Lake County History

McHenry County, which included Lake, had been set off from Cook County earlier that year, and in March 1837 it was determined that the new county had the 350 white inhabitants necessary to allow the organization to become effective. In June 1837, an election was held, with the majority of those registered living east of the Fox River.

The new government promptly levied a one percent property tax on “slaves, pleasure carriages, distillery, stock in trade, livestock, lumber, clocks and watches.” This was curious, because slavery was not an issue in northern Illinois nor with most of the Yankees who settled in the area. It can only be surmised that they borrowed the wording for their document from one in effect in the South. It is also interesting to note that land was not taxed.

Roads began to be surveyed, and every man between the ages of 21 and 50 was required to work on the roads for five days a year or pay 75 cents a day.

Stage stops or taverns on the frontier often were gathering places for local residents, providing these people who for the most part lived in great isolation, with a place to socialize and enjoy lively conversation. One of the most influential, from the standpoint of politics, was the establishment on Green Bay Road near Lake Bluff operated by Irish immigrants William and Mary Dwyer. Dr. Richard Murphy, Mary Dwyer’s brother, lived with them. Political activists before they arrived in the Midwest, the three soon became embroiled in local politics. The tavern was the setting for debate, civic meetings, an endorsement of causes and candidates.

When the newly elected McHenry County commissioners divided it into precincts and magistrate districts, they appointed William Dwyer supervisor of Oak District and Richard Murphy justice of Oak Magistrate District. Murphy soon moved up the political ladder, and was elected to the state legislature in 1838. Serving three terms, he was responsible for drafting and pushing into enactment the Illinois Public School Law.

The birth of Lake County
Public sentiment began to build for splitting Lake and McHenry counties. Murphy who had run on a plank favoring division, was instrumental in finally pushing it through the Illinois Assembly on March 1, 1839. As of that date, Lake County, as it exists geographically today, was born.

Scarcely had the candles been blown out on the birthday cake, than the celebrants were at odds with one another.

Libertyville, centrally located in the county was an up-and-coming settlement on a main road between Chicago and Milwaukee. Started when George Vardin settled beside a grove halfway between Butler’s Lake and the Des Plaines River in 1835, it became known as Vardin’s Grove. But Vardin left, and when a group of farm families gathered to celebrate the Fourth of July the following year, they decided to rename their settlement Independence Grove. However, when the establishment of a post office soon after led to the discovery that there was already an Independence Grove in the state, the settlement was given its third name: Libertyville.

Little Fort, (later Waukegan), on the other hand, was developing more slowly despite its potential as a port city. The three commissioners from Cook County appointed by the legislature to select the new county seat quickly chose Libertyville.

Little Fort proponents bided their time, and concentrated on the upcoming election of county commissioners. They succeeded in getting one of their men, Nelson Landon, into office. The other two elected, Charles Bartlett and Jared Gage, favored Libertyville.

The three men met for the first time on Aug. 17, 1839, and Landon adroitly convinced the other two that due to their lack of funds, they should put off erecting a building and temporarily rent quarters.

Richard Murphy was returned to the legislature as the representative from Lake County. He favored Little Fort for the county seat, and in 1840 was influential in the taking of the national census. The state census taker in Lake County, Captain Morris Robinson, went about his appointed duties with a message for everyone he talked to: the advantage of Little Fort as county seat. Securing petitions along with head counts, he walked to the state capitol in order to deliver them before the close of the session.

Relocating the county seat
On Feb. 17, 1841, the legislature called for an election to be held on April 5 regarding the location of the county seat. Accusations of improprieties flew. For example, the Little Fort Porcupine and Democratic Banner, rehashing the controversial election several years later, stated, “The census showed 720 males over 20, yet 744 votes were cast.”

Nevertheless, the ballots were taken at face value – with 278 cast for Libertyville, and 466 for Little Fort. On April 13, the county seat was formally relocated.

This time Landon moved quickly to construct a building that would anchor the county seat to Little Fort. In order to do this, the commissioners borrowed $200 from Elmsley Sunderlin, and on April 20 – just 15 days after the election – the sale of land was recorded in Chicago. A courthouse was contracted for $3,800 and a jail for $1,000.

Archimedes Wynkoop, publisher of the Little Fort Porcupine, also was the county recorder, the deputy clerk and a hard loser. He moved his office back to Libertyville and the clerk, Henry B. Steel, satisfied that Wynkoop was doing all the work, said nary a word.

At the instigation of Landon, the commissioners voted to discharge Steele as negligent.

When the first train came chugging into Waukegan on New Year’s Day in 1855, the economic future of the town seemed assured. The Illinois Parallel Railroad Company, chartered on Feb. 17, 1851, soon changed its name to the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad. It was to meet the Milwaukee and Chicago Railroad at the state line.

Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, and called for a four-day banking moratorium, although banks in more than 20 states including Illinois, had already closed as a result of the Depression. Locally, Abbott Laboratories and the Chicago Hardware Foundry were forced to make payments with scrip because their money was inaccessible. The Waukegan-North Chicago Chamber of Commerce met to discuss ways to deal with the situation. On March 7, banks were allowed to deal in emergency funds. By March 15, banks in Antioch, Barrington, Lake Forest, Fox Lake, Grayslake and Lake Villa were open for business as usual. The First National Bank of Waukegan did not reopen until July 17, and reported that business was mild that day.

A major shipping port
Early settlers’ hopes of making Waukegan a major shipping port never materialized, although as late as 1955 the Waukegan Port District was formed and the harbor widened and deepened to accommodate ocean-going vessels. In 1959, the Prinz Wilhelm George arrived in Waukegan from the Netherlands to pick up engines from Outboard Marine. It was the first foreign ship and nearly the last. Lake craft still bring gypsum rock and cement for two lakeshore industries, but there is little other commercial activity. Even the commercial fishing industry, which once hauled millions of pounds of fish from the lake annually has pulled in its lines.

Things looked bleak in the 1970s, when pollution closed the beaches and the harbor was found to be full of toxic polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) from Outboard Marine dumpings.

Recreation did for Waukegan Harbor what commercialism never could, through $4 million appropriated by the state legislature in 1977. Another $8 million followed in 1981. A breakwater was built, as well as 763 boating slips in the south harbor and 284 in the north harbor. By 1988, a total of $17 million had been spent on harbor expansion.

Lake County’s greatest asset has always been its waterways. Today more than ever they are being utilized for recreation to the economic benefit of the county. The market for boating has doubled every decade since World War II.

Through the 1950s and 1960s nothing was done to maintain the Chain O’Lakes, although they were becoming increasingly polluted because of more year-round housing, greater boating activity and widespread use of chemicals in agriculture. There were problems with algae, shallow channels making many lakes unnavigable and increasing danger from flooding. Then in 1975 there was a big hue and cry from Lake County members of the state legislature who were successful in making that body cough up $940,000 for dredging.

Most of the work, however, was diagnostic until 1985, when the Chain O’Lakes-Fox River Waterway Management Agency was created. They have been concerned with dredging as well as traffic on the chain.