Lockport Town Focus
The original hub of the historic I & M Canal, this southwest suburban city actively celebrates its rich history, while embracing significant new growth opportunities
It’s not quite accurate to say that you’re stepping back in time when you’re in Lockport. It’s more like stepping through, in and around time.
This southwest suburb, about 30 miles from Chicago’s Loop and accessible via Route 171, I-80, I-55 and, more recently, I-355, teems with history, much of it significant not just locally, but in a statewide and even national way. It is here, after all, that the headquarters for the Illinois & Michigan Canal was erected in the mid-19th century, essentially opening up the country for greater commerce at a time of its strong surge westward.
While you can follow the footsteps of history practically through the entire downtown area, you can also see paths to the future, through enterprising new businesses, ground that’s been broken for new projects and longtime establishments that have become attractions in their own right.
Those who call Lockport home say that the city of 25,000 residents, so steeped with history and culture and set amid the gently hilly terrain of the Des Plaines River Valley, is worth a visit, if not a place to put down roots.
“Lockport would be a special town anywhere, but it’s especially so in Northeastern Illinois,” says resident Jerry Adelmann, a sixth-generation resident whose family ties on both sides go back to 1840. “There are few communities like it, with the history, architecture and various things to do and see.”
Adelmann says that, as with many suburbs, Lockport has experienced its share of challenges over the years, including slower commercial growth after the recent recession. But he notes the city is moving ahead in a dynamic way, thanks to the combined efforts of its residents and business and civic leaders, including new mayor, Steven Streit.
Elected last year, Streit says he and his wife, Wendy, bought their present house in the heart of the city because “we wanted an affordable historic home that we could restore. The other attraction was the ability to walk to amenities like restaurants, the bank and museums.”
As for his role leading the city, the mayor says that collaborative efforts have been effective. “It has only been a year, but I have had the pleasure to work with energetic citizens and talented staff to begin promoting Lockport to all of Chicagoland. There are so many great things about our city — its history, citizens, location, schools, parks — to be proud of, that the greatest accomplishment to date has been being a part of the process to raise Lockport’s flag for all to see,” Streit notes. As for his goals, he says he wants to expand the retail and business centers along I-355 while retaining the 19th century heritage of the downtown area.
Those who have more recently come to Lockport agree that it’s a “so close, so far” kind of place — close to Chicago and other surrounding suburbs, yet enough removed to be truly unique.
Tina Keller, president of the non-profit Main Street Lockport group, moved from west suburban Clarendon Hills to Lockport about seven years ago. “Friends of mine had moved here and it was close to my work. What we have to offer in Lockport is so great,” she says, noting that residents’ commitment to the community is readily evident in the time and resources that volunteers spend improving and promoting the city.
ILLINOIS & MICHIGAN CANAL
Lockport is a distinctive community in large part because it is one of the best preserved canal sites in the country. In fact, downtown Lockport was the first entire downtown area in the country to be named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
The town was chosen to be the headquarters for the canal when it was built due to the area’s ideal elevation. Today, the I & M Canal still cuts a swath through Lockport and, to a large extent, is the heart and soul of the community.
Reflecting the origin of the town’s name, the canal’s first lock — Lock #1 — can be viewed and explored. Further down along the canal path, Lock #2 near a local park is also visible, although a bit harder to find.
Pathways alongside the canal are used for biking and walking and, during warm weather months, are busy with those looking for exercise, adventure or a bit of both.
The main trail along the canal stretches more than 70 miles, running through Lockport and ending in LaSalle County. On that point, the I & M Canal connects Lockport to other canal communities. Those communities, in fact, are part of what’s called the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor. The corridor is literal, in that it stretches from Lake Michigan, to the east, to the town of Peru in LaSalle County,
to the west. It’s also figurative, in that people can visit many of those towns in a day-trip driving tour including Lemont, Joliet, Channahon, Morris, Ottawa, Utica, Seneca and Marseilles, among other stops.
WILL COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Given that Lockport’s official motto is “City of Historic Pride,” it’s safe to say that historical sites centered on the importance of the I & M Canal are a source of pride among residents and a point of destination for visitors.
The Will County Historical Society, in fact, is housed in the original headquarters office of the I & M Canal. Built in 1937, the structure has long been listed on the National Register of Historical Places, and its unassuming white-frame exterior and old-fashioned front door —complete with an authentic creak — belie the interesting artifacts found inside.
Visitors can tour the museum on their own or listen to a tour guide share stories about the building, its memorabilia, the canal and other interesting facts about Will County’s history. Some exhibits are permanent, while others change regularly, with displays designed to appeal to adults as well as children.
