Lemont's first settlers arrived in 1833. The town, then called Athens, began its development along the site of the Illinois & Michigan Canal that still flows through downtown. The canal, begun in 1836 and completed in 1848, linked the Illinois River and Lake Michigan to make a direct waterway to the Mississippi River. Almost all the early town pioneers came to work on the canal, either as contract holders or laborers. The contractors were mostly from New England or Ohio border towns. The unskilled laborers were the newly immigrated Irish, German, and Scandinavians, along with French and English Canadians who came looking for a new life, fleeing poverty and political persecution. By 1848, Lemont's population reached 3,000 people.
While digging the canal, an exceptionally fine grade of dolomite limestone was discovered near the surface. This discovery led to the development of the stone quarries. During the period from about 1850 to 1900 this stone, widely known as Joliet-Lemont limestone and locally as Athens Marble, became one of the chief building materials used in many landmark buildings, including: the Chicago Water Tower, Holy Name Cathedral, and the Illinois Capitol building in Springfield.
The quarry industry, like the canal before, attracted more immigrant groups, mainly from southern and south central Europe. Work was hard and the pay low. Lemont made pages of labor history with the struggles between the quarry workers and the owners. In 1885, the Illinois Militia was ordered to Lemont to break a strike. Three people were killed and scores injured.
Not only was the area ideal for the digging of the Canal, it was also well suited for construction of railroads. Two rail lines were built through the area, the Chicago & Alton built in the 1850s and the Santa Fe in the 1890s. The construction of these railroads brought workers to the area as it became an important cattle, grain and dairy shipping point.
In the 1890s, construction began on the Sanitary & Ship Canal. Lemont’s population swelled to 10,000 people and along with new growth came new challenges. The downtown area known as 'Smokey Row' with its bars and brothels gained notoriety as the wildest, most sinful street in the country.
The 20th century brought industrialization with growth of steel, chemical and oil companies, and newer high tech complexes including Argonne National Laboratory. Today Lemont is a thriving modern suburban community with a variety of industrial, commercial, and residential assets further described throughout this guide. For more information on Lemont’s history, two volumes are available: The Lemont History Book (Buschman) and Lemont and Its People (Kallick).