Waukegan, Illinois

Waukegan (/wɔːˈkɡən/) is the largest city in and the county seat of Lake County, Illinois, United States. An industrial suburb of Chicago, the city is located in the northern sector of the Chicago metropolitan area, situated approximately 35 miles north of Downtown Chicago and 27 miles northeast of O’Hare Airport. As of the 2018 United States Census estimate, there is a population of 86,792,[4] which makes it the ninth most populous city in Illinois. Waukegan is a predominately working-class community with a sizeable middle-class population.

Waukegan, Illinois
City of Waukegan
From top to bottom: Waukegan Skyline, Downtown Waukegan, Genesee Theatre
WaukTown, Green Town, Talk Town
"An Illinois Arts-Friendly Community"
Location of Waukegan in Lake County, Illinois.
Waukegan, Illinois
Location in the United States
Coordinates: 42°22′13″N 87°52′16″W
Country United States
State Illinois
Incorporated (Town)March 31, 1849
Incorporated (City)February 23, 1859
Named forPotawatomi: wakaigin
(Fortress or Little Fort)
  MayorSam Cunningham
  City24.41 sq mi (63.22 km2)
  Land24.19 sq mi (62.65 km2)
  Water0.22 sq mi (0.58 km2)  0.88%
Elevation715 ft (218 m)
  Rank9th largest in Illinois[5]
367th, U.S[6]
  Density3,645.54/sq mi (1,407.58/km2)
Time zoneUTC−6 (CST)
  Summer (DST)UTC−5 (CDT)
ZIP Codes
60079, 60085, 60087
Area code(s)847 & 224
FIPS code17-79293
U.S. Routes
Major State Routes
WaterwaysWaukegan River
AirportsWaukegan National Airport


Founding and 19th Century

The site of present-day Waukegan was recorded as Rivière du Vieux Fort ("Old Fort River") and Wakaygagh on a 1778 map by Thomas Hutchins. By the 1820s, the French name had become "Small Fort River" in English, and the settlement was known as "Little Fort". The name "Waukegance" and then "Waukegan" (meaning "little fort"; cf. Potawatomi wakaigin "fort" or "fortress") was created by John H. Kinzie and Solomon Juneau, and the new name was adopted on March 31, 1849.[7][8]

Waukegan had an abolitionist community dating to these early days. In 1853, residents commemorated the anniversary of emancipation of slaves in the British Empire with a meeting.[9] Waukegan arguably has the distinction of being the only place where Abraham Lincoln failed to finish a speech; when he campaigned in the town in 1860, a fire alarm rang, and the man soon-to-be president had his words interrupted.[10]

During the middle of the 19th century, Waukegan was becoming an important industrial hub. Industries included: ship and wagon building, flour milling, sheep raising, pork packing, and dairying. William Besley's Waukegan Brewing Company was one of the most successful of these businesses, being able to sell beyond America.[11] The construction of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railway through Waukegan by 1855 stimulated the growth and rapid transformation and development of the city's industry, so much that nearly one thousand ships were visiting Waukegan harbor every year.[11] During the 1860s, a substantial German population began to grow inside the city[11]

Waukegan's development began in many ways with the arrival of industries such as United States Sugar Refinery, which opened in 1890[12], Washburn & Moen, a barbed-wire manufacturer that prompted both labor migration and land speculation beginning in 1891,[13] U.S. Starch Works, and Thomas Brass and Iron Works. Immigrants followed, mostly hailing from southeastern Europe and Scandinavia, with especially large groups from Sweden, Finland, and Lithuania.[14][15] The town also became home to a considerable Armenian population.[16] One member of this community, Monoog Curezhin, even became embroiled in an aborted plot to assassinate Sultan Abdul Hamid II, reviled for his involvement in massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Curezhin lost two fingers on his right hand while testing explosives for this purpose in Waukegan in 1904.[17]

20th and 21st Century

1900 to 1990

By the 1920s and 1930s, African-Americans began to migrate to the city, mostly from the south.[18] The town was no stranger to racial strife. In June 1920, an African-American boy allegedly hit the car of an off-duty sailor from nearby Great Lakes Naval Base with a rock, and hundreds of white sailors gathered at Sherman House, a hotel reserved for African-Americans. Although newspaper reports and rumors suggested that the officer's wife was hit with glass from the broken windshield, subsequent reports revealed that the officer was not married.[19] The sailors cried "lynch 'em," but were successfully kept back by the intervention of the police.[20] Marines and sailors renewed their attack on the hotel several days later. The Sherman's residents fled for their lives as the military members carried torches, gasoline, and the American flag.[21] The Waukegan police once again turned them away, but not before firing and wounding two members of the crowd.[22] The police were not always so willing to protect Waukegan's citizens. The chief of police and the state's attorney in the 1920s, for example, were avowed members of the Ku Klux Klan, facts that came to light when a wrongfully convicted African-American war veteran was released from prison on appeal after 25 years.[23][24] Labor unrest also occurred regularly. In 1919, a strike at the US Steel and Wire Company - which had acquired Washburn & Moen - led to a call for intervention from the state militia.[25][26]