Adelmann underscores the significance of the building, which also housed a state bank when it was the canal headquarters. “It was probably the most important public building in northern Illinois when it was built,” he maintains.
GAYLORD BUILDING HISTORICAL SITE
A few steps away from the Will County Historical Society is The Gaylord Building Historical Site, which is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This structure is distinctive and recognizable because of the limestone from which it was made, a hallmark of many buildings in this limestone-rich area that once supplied materials for buildings in Chicago, including Holy Name Cathedral and Michigan Avenue’s iconic Water Tower.
The Gaylord Building served as a warehouse during the construction of the canal. These days, it highlights the history of the canal and Lockport in a first floor exhibit called “Illinois Passage: Connecting the Continent,” spotlighting how industry and agriculture grew in this part of northern Illinois.
Reflecting Lockport’s emphasis on both past and present, The Gaylord Building hosts various activities and enterprises, chief among them the popular Public Landing Restaurant, which draws patrons both locally and from surrounding areas. Lectures and other special events are held in The Gaylord Building, too, such as “Community Conversations” and “Discovery Dinner” events, along with periodic theater programs staged with the White Oak Library District.
Mark Harmon, executive director of The Gaylord Building, says that the Public Landing Restaurant, historical exhibits and special programs help sustain the important structure. “We get a variety of individuals, many of whom come to Lockport and are not familiar with the history,” he says. “They are often fascinated to find out the building’s connection to the canal and the canal’s importance.”
Just as the I & M Canal connects communities, the different historical sites within Lockport are linked both physically and geographically. For example, right outside The Gaylord Building and not far from the Will County Historical Society building is Lincoln Landing.
Spring and summer are great times to visit this outdoor museum, which opened in 2009 as part of the commemoration of President Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. A centerpiece of the canal-side park is a sculpture of Lincoln. Visitors can also check out several historical bronze medallion markers that detail the history of the canal and President Lincoln’s role in its vision and creation.
In the past few years, Lincoln Landing has become known for its garden setting. Many native plantings grace the landscape, chosen for their hardiness and four-season visual interest. In summer, bursts of color from perennial plants like daylilies, hydrangeas and coral bells are balanced by the sight and sound of ornamental grasses that evoke the area’s original prairie grasses.
GLADYS FOX MUSEUM
Another vintage building that is used to showcase the history of Lockport and the I & M Canal is the Gladys Fox Museum. The building originally served as the Old Congregational Church, constructed in 1840 and painstakingly restored after the Lockport Township Park District took it over in the 1950s.
Today, the second floor of the limestone building features an exhibit with historical photos and artifacts related to the canal and other sites in Lockport. The meeting room on the main floor of this space can be rented out for special events.
ILLINOIS STATE MUSEUM LOCKPORT GALLERY
Another museum that can be visited as part of a historical tour of Lockport combines history and art.
The Illinois State Museum and Lockport Gallery is located in yet another historic limestone structure along the I & M canal — the circa-1950 Norton Building, which was once used to process grain, sell supplies and house canal workers. The light-filled gallery features historic artworks as well as artworks from current artists that are showcased on a regular, rotating basis. Exhibits include paintings, sculptures, textiles and other media.
The free and open-to-the-public gallery attracts children and adults. Group tours are available, and special events are held at the site during the year, including “How’d They Do That?” lectures and workshops, as well as sessions on how to improve one’s own artistic skills.
OLD CANAL DAYS, SUMMER ART SERIES
The four main museums in downtown Lockport share the area’s important history. But that history is also celebrated through a variety of special events held throughout the year.
One example is the perennially popular Old Canal Days, set for June 13-15 this year. Like many summer festivities in the western suburbs, this three-day fest includes a good old-fashioned parade, live music, food vendors and carnival rides. Befitting Lockport’s heritage, though, there are historical twists to the fun, like a special tour of the Lockport hydraulic power plant. Built in 1910 and located in the Shipping Canal, it still generates $1 million in hydroelectric power annually.
A newer special summer event, the Visionaries Summer Art Series, is being spearheaded by Wendy Streit, along with her mayor husband. “We are proud of our city and believe that it is time that everyone else in the Midwest discovers Lockport,” says Wendy. “Our Summer Art Series showcases the best of Lockport.”
The Summer Art Series begins the same time as Canal Days and extends through the second week of August, displaying original artworks along the I & M canal itself, at Lincoln Landing and in The Gaylord Building’s second-floor gallery. The theme for the 2014 art series is “Steampunk,” a term that fuses history with modern culture. As Wendy explains: “Our city is a 19th century canal town that was founded on industry and innovation. The Steampunk movement is about celebrating all that was possible with the inventions of electricity, steam and automation. It was the perfect mix of
history and fantasy, and Steampunk is very popular at the moment.”
