Waukegan saw business boom in 1890

  • Galvinizing room at Washburn & Moen, 1891.

    Galvinizing room at Washburn & Moen, 1891. Courtesy Lake County Discovery Museum

By Diana Dretske
Posted4/27/2010 12:01 AM

Beginning in 1890, Waukegan became the most sought-after location for industry in Lake County.

Its position on the shore of Lake Michigan, proximity to Chicago and access to railroad lines made Waukegan an industrial giant from the 1890s to 1970s.


First among these industries was the United States Sugar Refinery, which opened in 1890. It was followed closely in 1891 by the Washburn and Moen Wire Mill of Worcester, Mass. Washburn and Moen specialized in barbed wire, the demand for which was growing rapidly.

Within months of buying the land, the mill was producing barbed wire. In 1895, Washburn and Moen produced 100,000 tons of barbed wire, in particular a brand invented at the plant called Waukegan Barb.

One of the first markets for barbed wire was the railroads. As the rail lines moved west into cattlemen territory, some livestock was lost crossing unfenced tracks.

Barbed wire was relatively lightweight and easy to install, and relieved some of the tension of rail expansion. Selling the use of barbed wire to cattle ranchers was more difficult since they worried their animals would be injured by the wire's sharp barbs.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service

Eventually, they used barbed wire to fence the great ranches of the West.

The industrial boom also brought a population boom. Waukegan grew from a town of approximately 4,000 in 1890 to 16,000 in 1910. Workers from Washburn's Massachusetts plant were brought to Waukegan, but additional labor was needed, creating an influx of immigrants from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe.

Washburn and Moen bought and subdivided unincorporated land west of the mill for an employee subdivision called the Waukegan Highlands.

The homes were located between 10th and 14th streets and Park Avenue and Sheridan Road. Slovenian occupants and employees called the area "Kompanija" or the company district. This subdivision would subsequently become the city of North Chicago.

In 1899, the Waukegan plant was one of 40 around the country combined into American Steel and Wire. The company became U.S. Steel in 1901.

The mill's operation continued to grow, and by the 1950s had become one of the county's largest employers, and the world's largest wire mill. The 1970s saw an economic downturn and the plant closed in 1979.

Thanks to the extensive research and tireless efforts of Mary Goodley, who died last year, a state historical marker commemorating the wire mill and the company district was dedicated April 24, 1997. The marker is located on the east side of Sheridan Road, south of 10th Street in North Chicago.