Noted organized crime boss Johnny Torrio served time in Waukegan's Lake County jail in 1925. He installed bulletproof covers on the windows of his cell at his own expense for fear of assassination attempts.[27]

The city has retained a distinct industrial character in contrast to many of the residential suburbs along Chicago's North Shore.[15] The financial disparity created by the disappearance of manufacturing from the city in part contributed to the Waukegan Riot of 1966. Central to this event and the remainder of Waukegan's 20th century history was Robert Sabonjian, who served as mayor for 24 years, and earned the nickname the "Mayor Daley of Waukegan" for his personal and sometimes controversial style of politics.[28]


Waukegan is located at 42°22′13″N 87°52′16″W (42.3703140, -87.8711404).[2] Waukegan is on the shore of Lake Michigan, about 11 miles (18 km) south of the border with Wisconsin and 35 miles (56 km) north of downtown Chicago, at an elevation of about 715 feet (218 m) above sea level.[2]

According to the 2010 census, Waukegan has a total area of 23.879 square miles (61.85 km2), of which 23.67 square miles (61.31 km2) (or 99.12%) is land and 0.209 square miles (0.54 km2) (or 0.88%) is water.[29]


Waukegan is located within the humid continental climate zone (Köppen: Dfa) with warm and hot summers, and cold and snowy winters. The record high is 108 °F (42 °C), set in July 1934. The record low is −27 °F (−33 °C) set in January 1985.[30] Waukegan's proximity to Lake Michigan keeps Waukegan cooler throughout the year.

Climate data for Waukegan, IL (1981–2010 normals)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 64
Mean maximum °F (°C) 48
Average high °F (°C) 29.9
Daily mean °F (°C) 22.5
Average low °F (°C) 15.1
Mean minimum °F (°C) −9
Record low °F (°C) −27
Average precipitation inches (mm) 1.69
Average snowfall inches (cm) 10.8
Source: [31]


As of the 2010 United States Census, there were 89,078 people residing in the city. The racial makeup of the town was 46.6% White (21.7% non-Hispanic White), 19.2% African-American, 4.3% Asian, 1.2% Native American, 0.1% Pacific Islander, and 4.1% of two or more races. 53.4% were Hispanic or Latino (of any race). 5.3% were of German ancestry.[32]

Historical population
Est. 201886,792[4]−2.6%
U.S. Decennial Census[33]

As of the census[32] of 2016, there were 87,901 people, 27,787 households, and 19,450 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,475.0/km² (3,762.8/mi²). There were 29,243 housing units at an average density of 490.7/km² (1,270.8/mi²). The racial makeup of the city was 30.92% White, 19.21% African American, 0.54% Native American, 3.58% Asian, 0.06% Pacific Islander, 22.96% from other races, and 3.50% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 44.82% of the population.

There were 27,787 households out of which 40.4% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 49.5% were married couples living together, 14.6% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.0% were non-families. 24.2% of all households were made up of individuals and 7.5% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 3.09 and the average family size was 3.68.

In the city, the population was spread out with 30.2% under the age of 18, 12.1% from 18 to 24, 33.4% from 25 to 44, 16.4% from 45 to 64, and 7.9% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 29 years. For every 100 females, there were 103.1 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 103.2 males.

The median income for a household in the city was $42,335, and the median income for a family was $47,341. Males had a median income of $30,556 versus $25,632 for females. The per capita income for the city was $17,368. About 24% of families and 24.7% of the population were below the poverty line.


54.4% of the people in Waukegan identify as religious.[34] 31.0% are Catholic, 8.9% are another Christian faith, 3.2% are Lutheran, 2.7% are Jewish, 1.9% are Baptist, 1.5% are Methodist 1.4% affiliates with Islam, 0.8% are Episcopalian 0.6%, are Pentecostal,1.6% are Presbyterian, 0.5% are Church of Jesus Christ, and 0.1% are of eastern faith.


Top employers

According to Waukegan's 2018 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report,[35] the top employers in the city were:

# Employer # of Employees
1 Lake County 1,718
2 Vista Medical Center East 838
3 Jewel-Osco 515
4 Waukegan Community Unit School District 60 500
5 Bel Resources 450
6 Kiley Developmental Center 423
7 Cornfields Inc. 400
8 Visual Pak 400
9 Walmart Supercenter 350
10 Cardinal Health 340


The city has plans for redevelopment of the lakefront.[36] The lakefront and harbor plan calls for most industrial activity to be removed, except for the Midwest Generation power plant and North Shore wastewater treatment facilities. The existing industry would be replaced by residential and recreational space. The city also set up several tax increment financing zones which have been successful in attracting new developers. The first step in the revitalization effort, the opening of the Genesee Theatre, has been completed, many new restaurants have opened, buildings have been renovated, and the City of Waukegan has made substantial investments in the pedestrian areas and other infrastructure.