The Summer Arts Series includes a special Celebration Weekend from July 25-27. During that weekend, visitors and residents can take part in a Pop Up Shopping event in downtown Lockport, a high tea, and a black tie gala — Steampunk costumes encouraged — at the Public Landing Restaurant and adjacent Lincoln Landing. The gala includes food, drinks a costume contest and entertainment by vaudeville acts and Steampunk musicians, including the group Frenchy and Punk.
Other events throughout the year help draw residents and visitors to downtown Lockport. On June 7, August 2 and Sept. 13, Bike & Dine events feature bike rides along the I & M canal path and post-ride meals at local restaurants such as Mama Onesta’s, Vegan Café and Heritage Pizza. In the summer, local residents and visitors alike flock to the Farmers Market and classic car show on Mondays, while Christmas in the Square and the annual Christmas Tea get folks in the holiday spirit.
DOWNTOWN LOCKPORT: DINING AND SHOPPING
Speaking of restaurants in downtown Lockport, one of the city’s biggest draws is Tallgrass Restaurant, a AAA Four Diamond Award Winner for the past 19 years. Named for prairie grasses that defined this area (another nod to history), Tallgrass is known for its quaint setting in a brick-and-stone building as well as its sumptuous three-, four- and five-course menus.
“We have been in business 33 years now, and we think we’ve helped give a positive spin to Lockport,” says maître d’ Thomas Alves, who runs Tallgrass with chef Robert Burcenski.
It was the historic charm that drew them to the area in the first place, he adds. “We loved the historical buildings. We wanted something that was small, intimate and had craftsmanship,” Alves recalls.
In addition to its highly-rated menu, Tallgrass offers a concert series throughout the year in the Norton Building loft, an extension of the restaurant that is used for larger gatherings.
“We do about five concerts a year that can accommodate 124 people and we sell out,” reports Alves, citing a recent performance by internationally-renowned pianist Barbara Nissman.
As downtown Lockport has been reinvigorated, other businesses have also made a name for themselves. Examples include the Vegan Café, which was recently sold to new owners, and Naked Sprouts Organic Market, which sells good-for-you sundries and made-to-order smoothies and juices.
Another spot in town that has garnered attention is Hollingworth Candies, featured on the TV show “Chicago’s Best.”Known for its signature toffee, Hollingworth also sells homemade cashew brittle, caramel apples, sea salt toffee, sea salt caramels, chocolate dipped strawberries and more.
Among popular downtown stores is Canal House Antiques, which specializes in American country furnishings, accessories and folk art. Another downtown store, Thimbles, draws quilters from throughout the area for its extensive selection of fabrics, quilting-related products, classes and finished quilts.
The 150-acre Dellwood Park is a picturesque attraction in Lockport. This time of year, and especially after a long, cold winter, the park is bustling with activity across its playground, trails, green space and designated areas for baseball, soccer, sand volleyball and other pursuits.
The park is run by the Lockport Park District, which maintains 18 other sites in town, including the Prairie Bluff Public Golf Club, a fitness facility with indoor tennis courts and pools, and the outdoor Heritage Falls Water Park.
Another spot worth checking out is the Legacy Paintball Park, tucked away in the remote limestone bluffs of Dellwood Park, “a gem that even the locals are just discovering,” says Streit.
LOCKPORT PRAIRIE NATURE PRESERVE
Blanketed with native prairie grasses and wildflowers, Lockport Prairie Nature Preserve attracts both nature and history lovers. Part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County, this 285-acre prairie is one of the few remaining wet dolomite prairies in the state, and hence, is home to rare plant types and endangered species like the Hines emerald dragonfly.
“Lockport Prairie is one of the rarest systems,” says Adelmann, who is also president of the nonprofit Openlands, which works to protect the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois and the surrounding region.
As the population of Lockport has grown with the addition of new neighborhoods, including those around I-355, Adelmann says that the legacy of the town will continue to evolve.
“New people coming in are embracing this history as their own because it’s a shared history in this region,” explains Adelmann. “In the long run, the people moving in will also be the protectors of Lockport’s history, so that new generations can continue to enjoy this special place.” That assessment is shared by Streit. “There is a growing connection between old and new residents,” the mayor says. “It’s great to watch long-established and new residents work together on new festival and revitalization committees with drive and enthusiasm.”Edit Module