Downtown Ottawa, Illinois in May 2008
Downtown Ottawa, Illinois in May 2008
Radium City, The Friendly City, The Town of Two Rivers, The City On Sand, The Town of Stovepipe hats
Location of Ottawa in LaSalle County, Illinois.
Location of Ottawa in LaSalle County, Illinois.
Location of Illinois in the United States
Location of Illinois in the United States
Coordinates: 41°21′20″N 88°49′35″W / 41.35556°N 88.82639°W / 41.35556; -88.82639[1]
CountryUnited States
TownshipsOttawa, South Ottawa, Dayton, Rutland, Wallace
 • TypeMayor–council
 • Total15.52 sq mi (40.19 km2)
 • Land14.66 sq mi (37.96 km2)
 • Water0.86 sq mi (2.22 km2)
Elevation472 ft (144 m)
 • Total18,840
 • Density1,281.98/sq mi (494.98/km2)
Time zoneUTC−6 (CST)
 • Summer (DST)UTC−5 (CDT)
ZIP code
Area codes815, 779
FIPS code17-56926
GNIS feature ID2396106[1]
Wikimedia CommonsOttawa, Illinois

Ottawa is a city in and the county seat of LaSalle County, Illinois, United States. It is located at the confluence of the navigable Fox River and Illinois River, the latter being a conduit for river barges and connects Lake Michigan at Chicago, to the Mississippi River, and North America's 25,000 mile river system. The population estimate was 18,742, as of 2020.[3] It is the principal city of the Ottawa, IL Micropolitan Statistical Area.


La Salle Street c. 1912

Ottawa occupies a place on the Illinois River that has long been one end of a portage trail between the Mississippi River and Lake Michigan.[4] Here the river was reliably deep enough for canoes.[4] The North Portage Trail connected the site over land and water to the Chicago River.[4]

Ottawa was the site of the first of the Lincoln–Douglas debates on August 21, 1858. During the Ottawa debate, Stephen A. Douglas, leader of the Democratic Party, openly accused Abraham Lincoln of forming a secret bipartisan group of Congressmen to bring about the abolition of slavery.[5]

The John Hossack House was a "station" on the Underground Railroad, and Ottawa was a major stop because of its rail, road, and river transportation.[6] Citizens in the city were active within the abolitionist movement. Ottawa was the site of a famous 1859 extrication of a runaway slave named Jim Gray from a courthouse by prominent civic leaders of the time. Three of the civic leaders, John Hossack, Dr. Joseph Stout and James Stout, later stood trial in Chicago for violating the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.[7]

Ottawa was also important in the development of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, which terminates in LaSalle, Illinois, 12 miles to the west. In 1838, workmen from the canal project were causing public unrest.[8] During a citizens' meeting, a local political leader, Washington Armstrong, suggested that farmer William Reddick be elected sheriff.[8][9] Reddick was a popular choice due to his large stature and courageous manner.[8] Reddick was elected by a large majority and held the office of sheriff for four consecutive two-year terms.[10] In 1855, while serving in the Illinois State Senate, Reddick commissioned the construction of a large Italianate house for the then-large sum of $25,000 (~$625,000 in 2022).[9] Reddick Mansion is now one of the largest surviving homes in Illinois to predate the Civil War. In 1973, the mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places, as part of the Washington Park Historic District.[11]

On February 8, 1910, William Dickson Boyce, then a resident of Ottawa, incorporated the Boy Scouts of America. Five years later, also in Ottawa, Boyce incorporated the Lone Scouts of America. Boyce is buried in Ottawa Avenue Cemetery. The Ottawa Scouting Museum, on Canal Street, opened to the public on December 6, 1997. The museum features the history of Boy Scouting, Girl Scouting and Camp Fire.[12]

In 1922, the Radium Dial Company (RDC) moved from Peru, Illinois to a former high school building in Ottawa. The company employed hundreds of women, the 2017 book Radium Girls by Kate Moore reveal that one of these employees were only 11 years of age. These women painted watch dials using a paint called "LUMA", which contained a compound of Zns(Ag) (Silver activated Zinc Sulfide) and powdered Radium, for watch maker Westclox. RDC went out of business in 1936, two years after the company's president, Joseph Kelly Sr., left to start a competing company, Luminous Processes Inc., a few blocks away. The employees of the company suffered radiation toxicity, as chronicled in the 1986 documentary, Radium City.


