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Illinois At Work
Labor Sites & Monuments Along The I&M Canal
Hello, everyone, and welcome to this special edition of Canal Stories, a series brought to you by the Canal Corridor Association to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the Illinois & Michigan Canal and the communities that were shaped by its legacy. While everyone loves a carefree day off from work, Labor Day is more than just a ticket to a long weekend. Since 1882, this September holiday salutes the American labor movement, and celebrates the achievements and contributions of American workers throughout history.
With Illinois’ rich history as a union birthplace and a mecca of industry, it’s no surprise that numerous sites throughout the state pay homage to the struggles, triumphs, and tragedies that befell countless workers across the ages, several of which can be found in the I&M Canal National Heritage Area. This list comes to us from historian Mike Matejka, and was originally printed in the Illinois Labor History Society’s Illinois Heritage: Labor History Issue.
“Building the Lincoln Highway” Sculpture
At 1610 Plainview Road, a statue depicts a 1915 road worker pouring concrete. The sculpture and associated interpretive panel are located across from the Crest Hill Municipal Center.
Diamond Mine Memorial (Grundy County)
A monument and state historic plaque along Illinois 113 in the Diamond area.
On February 16th, 1883, the Wilmington Coal Mining and Manufacturing’s mine collapsed from the weight of melting snow, ice, and heavy rains, killing 72 miners. For 38 days, steam pumps attempted to remove water from the mine. Recovery efforts did not begin until March 25th. Shortly after, the mine was sealed with 46 miners entombed.
Cherry Mine Disaster (Bureau County)
Illinois State Historical Society marker located in Village Park, Cherry, on Illinois Route 89.
In the cemetery is a 1914 United Mine Workers (UMW) monument. Next to the village library and hall is another memorial, this one dedicated in 2009 for the centennial commemoration of the disaster. Cherry was the second-worst mining disaster in U.S. history, with 259 miners and boys killed in an underground fire. The outrage from the disaster led to early mine safety laws and Illinois’ worker compensation laws.
Joliet Labor Murals (Will County)
A mural completed in 1996 by Kathleen Scarboro and Kathleen Farrell, located on the northwest corner of Michigan and Cross streets, features wallpaper workers. A 1997 mural by Javier Chavira on the northeast side of Michigan and Washington streets, honors steel industry workers. Also, located along the railroad approaches the Joliet Union Station are numerous murals of local history and labor significance.
Marseilles (LaSalle County) Laborers Sculpture
Outside Laborers Local 393 union hall, 322 Main Street, is a 2012 bas relief sculpture showing past and present laborers at work. Inside the union hall are two murals depicting historic scenes of construction laborers.
Ottawa (LaSalle County) Radium Dial Girls Statue
The 2011 statue at Clinton and Jefferson streets memorializes the “radium girls,” young women who died of radiation poisoning while painting clock dials with radium paints for the watch dial industry in the 1920s and 1930s. The resulting publicity over their court cases helped lead to stricter industrial exposure laws.
Ottawa, Interstate Highway Test Loops
Driving along Interstate 80, near Ottawa, one passes American Association of State Highway Officials’ test loops, where from 1958 to 1960 military personnel drove continuous loops to test various highway surfaces for planned interstate highway system. A total of 141 accidents took place during this test, with two fatalities.
Seneca (LaSalle County), “Prairie Shipyard” Monument
Located in Crotty Park, off Highway 170, is a monument to the Landing Ship Tank (LST), a World War II naval landing vessel. LSTs were built at inland shipyards, like Seneca, and then floated down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. Between 1942 and 1945, 157 LSTs were launched from the Illinois River shipyard of Seneca, which had a workforce of 11,000. The monument includes a scaled reproduction of an LST and panels that reflect the various tasks involved in shipbuilding.
Streator (LaSalle County), Reuben Soderstrom Statue
At the northwest corner of Kent and Park streets in City Park is a statue of Reuben Soderstrom (1888 to 1970), erected and dedicated on Labor Day of 2012. Soderstrom, born in Minnesota to immigrant Swedish parents, was an Illinois state representative from 1918 to 1936. He became president of the Illinois AFL in 1930, and then the combined Illinois AFL-CIO from 1958 to 1970.
I&M Canal National Heritage Area
In 1984, the remnants of the Illinois and Michigan Canal became the nation’s first National Heritage Area. It covers 322,000 acres along a 100-mile stretch of mostly scenic (and certainly historic) Illinois. The Canal Corridor Association has placed numerous steel silhouettes along the route, based on actual individuals. There are nine in Joliet (Will and Kendal counties) depicting workers, including quarrymen, steelworkers, a mason, railroad workers, and vaudeville actors. In Lockport (Will County), there is a mule driver silhouette, and in LaSalle (LaSalle County), a boat captain, locktender, and mule driver.
The Canal Corridor Association’s visitor’s center is located in LaSalle, and here, one can purchase tickets for rides on an 1840s replica canal boat. There are also restored locks and a canal tender’s home at Channahon State Parks (Will County), off Illinois 6. A stone aqueduct survives at Gebhard Woods State Park (Grundy County), 401 Ottawa Street in Morris. Lockport is home to the 1838 Gaylord Building, 200 West Eighth Street, a restored warehouse used during canal construction. And in Ottawa (LaSalle County), just south of Route 6, are the remains of an 1838 aqueduct over the Fox River.
A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum
This privately-run museum at 10406 South Maryland Avenue was founded in 1995 as a tribute to the Pullman porters, whose union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, was the first African American labor union to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with a major corporation.
Chicago Stockyards’ Old Stone Gate
This 1879 gate, located on Exchange Street, one block west of Halsted, marks the entrance to the once world-famous Chicago Union Stockyards. Visiting tourists once included the stockyards as a “must see” Chicago attraction. Workers laboring for the large packinghouses made numerous attempts to organize unions, and their story is famously memorialized in Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel, The Jungle.
Margaret Haley Plaque
Chicago Teacher’s Union founder and first American Federation of Teachers organizer, Margaret Haley, is honored with a plaque in the Merchandise Mart, 222 Merchandise Mart Plaza.
That concludes today’s Canal Story. Thank you so much for joining us as we continue our journey through the history of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. If you’ve enjoyed this special episode, pass it along to your family and friends, have a safe and happy Labor Day weekend, and we’ll see you again very soon.
For more information on the Illinois Labor History Society, you can visit them online at http://www.illinoislaborhistory.org/
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