The City of Braidwood is located in the area known as the Northwest Territory acquired after the Revolutionary War, 1775-1783. The counties in Illinois were divided into townships after acceptance as a State in 1818. Braidwood is located in Reed Township that had been parceled out from a larger township. The settlement that became the City of Braidwood in 1865 was the largest settlement in the Township. Prior to the Civil War, the population of Reed Township was under 50. One of the first settlers was James Cunnea, who purchased 640 acres of land in Reed Township. Another was Dennis Glenney who settled in the area in 1856 as worked as a stonecutter for the Illinois-Michigan Canal. Some of the early settlers farmed, others processed lumber from the many oak trees in the area.
In 1864 William Hennebry of Wilmington attempting to dig a well on what is now the Southeast corner of Coal City and Novy Roads, hit solid rock, and at 65 feet hit a coal seam, beginning the coal mining industry. By the 1880's there were seven mining companies operating coal mines, employing 2,180 men, producing approximately 700,000 ton of good steam coal annually. In the early days of coal mining, miners earned an average of $12 to $15 weekly during the winter and half that during the summer. Strikes threatened every spring, the most disastrous of which was the strike in 1877. The mining companies imported workers from Virginia and violence between striking mine workers and the "blacklegs" resulted in a call to the Governor for 1,300 militiamen to restore peace. Troops returned in response to a strike in 1889. The Diamond Mine Disaster occurred in 1883 when a flat surface flooded by rains and melting snow flooded the mine shaft. A total of seventy-four (74) miners were killed, with forty-six (46) of the casualties remaining buried below. A group of men in the Braidwood area, working with leaders from other coal mining areas, successfully organized the United Mine Workers of America in 1890, whose founder, William D. Ryan, was born in Braidwood. John P. Mitchell, born in Braidwood in 1870, is called the "Father of the Miners' Union. Mitchell joined the United Mine Workers of America when it was formed, and served as Secretary-Treasurer of Local District 12; and legislative representative of the Union. In 1897 he became a member of the Executive Board of State District 12, and worked to organize workers in Southern Illinois and in Kentucky. Mitchell was elected Vice-President of the Union in 1898 and in 1899 was unanimously elected as President. As President, Mitchell enlarged the membership and led the strike in the anthracite field of East Pennsylvania. In 1927 mining companies began the "stripping" method of mining which removed the topsoil and rock and exposed the coal vein. This resulted in hundreds of square miles of tillable land being exposed resulting in ridges or dumps of rock and clay, many small lakes and the rapid growth of trees and shrubs.
Braidwood's settlers immigrated from all over the world including, England, Scotland, Ireland, Italy, Wales, Belgium, France, Italy, Poland, Switzerland, Bohemia, Germany and Scandinavia. One of the early settlers was Anton Cermak who went on to become Mayor of Chicago. Cermak was killed by an assignation attempt on President Roosevelt in 1933. In 1863, James Braidwood, employed by the Chicago Wilmington Coal Company, emigrated from Scotland to the area. His wife, Ellen Ralston and their six children joined him in 1865 and he built the first miners' home in Braidwood. The town was founded in 1865. The City of Braidwood was incorporated in 1873 with a petition signed by voters in Sections 5, 6, 7 and 8 in Reed Township and presented to the County Court of Will County. An election was held on March 4, 1873 in which 185 votes were cast, 139 in favor. A special election was held on April 15, 1873 to elect the staff of officers. Braidwood began as an Aldermanic form of government with as many as five awards and two Aldermen for each ward. In 1920 the voters approved a change to the Commission form of government, and on May 20, 1920 the first City Commissioners were elected. The City's first official census was held in 1880, and the population was recorded at 5,524. It is possible that during peak coal production in 1877-78, the population was substantially higher. Population slowly declined after 1880, and by 1950 had reached 1,485.
Braidwood's fortunate location was on a direct line through the State from Chicago to St. Louis along the right of way of the Chicago and Alton Railroad from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi Valley. With the increased number of automobiles, the Burlington Way Association comprised of more than 100 local residents provided the route following the twisting township lines which was designated in 1915 as IL4. When a better highway was paved on the west side of the Alton tracks it was designated US66, the old road on the east of the tracks became US66A. A new US66 was built in 1956 west of town and the former US66 was named IL 53 from Plainfield through Braidwood and Braceville to Gardner. The Burlington Way Association disbanded when the State of Illinois assumed responsibility of designating the highways.