The city had an annual "Scoop the Loop" summer festival of cruising since 1998, which since 2010 became a monthly event during the summer. The current incarnation is known as "Scoop Unplugged".[37]


  • Artwork

Artwork (Art Walk) is an art event that happens every third Saturday of the month in Downtown Waukegan. Artwork features paintings, sculptures, films, dance, theater, comedy, music, performance art, food, pedicabs, all in the Waukegan Arts District in Downtown Waukegan.

The Fiestas Patrias Parade and Festival in Downtown Waukegan highlights and celebrates the independence of the many Hispanic countries that are represented in Waukegan, including Mexico, Belize, Honduras, etc.

  • HolidayWAUK

HolidayWAUK (HolidayWalk) is Downtown Waukegan's holiday festival.

Superfund sites

Waukegan contains three Superfund sites of hazardous substances that are on the National Priorities List.

In 1975, PCBs were discovered in Waukegan Harbor sediments. Investigation revealed that during manufacturing activities at Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), hydraulic fluids containing PCBs had been discharged through floor drains at the OMC plant, directly to Waukegan Harbor and into ditches discharging into Lake Michigan.[38] The OMC plants were subsequently added to the National Priorities List, and was designated as one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. Cleanup of the site began in 1990, with OMC providing $20–25 million in funding. During the OMC cleanup, additional soil contaminants were found at the location of the former Waukegan Manufactured Gas and Coke company. Soil removal was completed at the Coke site in 2005, and cleanup of that soil will continue for several years.

The Johns Manville site is located one mile (1.6 km) north[39] of the OMC site. In 1988, asbestos contamination found in groundwater and air prompted listing on the National Priorities List and subsequent cleanup. In 1991, the soil cover of the asbestos was completed. However, additional asbestos contamination was found outside the Johns-Manville property which will require further cleanup.[40][41]

The Yeoman Creek Landfill[42] is a Superfund site located 1.5 miles (2.4 km) west of the Johns Manville site. The site operated as a landfill from 1959 to 1969. In 1970, it was discovered that the lack of a bottom liner in the landfill had allowed leachate to enter groundwater, contaminating the water with volatile organic compounds and PCBs, and releasing gases that presented an explosion hazard. All major cleanup construction activities were completed in 2005, and monitoring of local water and air continues.[43]

The book Lake Effect by Nancy Nichols gives an account of the effects of PCBs on Waukegan residents.

Notable people

Jack Benny

Waukegan is the hometown of comedian Jack Benny (1894–1974), one of the 20th century's most notable and enduring entertainers, but although he claimed for decades on his radio and television shows to have been born there, he was actually born at Mercy Hospital in Chicago. Benny's affection for the town in which he grew up can clearly be felt by this exchange with his co-star (and wife) Mary Livingstone during a conversation they had on The Jack Benny Program on Mother's Day of 1950 while they were discussing the itinerary for his summer tour that year:

Mary Livingstone: Aren't you going to bring your show to Waukegan?
Jack Benny: Mary, I was born in Waukegan — how can you follow that?!.

On a 1959 episode of the television game show What's My Line?, Benny quipped to host John Charles Daly

They say that I put Waukegan on the map. But it's not true. Waukegan really put me on the map. That's a fact.[44]

Nevertheless, Benny did put Waukegan on the map for millions of his listeners (and later viewers) over the years, and the community was proud of his success. A Waukegan middle school is named in his honor (which he said was the greatest thrill he had ever experienced[45]), and a statue of him, dedicated in 2002, stands in the downtown facing the Genesee Theater, which hosted the world premiere of his film Man about Town in 1939, with Jack, Mary, Dorothy Lamour, Phil Harris, Andy Devine, Don Wilson and Rochester (Eddie Anderson) appearing onstage.

Jack Benny's family lived in several buildings in Waukegan during the time he was growing up there, but the house at 518 Clayton Street is the only one of them that still stands. It was designated a landmark by the city on April 17, 2006.[46]

Jack Benny Middle School was named after the comedian much to his joy.

Ray Bradbury

The science-fiction author and romancier Ray Bradbury (1920–2012), was born in Waukegan, and though he moved with his family to the west coast while still a child, many of his stories explicitly build on Waukegan (often called Green Town in his stories, such as Dandelion Wine) and his formative years there.[47][48] Ray Bradbury Park, located at 99 N. Park Ave. in Waukegan, is named after him.

