Harbor History

A Short History of Waukegan Harbor 

Waukegan Harbor has a short but eventful history that not only reflects but has influenced the development of the city in which it is located. Its evolution mirrors the evolution not just of Waukegan but also the nation; transitioning from rapid industrialization to a steady industrial decline, followed by a realization that the industries left behind a challenging environmental legacy, and finally, the recognition of opportunity for stewardship of the unique  recreational and natural resource that is the Waukegan Lakefront.

  • In 1850, the newly incorporated community of Waukegan began negotiations with the State of Illinois and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) to build a small commercial harbor off the Lake Michigan shore of Waukegan.
    Waukegan Harbor 1853

    • The construction of the artificial harbor was somewhat unusual in the Great Lakes Basin because no significant stream or river flows into the harbor.
  • To the south, the city of Chicago was fast becoming the transport center of the nation, sending manufactured goods and raw materials to the East Coast, the southern states and the newly opened West of the United States.
  • As the population of Chicago expanded northward, to
    Waukegan circa 1861
    support the region’s growth, so did the need for new manufacturing and distribution sites.
  • By 1890, Waukegan had developed a diverse economic base, connected to Chicago by both rail and lake shipping and supported by a skilled labor force.
    • Industries used the common manufacturing practices of their day to produce steel, barbed wire, leather, concrete light poles, refined sugar, motors and other products, with little regard of the impacts to the environment.
      Waukegan Harbor 1939
  • In the 1890’s, the harbor was further developed and expanded to meet the growing demand for goods transport.
  • In 1955, the Waukegan Port District (WPD) was established by Illinois state statute. the WPD was created to oversee the operation and development of Waukegan National Airport and Waukegan Harbor.
  • As the country and region grew, industrial sites located around the harbor continued to expand into the early 1960’s.
    • Unfortunately, some of the common manufacturing practices used during that
      Waukegan Harbor 1974
      time had an adverse impact on the environment and, as was subsequently discovered, would  prevent the community from enjoying the full potential of the natural resources available at the Waukegan lake front.
  • In 1981, the Outboard Marine Corporation plant site and the Waukegan Harbor were designated as a Superfund site (See Superfund Process)
  • The Army Corps was responsible for maintaining the Federal Channel (See Maps and Diagrams) in the harbor.  Due to one hundred years of accumulations of heavy metals, and later Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), the Army Corps was not able to carry out the maintenance (navigational) dredging of the harbor.  Waukegan Harbor was not alone in experiencing these problems, contamination, associated with industrialization, tainted harbors and rivers throughout the Great Lakes Basin.
  • In the 1980’s the International Joint Commission (IJC) undertook the task of identifying the major sources of pollution affecting the Great Lakes. Forty-three (43) major Areas of Concern* (AOC) (See Map) were identified within Great Lakes watershed. *(What is an AOC and how has the program addressed contamination in the Great Lake basin? View a short video – AOC 101 – created by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
  • Waukegan Harbor was identified as one of the 43 AOCs. (See Maps and Diagrams)
  • Six (6) beneficial use impairments (BUIs) were identified in the Waukegan Harbor AOC. They included;
    • Beach closures
    • Restrictions in dredging activities
    • Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
    • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat
    • Benthos degradation
    • Degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton
  • In 1990, under the guidelines set down by the IJC, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) helped to form the Waukegan Harbor Citizens’ Advisory Group (Waukegan Harbor CAG).  It was structured to include corporate, governmental, shipping, environmental and public representatives.
    • The Waukegan Harbor CAG has 34 member organizations, 17 associate member organizations, plus private citizens and others who attend Waukegan Harbor CAG meetings just to stay well informed on the various cleanup activities in progress within the  Waukegan AOC.
    • Under the guidance of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) the Waukegan Harbor CAG progressed through the three (3) investigation and analysis study stages required by the IJC.
  • Dredging was identified as the most effective means of removing PCBs from the
    Waukegan Harbor 1997
    harbor. The first environmental dredge, funded by Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), was completed in 1993. At that time, it was believed most of the PCBs within the actual harbor sediment were removed.
  • The harbor specific fish consumption advisory was lifted in February of 1997 but monitoring of the harbor fish continued on an annual basis.
  • In 2006, a new harbor specific fish consumption advisory was issued because PCB concentrations were found to have increased in fish samples taken from the harbor. It was recognized that a second (2nd) environmental dredge was necessary to reduce the level of PCBs remaining in the sediments of the harbor.
    • See the AOC Repository for information about how to view the studies and other documents related to the remediation of the contaminates.
  • The work of removing BUIs from the AOC continued and during 2011 the first (1st) BUI, Beach closings, was removed from the list of BUIs in the Waukegan AOC.
  • On September 26th, 2012 the final environmental dredge began. (See Maps and Diagrams)
  • The dredge was completed on July 8th,  2013.  The dredging removed 124,244 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. The goal was to reduce the concentration of PCBs in harbor bottom sediments to 0.20 ppm or less.
  • Navigational dredging of the harbor, utilizing Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) funding on USEPA’s Superfund contract, was initiated on July 8th. The objective of the work was to dredge to a depth of 18 feet in the navigational channel of the entrance channel and inner harbor areas.
  • In 2013 the second (2nd) BUI, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, was also removed from the AOC.
  • In 2014 the third (3rd) BUI, Restriction on dredging activities, was removed from the AOC. This was an important milestone for harbor industries and recreational boating interests because it now meant that the harbor could be dredged to its full navigational depth and boats and ships could safely enter and leave. It also allowed commercial ships to do so fully loaded with cargo.
  • In June 2017, the Waukegan Harbor Master Plan was published. The Master
    Waukegan Harbor 2017
    Plan focused on enhancing land use, environmental stewardship, and economic development of the properties within Waukegan Harbor.
  • During December 2017, the fourth (4th) BUI, benthos degradation, was officially removed from the Waukegan Harbor AOC and Extended Area of Concern.  As of January 2018, two (2) BUIs, restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption and degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton remained but were under investigation for delisting.
  • During the summer of 2018 the Waukegan Port District completed the installation of an Americans with Disability Act (ADA) compliant canoe/kayak launch (See photos) as part of a larger project to improve public facilities at the harbor.  In addition, in 2018, a new $5 million privately operated boating center was completed at the harbor.
  • During August 2020, the fifth (5th) BUI, degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton was officially removed from the the Waukegan Harbor AOC and Extended Area of Concern. Only one BUI, restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, remains and it is under investigation for delisting.