The City of Braidwood has a history of public services. The Braidwood Fire Department was established in 1877, and in 1878 won the State Championship in the hose coupling division. The first fire house was located in lower Braidwood on Fifth Street. A more modern station was built on South Center Street in the 1870's, and in 1919, the equipment was moved into the first floor of City Hall.
The first school in Braidwood was a one-room school built in 1864. A 6-room, two-story frame school building was built on Center Street in 1871. By 1934 the building was demolished and replaced in 1935 by a one-story two-room building that served until 1951. The City of Braidwood had several schools with 2 teachers in the 1880's. As late as 1888, six schools were educating with 15 teachers. The Reed-Custer Township High School District was organized in 1915. As the school population grew, a new school was dedicated in 1919. The Bohemia colony opened a school in 1913, and the first Catholic school was opened in 1917. A Telegraphy School was founded in 1888 and operated until 1901.
The City of Braidwood public library was organized in 1876 through the support of private patrons including local businesses and the coal companies as well as churches and schools.
As the population grew, many different Protestant and Catholic worshippers built churches. The oldest congregation in Braidwood was the Methodist Episcopal Church built in 1869. The First Presbyterian Church was established in 1872, and the church building was constructed in 1873. The first Catholic Church was built in 1869, and reconstructed after a fire, in 1888.
There have always been charitable and social organizations in the City of Braidwood. The Altar and Rosary Sodality of the Catholic Church, established in 1869, was possibly the oldest organization in Braidwood. The Masonic Lodge was formed in 1873, building a temple in 1912, dedicated in 1914. The Holly Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star was organized as an auxiliary of the local Masonic Lodge in 1891. The Foresters of America was founded in 1876. The Presbyterian Ladies Aid Society was founded in 1872. The Knights of Columbus formed Council 1594 on June 11, 1911. Other groups include the Veterans-Honoring Association, established in 1945, the KOCA Post 39, American Legion, established in 1921, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, established in 1872, the International Order of the Scottish Clans, and many social clubs. Braidwood had a large number of brass bands, orchestras and glee clubs that performed at public affairs. The Braidwood Recreation Club was established as a private, not-for-profit club in 1951, on strip mining land east of the city limits, as a recreation area for the people of Braidwood and surrounding communities.
Braidwood had the first brick pavements in Will County, extending from Alton Depot and Center Street. In the 1930's the brick was removed and replaced by IL113, constructed by the State of Illinois. The first sidewalks in Braidwood were mostly of wood, and in the late 1890's, concrete walks replaced the wood streets. The City paid for some of the streets while property owners paid for others. Concrete walks were built on Main Street around 1900 on both sides between the Alton Railway and Railroad Street.
Fifth Street in Lower Braidwood became the City's first business center. Division Street was the second oldest business street in the community. By 1870 Main Street running west to the Will-Grundy County line from the railway dept became the principal business center, including inns, taverns, feed stores, barbershops, dry goods stores, social halls, bakeries, a blacksmith, the post office, and a variety of small businesses. In 1880 the C.W. & V. Coal Company established a racetrack south of the city limits. Each miner had $1 deducted from his paycheck. There were several industries including foundries, a clothing factory, an icehouse, glass factory, cigar factory, cream cheese factory and others.
Braidwood is the location of a number of fossils, unearthed first by coal mining activities. In 1927, hundreds of thousands of acres of surface land were upturned to remove coal to a depth of 100 feet. This resulted in a wealth of fossils that continue to attract fossil hunters from all over the world. The Tully Monster, the Illinois State Fossil, was found in a strip-mine pit just outside of Braidwood in 1989.
THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT
The City of Braidwood is located in an area that experienced intensive coal mining in the 19th century and strip mining in the early 20th century. The land is dotted with lakes and wooded areas. The area to the east of Braidwood is forest and grassland. A floodplain area crosses the City from north to south in four locations, and a major floodplain is located on the north side of the City from east to west. Braidwood is located in the Kankakee Watershed. The City is surrounded by agricultural land. The area adjacent to the Southeast corner of the City is designated in the Will County Land Resource Management Plan as an area with potential State and Federal threatened and endangered species. Will County has identified the area around Braidwood as one location for the County proposed greenway system and for the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission proposed trail system.