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Will County History


The land that is now Will County was once covered primarily by prairie.   It was the crossroads of the river routes and the land trails of the Potawatomi, who farmed, trapped, and traversed the area.  In the late seventeenth century, European fur traders, including the French, observed and took advantage of muskrat, beaver, and other creatures in the area.  It was during this period of time that Louis Joliet recognized the potential that existed to travel from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River - envisioning what would later become the Illinois and Michigan Canal (or I & M Canal).


Fur trading slowed significantly during the early 1800s, yet the population expanded.  Jess Walker established the area's first permanent white settlement near the present town of Plainfield.  Soon thereafter, on January 12, 1836, Will County was created by an act of the Illinois Legislature, combining parts of Cook and Iroquois Counties.  The name honored Dr. Conrad Will, a member of the first Constitutional Convention, who apparently and interestingly never resided in the Will County area.


Six months after the County of Will was formed, on July 4, 1836, workers broke ground for the 96-mile-long I & M Canal, the man-made waterway that would connect the Chicago River with the Illinois River.  The canal opened on April 10, 1848, becoming the final section of a continuous water route from the East Coast to the Gulf of Mexico.  Joining the water that now flowed into the area, laborers and developers flowed into the area as well, speculating on the profits to be made from commercial activity along the I & M Canal.  Decades later, in 1915, commercial traffic on the canal ceased as transportation shifted to railroads and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (which opened in 1900).


In the middle and late 1800s, Will County's economy was given a boost by coal mining and later by limestone quarrying.  Evidence of this once booming industry can still be seen today throughout Will and surrounding counties by the magnificent residences and businesses including the Gaylord Building, Norton House, Gladys Fox Museum, and even the Chicago Water Tower.


The changing face of Will County continued into the twentieth century.  In the early 1900s, the economic base shifted as manufacturers and refiners opened and operated sites, being lured to Will County by the new transporation afforded by the Sanitary Canal.  Military production during World War II contributed to the further industrialization of the area, with the population growth mirroring the economic and industrial growth.


Declining industrial economic conditions in the 1970s and 1980s, however, brought yet another change to the county.  As the population of the county seat in Joliet fell, the population in Lockport, Romeoville, and other Joliet suburbs expanded rapidly.  Residential and commercial developers grabbed much of the unincorporated areas.  The population of Will County is now anticipated to double -- from 600,000+ to over 1.2 million -- over the next 25 years.


The Des Plaines, Illinois, and Kankakee Rivers remain the same river trails that they were hundreds of years ago.  "Settlers" in modern day Will County, however, now find themselves at the crossroads of a different set of land "trails" -- Interstates I-55, I-57, and I-80.