Otto Graham

Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham (1921–2003) was born and raised in Waukegan and attended nearby Northwestern University on a basketball scholarship, though football soon became his main sport. Graham played quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and National Football League (NFL), taking his team to league championships every year between 1946 and 1955, winning seven of them. While most of Graham's statistical records have been surpassed in the modern era, he still holds the NFL record for career average yards gained per pass attempt, with 8.98. He also holds the record for the highest career winning percentage for an NFL starting quarterback, at 0.814. Graham is one of only two people (the other being Gene Conley) to win championships in two of the four major North American sports—1946 NBL (became NBA) and AAFC championship, plus three more AAFC and three NFL championships.


Waukegan is served by the Waukegan Public School District 60. It serves about 17,000 students in preschool through grade twelve. Waukegan has three early childhood schools, fifteen elementary schools, five middle schools, and three high school campuses.

The multi-campus Waukegan High School serves high school students. From 1999–2009, the current Washington campus served as the Ninth Grade Center, while Brookside Campus served students in grades 10–12. Since then, both campus have served students in grades 9–12, who are split into numbered houses.[49]

Cristo Rey St. Martin College Prep, a private Catholic high school, is in Waukegan.

Immanuel Lutheran School is a Pre-K-8 grade school of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Waukegan.[50][51]

Government services


Waukegan has a port district which operates the city harbor and regional airport.

  • Waukegan Harbor:
    • Marina provides services and facilities for recreational boaters.
    • Industrial port provides access for 90–100 large shipping vessels yearly. Companies with cargo facilities at the port currently include Gold Bond Building Products (capacity for 100,000 tons of gypsum), LaFarge Corp (12 cement silos), and St Mary's Cement Co (2 cement silos).[52][53][54]
  • Waukegan National Airport:
    • FAA certified for general aviation traffic
    • Has a U.S. Customs facility, allowing for direct international flights.
  • The Lake County McClory recreational trail passes through Waukegan. It provides a non-motor route spanning from Kenosha, Wisconsin, to the North Shore, along the right of way of the former Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad.
  • Metra provides service between Waukegan and downtown Chicago via the Union Pacific/North Line. Service runs daily from early morning to late evening. Pace provides public bus service throughout Waukegan and surrounding areas. Most buses run Monday thru Saturday with limited Sunday/Holiday service on two routes.
  • Waukegan has three licensed taxi companies. 303 Taxi, Metro Yellow&Checker Cabs and Speedy Taxi which operate under city ordinances.

Fire department

The Waukegan Fire Department provides fire protection and paramedic services for city. There are five fire stations. Firefighters, lieutenants, and captains are represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Historical sites

Artistic references

  • Ray Bradbury spent his childhood in Waukegan and used it as the basis for Green Town, the setting of three of his books: Dandelion Wine, Farewell Summer, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. In his essay "Just This Side of Byzantium" and poem "Byzantium, I come not from," Bradbury explains the relationship between Green Town and his memories of Waukegan.
  • In her poem 'Twee visschers', written in Dutch by the Surinam writer Rudie van Lier two men, a white and a black are fishing together near Waukegan. They are described as the new future.
  • Eleanor Taylor Bland is an author of crime fiction taking place in "Lincoln Prairie" an amalgam of Waukegan, North Chicago, and Zion.[55]
  • The character Johnny Blaze from the Marvel comic book Ghost Rider is described as having been born in Waukegan.[56]
  • Waukegan's Amstutz Expressway, locally known as the "Expressway to Nowhere", has been used as a shooting location for such films as Groundhog Day, The Ice Harvest, The Blues Brothers, Contagion and Batman Begins.
  • The music video "In Love with a Thug" sung by Sharissa featuring R. Kelly was filmed in Waukegan predominantly on the corner of Water Street and Genesee Street.
  • In 2005 Ringo Starr and the Round heads recorded a concert for an episode of Soundstage at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan.
  • In their novel Stardance, Spider & Jeanne Robinson refer to Waukegan as if it were a prototypical Earth location, as identified by gravity vs. free fall.
  • The hip-hop group Atmosphere namechecks the city in live performances of the song "You."
  • Tom Waits mentions Waukegan in the song "Gun Street Girl" from his album Rain Dogs (1985): "He left Waukegan at the slamming' of the door".
  • The band The Ike Reilly Assassination mentions Waukegan in the song "The Ex-Americans" from the album Sparkle In The Finish.

Twin towns and sister cities

Waukegan has one sister city:[57]

Kiyotake, Miyazaki, Japan

Although there is no official sister city relationship, Waukegan is home to approximately 6,000 people from Tonatico, Mexico, according to a February 2017 article in the Washington Post. This has created ongoing ties between the two cities.[58]


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  22. "Sailors Renew Race Riots". New York Times. 3 June 1920.
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