LaSalle, Illinois – First Street

Main Streets 2016 Indiana

A stroll down First Street can teach you a lot about LaSalle, a town that helped power American industry and commerce from the mid-1800s into the early 20th century. Named for the French explorer Robert LaSalle, the city sits alongside the old Illinois and Michigan Canal. While its founding industries, coal mining and then zinc smelting, have long since faded away, First Street remains a busy central locale for community events, dining and local businesses.

LaSalle first rose to prominence as the western terminus of the 96-mile canal from Chicago, which was completed in 1846. The city boomed as the transshipment center for passengers and freight of all kinds, which traveled on canal boats to and from Chicago, and on steamboats down the Illinois River bound for St. Louis and New Orleans. LaSalle became a meeting place of southern and northern U.S. culture. Today, visitors to First Street can ride a mule-pulled, replica canal boat on the same hand-cut canal that carried American pioneers, back when the West was opening.

That’s not the only historic landmark in LaSalle, which is also home to some stunning works of architecture. Completed in 1876, the grand Hegeler Carus Mansion features 57 rooms and one of America’s first private gyms. It was the longtime home of the Open Court Publishing Company, founded by local zinc baron and philanthropist Edward C. Hegeler. The publishing firm, now based in Chicago, is credited with having helped introduce Buddhism to the United States. On nearby Marquette Street, the Hotel Kaskaskia, built in 1915, hosted famous guests like Amelia Earhart. The building is currently undergoing renovation and will reopen as a hotel, museum and conference center.

As in its heyday, First Street is a magnet for artisans, restauranteurs and small business owners. Local favorites include Herrcke’s Hardware, Wash n’ Wag Dog Grooming and Lock 16 Gift Shop, named for a segment of the I&M Canal. A handful of pubs and restaurants, especially the Spanish-fusion spot The Pink Chihuahua and Lock 16 Cafe, have garnered dedicated and growing followings.

Thanks to its mix of old and new, First Street is the perfect spot for community events. The annual Jazz’N the Street spotlights the local blues scene and treats guests to a barbecue cook-off contest and fireworks. During the holiday season, Miracle on First Street delights local kids with sleigh rides, hot chocolate and a chance to eat breakfast with Santa.

Carus Mansion photo courtesy of Albert Herring
Canal Boat photo courtesy of LaSalle County Tourism Coalition