by Nancy Uznanski

The view of church steeples, many of them glinting in the evening sun as they peeked through trees on the opposite rise, was astonishing. Houses all around them dotted the width and length of the hillside. The valley opened to a 19th century storybook village with the remains of the tiny Illinois and Michigan (I&M) Canal near its center. It looked like it would be natural for horses to be pulling buckboards as they clopped down the narrow streets.

This year, celebrating the 150th anniversary of its 1873 incorporation, the once sleepy little town is acquiring a new reputation. It is becoming a destination, according to Jason Berry, Lemont Community and Economic Development Director.

Lemont grew beginning in the 1830’s, when a buff colored, high quality, fine grained limestone was discovered and slowed the digging of the I&M Canal. It also spurred a building industry. Originally called Athens Marble, limestone quarries sprang up on both sides the canal where Lemont is now. The stone was sought after and was used for building many Midwest structures that still stand, including the Chicago Water Tower.

When the town was incorporated, it was bustling with activity. But at the turn of the 20th century the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal took over the function of the I&M Canal. When the smaller canal closed in 1933, Lemont’s population dwindled.

At the beginning of the 1980s, it seemed like more stores were closed than were open in Lemont’s quaint downtown, even as its population began to grow again.  

Then in 1984, a boost came. President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that established the I&M Canal National Heritage Area. It was the first National Heritage Area in the United States. The bill recognized the importance of protecting the remnants of the little 96 mile long canal that helped change the country’s history. The canal induced the growth of Chicago and opened up the Midwest with an economical means of trade from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

With the recognition came access to funds to help with the revitalization of Lemont’s downtown and I&M Canal area.

However the recession of 2008 stopped planned progress in the village for nearly 10 years, according to Director Berry. But when Mayor Egofske took office in 2017, the village was able to update and continue development.

“Lemont has done a great job on redevelopment,” said Ana B. Koval, President CEO Canal Corridor Association.

According to Berry, by renewing and restructuring the Village Plan which he said “already had good bones,” the Village was able to turn things around, and both downtown and uptown are reaping rewards.

“The village has become a place to see,” Berry added. “The downtown vacancy rate has gone from 25% in 2017, to only two storefronts available for new business at this time. We have excellent shopping and dining  with ‘mom and pop stores’ and more than 30 women owned businesses.”

“We also have a river, two canals and open space for recreation,” he said.

Known today as Heritage Quarries: boating, fishing, and picnicking are available in a section of the once abandoned limestone quarries. With convenient parking, there is access to more than 60 miles of biking and hiking trails along and near the I&M Canal. You can even rent a bike from the I&M Canal Association’s Bike Share Kiosk there.

“Give me a river and some bike trails, and I’m happy!” Berry noted. “I’ve seen Sandhill Cranes walking on the trails. Ospreys, Indigo Buntings, even Bald Eagles have been spotted down there.”

“Plus, we have The Forge Adventure Park, he added. Also set among the quarries it opened in 2020 and is becoming a favorite for public activity including special events, boating, ziplines, climbing towers and more.”

“In the 1970’s the state offered the towns along the canal the opportunity to buy their portion of the I&M Canal and Lemont was the only one to buy their part. They have done a good job of caring for their piece of the I&M Canal since,” Koval said.

“Our unique 19th Century business district is creating renewed interest in shopping, dining, exploring and living downtown,” Berry concluded.

Noting that the 175th Anniversary of the opening of the I&M Canal coincides with Lemont’s sesquicentennial, Berry said they look forward to celebrating both occasions throughout the year.

Nancy Uznanski is a freelance writer.