Waukegan was a small town of about 4,000 on Lake Michigan in 1890. A decade later, its population had increased by 90% as the first wave of industrialization attracted Eastern Europeans, Finns, and Swedes. During the 1920s, the next round of manufacturing expansion, Waukegan’s population went up about 75%, drawing upon African Americans and Southern whites. By 1955, there were around 19,000 manufacturing jobs in the Waukegan-North Chicago economic complex. Less than 20 years later, the city’s industrial decline began when the Greiss-Pfleger Tannery, where more than 600 worked, closed. By the mid-1990s, few factory jobs were left, but during that decade, Waukegan’s population increased by more than 25%, as it attracted Mexican immigrants seeking jobs in the Chicago metropolitan area.
Waukegan had much to offer industry. About half-way between Chicago and Milwaukee, its residential and business district sat on a bluff 60 to 80 feet above the “flats” that ran to the lake. The flats offered cheap land and easy access to an endless supply of water. The port provided one means of transportation, while the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railroad offered, in a route that stretched to Porter, Indiana, a way around Chicago. Waukegan, moreover, had little sustained working-class culture or activity.
Washburn Moen, a wire mill in Worcester, Massachusetts, was the first to see Waukegan’s possibilities. Its establishment of a branch in Waukegan in the early 1890s set off the city’s industrial expansion. Established with the help of skilled workers, especially Scandinavians, this firm, to become American Steel and Wire, soon employed more than 2,000. For the next ten years, new factories, like the sugar refinery that employed between 750 and 1,000, continued to be built on the southern portion of the flats. It was there, at the Corn Products Company, that the worst industrial accident in Lake County’s history occurred: Fourteen workers died in an explosion in November, 1912.
Eastern and Northern Europeans, caught up in the social and economic dislocations produced by expanding Euro-US capitalism, flocked to Waukegan in search of steady employment. By 1910, Waukegan’s population, which had grown to 16,000, was 35% foreign-born. Living almost entirely on the city’s South Side, these immigrants – Finns, Lithuanians, and Slovenians were most prominent – created institutions that sustained them and their children for the next 50 years years. The Finns and Slovenians – the Lithuanians to a much lesser extent – were deeply divided between the churched and the non-churched or, perhaps better, the anti-clerical. For the Slovenians, it was Mother of God and the Slovenic National Home; for the Finns, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church/Temperance Hall and Workers Hall.
The 1919 steel strike is the exception to the Waukegan working classes’ long record of relative quiescence in the workplace, at least as measured by walkouts. The strikers at American Steel and Wire stayed out long after most in the Chicago and Pittsburgh regions had gone back to work. Using the Slovenic National Home as primary strike headquarters and Workers Hall as a secondary one, their mass meetings heard speeches by Mother Jones and Daniel Hoan, the socialist mayor of Milwaukee. The company, in alliance with city officials and a besieged middle-class, triumphed over the strikers, despite their stirring demonstration of solidarity across ethnic-lines. The defeat would be remembered, especially by Slovenians, for a long time.
The African-American population in Waukegan more than doubled during the 1920s. The Wilder tannery, soon to become Griess-Pfleger, recruited Southern blacks to work in its Waukegan plant during WW I, but had to build housing for these new employees because whites would not rent to them. The tannery’s development, on the northwest outskirts of town, became known as “Frog Island.” Almost equally black and white in 1920, it was overwhelmingly African-American by 1930, as Southern blacks continued moving to Waukegan for jobs. In that census year, of 46 black heads-of-households, 9 worked at the tannery. Frog Island, a proud and self-contained residential area, anchored by Gideon Missionary Baptist Church, would provide leadership for Waukegan’s blacks for the next 30 years.
Waukegan’s next wave of industrialization came in the 1920s when several companies that would leave a lasting mark on the city arrived: Johns Manville, which produced assorted goods made from asbestos, and Johnson Motors, which made outboard motors for recreational boats. The former, which began production just outside the northern city limits in 1923, employed about 2,500 in 1955, while the latter, which opened in 1927, employed more than 2,000 in the same year on the northern flats. Eleven African-Americans from Frog Island worked at Johns Manville in 1930.
