The city of La Salle is rich with fascinating history and pebbled with romantic and colorful folklore.
La Salle is named for the famous French explorer Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, a fearless adventurer whose journey brought him from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, traversing the Mississippi River. He reached his namesake city in 1678, but it would be almost 175 years before La Salle would become official.
Come and explore for yourself!
The Illinois and Michigan Canal
One of La Salle’s most important calling cards is their claim to the western terminus of the Illinois and Michigan Canal. To travel before the canal was opened, one was either forced to walk, suffer the indelicacies of horseback, or take the stagecoach, which had its own set of challenges. Stagecoach travel was often dusty, intolerably slow, bumpy, and constantly at the mercy of highwaymen and other ruffians. The canal was opened in 1848 and quickly became the preferred mode of transportation. Once completed, the 96-mile canal connected Lake Michigan to the Illinois River through a series of 15 locks designed to raise and lower the water level, allowing safe travel for freight and packet boats.
Today, visitors can take their own mini adventure on The Volunteer, a mule-pulled, full-scale replica packet boat. Costumed interpreters give guests an insightful, delightful peek back in time to the days of the untamed prairie and its cast of local characters both influential…and infamous. After safely docking and disembarking, guests can further enhance their experience—and quench their thirst—at the Lock 16 Visitor Center Café and Gift Shop. This beautifully restored brick building hosts canal and other historically related exhibits, educational programs, children’s events, and lovely afternoon teas. In addition, the southeast wall of the building showcases a remarkably detailed mural of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, complete with its locktenders and ice vendors.
For more information, visit www.lasallecanalboat.org.
Downtown La Salle
The Illinois and Michigan Canal did not get to enjoy its glory for long. Railroads were put in parallel to the canal, bringing canal travel—certainly passenger travel—to a near standstill. Yet despite this setback, the city of La Salle continued to thrive, albeit at a much slower pace than its once eastern twin, Chicago. First Street in particular saw its rough, wooden buildings given upgrades to brick, stone, and concrete. Bridle shops and opera houses saw their heyday continue into the early 20th century. Today, bridal shops and theatres are given their due, as well as fashion boutiques, specialty stores, and cozy restaurants with fantastic fare. It’s easy to spend a relaxing afternoon strolling down this historic district, popping in and out of quaint little shops.
Once you’ve explored La Salle, it would be well worth your time to visit surrounding cities and parks. A few miles east you will find Utica, Oglesby, Ottawa, Streator, Marseilles and Seneca.
If you’re looking for that quintessential “small town” atmosphere, then you need look no further than the village of Utica, just a few miles east of La Salle.
Utica, with its population of just over 500, has suffered tremendous tragedy after a tornado destroyed a large section of the town in 2002. The town has persevered to become a much stronger, more closely-knit community of neighbors and friends. These days the village of Utica serves as a reminder of what community really means. Store shelves stocked with gourmet popcorn and chocolate covered bacon line the main street, nestled in good company with fantastic wineries and pubs featuring over 100 different thirst-quenching brews and live music.
Before heading across the river to Starved Rock State Park, a visit should be paid to the La Salle County Historical Society. The Society, formed in 1907, saw the importance even then of preserving the rich history of Starved Rock Country in general and La Salle County in particular. The building which houses both the Society and the museum was first built in 1848. The building served as a warehouse and general store. In 1849 it was also used as the post office. Canal traffic continued into the early 1930’s, but it was limited by then to freight traffic. The building, nearly a century old, had been witness to a number of different owners, been used for different purposes, and withstood countless floods and harsh winter freezes. Thirty years later the building, once so crucial to the comfort of canal travelers and locals, was now perceived as an outdated eyesore. The Historical Society intervened, obtained a lease, and began extensive repair work in 1964, moving in just two years later. Today visitors can see eye-opening exhibits of what life was really like on the prairie. There is also an impressive collection of Native American artifacts on display.
In recent years, the Society has acquired a few other historic buildings. The Aitken School, a one-room schoolhouse, was built in 1865 and once belonged to Horace Hickok, older brother of the famed outlaw “Wild Bill” Hickok. The schoolhouse is a fascinating venture for children and adults alike to spend a moment in an era where inkpots and writing slates were the latest in educational ‘technology’. Interpreters bring the moment to life with their lively and historically accurate presentations.
The Historical Society was fortunate enough in 1972 to purchase the Blacksmith shop. In towns both large and small it was the blacksmith who perhaps was most relied upon. He was the fellow with both strength and skill to take metal, flame, bellows, and hammers to create tools, kitchen domestics like meat jacks, farming implements, and just about anything else that was made of metal, least of all horseshoes. The shop was first built in 1892 for a smith named William Curtin. It was run by other smiths until John Kidd, who ran the shop from 1941 until his death in 1969. Demonstrations are sometimes held in the shop.
The final site of the museum complex is the 1875 barn which has numerous displays of farm machinery, sausage stuffers, cultivators, and other points of interest to the agriculturally-minded.
For more information, please visit www.lasallecountymuseum.org.
Utica is home to Starved Rock State Park
There are 13 miles of trails to explore, plus, the Illinois River offers fishing (ice fishing, too), boating, extraordinary views and great places to relax. Amazing waterfalls are active in the spring and after heavy rains.Canyons, bluffs and buttes are stunning all year round.
For more information, visit www.starvedrockstatepark.org
From the historic buildings to the specialty shops, Ottawa is as charming as they come! Ottawa overlooks the spot where the Fox River meets the Illinois, a pleasant river walk brings you right to the river’s edge. Relax on a shady bench in Washington Park, a pleasant town square featuring historic monuments, towering trees, and a beautiful fountain dedicated to two famous visitors to town! Ottawa offers a pleasing mix of restaurants featuring everything from ethnic menus to seafood and steaks, from family dining to gourmet cuisine.
For more information, visit www.pickusottawail.com
Reddick Mansion Built before the Civil War, this ornate 22 room 50 foot tall Italianate mansion was constructed by leading philanthropist and state senator William Reddick. The mansion is open for tours. Visit www.reddickmansion.org for details.
Travel south from Ottawa to Streator and visit the Weber House and Gardens, a storybook tudor cottage which sits on a two acre English garden of meandering paths, roses, hollyhocks and old oaks. Inside, cozy candlelit rooms reflect the 18th century visit www.weberhouseandgarden.com to schedule your tour.