of the town via the lake. The population of Little Fort continued to grow, as did the number of businesses in the city. The name Little Fort was eventually changed to Waukegan and the city was officially incorporated on February 23, 1859.
Agriculture was the main focus of Waukegan until the 1880s when industries started to move in after the establishment of the Waukegan & Southwestern Railroad (later the EJ&E). The boom of industry brought the first major economic rise to Waukegan and the population jumped from 4,915 in 1890 to 9,426 by 1900, with people moving here from all over the world for the many jobs that were available.
Downtown Waukegan continued to grow in the early 1900s with prominent and recognizable businesses, such as the department stores the Globe and Hein’s, starting to make a name for themselves. By the late 1920s, more industries were starting up in Waukegan and people were spending their free time at the large movie theatres. As time passed, Waukegan was no longer considered to be a destination for industry and it changed to a more service-based economy.
The City of Waukegan celebrated its Sesquicentennial in 2009. Waukegan has a rich and diverse history that is full of interesting stories, events and people. The business of preserving the city’s history started in 1963 with the establishment of the Waukegan Historical Society. In celebration of the Sesquicentennial, the Waukegan Historical Society teamed up with historian Ed Link to publish the book Waukegan: A History.
Over the years, businesses have come and gone, but the spirit of the entrepreneur still thrives in Waukegan, Illinois.