North Chicago – the city immediately south of Waukegan – was the scene of the area’s most dramatic event in the area during the Great Depression. When management refused to negotiate with Fansteel’s workers, they occupied the plant in 1937, only to be ejected by the police after considerable violence. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that Fansteel had committed unfair labor practices; it also decided that the workers’ sit-down strike was illegal. In 1955, the company, which had begun production in North Chicago in 1907, employed about 2,000, many of whom lived in Waukegan.
We know little about other labor activity in Waukegan during the 1930s. The Co-Operative Trading Company, which had come out of the Finnish immigrant community, took the lead in organizing the unemployed, while the CIO’s Fur and Leather Workers won recognition and a contract at Griess-Pfleger after a five-week strike in 1941. The Steel Workers seem to have won bargaining rights at American Steel and Wire during WW II. Independent unions came to represent workers at Johnson Motors and Johns Manville. The Independent Marine and Machinist Union represented employees of the former during the life of the plant, but by 1959, employees at the latter had switched to the Chemical Workers.
On July 24, 1970, 17 of the 19 police officers assigned to work the midnight shift called in with the “blue flu.” Several days later, the majority of police officers voted to not report for work: Their demand for union recognition brought them into direct conflict with Robert Sabonjian, the son of an Armenian immigrant and steelworker, who was serving his fourth term as mayor. The final result was a crushing defeat when Sabonjian fired more than 50 patrolmen, sergeants, and lieutenants.
The closing of Griess-Pfleger in 1973 marked the beginning of the end of factory production in Waukegan. In 1979, American Steel and Wire shuttered its doors. From then on, Waukegan’s industrial work force declined fitfully, but inexorably. In 1992, Johns Manville closed. By that time, few production workers remained at OMC, the new name for Johnson Motors; it officially shut down in 2000.
Factory jobs, which had been the life-blood of Waukegan for almost a century, all but disappeared, but industrial production left its mark on the city in two different, but related ways. First, in 1934 and 1935, workers at Johns Manville had filed numerous lawsuits, holding the company responsible for their health problems. The courts denied these claims, so Johns Manville continued production at Waukegan and elsewhere, cognizant of asbestos’ danger. By the mid-1970s, though, it could no longer hide what it was doing and an avalanche of lawsuits and court rulings brought the problem the attention it deserved. Johns Manville declared bankruptcy in 1982. There are few long-time residents in Waukegan who do not know more than a few people who died of asbestos. The casualties, moreover, continue.
Severe environmental problems are the second legacy of Waukegan’s industrial production. Johns Manville left behind a 300-acre site filled with asbestos, while OMC did the same with 1,000,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Here the damage extended to the harbor, where about one-third of the PCBs ended up. Large amounts of chemical waste also were discovered at the tannery as well as at an abandoned manufactured gas and coke plant. The federal government declared OMC, Johns Manville, and Yeoman Creek Landfill – a city owned disposal site of 70 acres that contained a witch’s brew of synthetic chemicals – Superfund Sites. Remediation, under the EPA’s direction and largely successful, has been going on for more than 20 years. The city also has a master plan for lakefront development.
The capital mobility that created massive social and economic dislocation in Waukegan during the last quarter of the twentieth century produced a similar dynamic in Mexico. As the city emptied out of the white working class and downtown shopping all but disappeared, hundreds of Mexican men and women began moving in large numbers to Waukegan looking for jobs. The percent of Mexicans living in the city doubled from 1980 to 1990 and again from 1990 to 2000. Finding jobs that paid considerably better in the US than in Mexico, just like the Slovenians and Finns had decades before, Mexicanos and Mexicanas began creating a world for themselves, doing the best they could for their families within conditions over which they had little control.
Important sites in Waukegan include:
*Slovenic National Home