According to the 2021 census gazetteer files, Ottawa has a total area of 15.516 square miles (40.19 km2), of which 14.657 square miles (37.96 km2) (or 94.46%) is land and 0.859 square miles (2.22 km2) (or 5.54%) is water.[2]


Climate data for Ottawa 5SW, Illinois (1991–2020 normals, extremes 1890–present)
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 68
Mean daily maximum °F (°C) 30.7
Daily mean °F (°C) 22.9
Mean daily minimum °F (°C) 15.2
Record low °F (°C) −26
Average precipitation inches (mm) 1.78
Average snowfall inches (cm) 9.2
Average precipitation days (≥ 0.01 in) 8.7 7.5 9.0 11.6 12.2 10.6 8.4 8.8 8.2 9.4 8.6 8.6 111.6
Average snowy days (≥ 0.1 in) 5.0 3.4 1.6 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.6 3.4 14.3
Source: NOAA[13][14]


Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Illinois River in Ottawa

Because of numerous silica sand deposits (Ottawa sand was on board the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle for experimental purposes) Ottawa has been a major sand and glass center for more than 100 years. Transportation of the sand is facilitated by the navigable Illinois river and the Illinois Railway Ottawa Line. One of its largest employers is Pilkington Glass works, a successor to LOF (Libbey Owens Ford). Formerly concentrated in automotive glass, the plant now manufactures specialty glass and underwent a $50 million (~$70.2 million in 2022) renovation in 2006. Ottawa sand continues to be extracted from several quarries in the area, and is recognized in glass-making and abrasives for its uniform granularity and characteristics.

Sabic recently purchased GE Plastics, a successor to Borg Warner automotive glass manufacture, operates a large plastics facility in Ottawa, and is a major employer.

Ottawa sand is a standard testing medium in geotechnical engineering (laboratory demonstrations and research into new technologies).


Historical population
U.S. Decennial Census[15]

As of the 2020 census[16] there were 18,840 people, 7,764 households, and 4,658 families residing in the city. The population density was 1,214.23 inhabitants per square mile (468.82/km2). There were 9,014 housing units at an average density of 580.95 per square mile (224.31/km2). The racial makeup of the city was 86.36% White, 2.45% African American, 0.44% Native American, 1.04% Asian, 0.04% Pacific Islander, 2.55% from other races, and 7.13% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 9.50% of the population.

There were 7,764 households, out of which 31.1% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 39.70% were married couples living together, 15.38% had a female householder with no husband present, and 40.01% were non-families. 34.31% of all households were made up of individuals, and 14.95% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.93 and the average family size was 2.36.

The city's age distribution consisted of 24.1% under the age of 18, 8.6% from 18 to 24, 22.9% from 25 to 44, 27.3% from 45 to 64, and 17.1% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 39.5 years. For every 100 females, there were 87.2 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 86.1 males.

The median income for a household in the city was $53,544, and the median income for a family was $64,128. Males had a median income of $39,677 versus $26,514 for females. The per capita income for the city was $28,365. About 13.5% of families and 16.8% of the population were below the poverty line, including 24.9% of those under age 18 and 6.5% of those age 65 or over.


The site of the first Lincoln–Douglas debate in Washington Park
Statues of Lincoln and Douglas

Ottawa has many historic homes and registered historic landmarks. Recent additions to Ottawa have included renovations to its historic mansion, the Reddick Mansion, and artistic murals throughout the central business district. Ottawa is known as the scenic gateway to Starved Rock State Park, the most popular state park in Illinois, with some 2 million visitors per year. The Fox River, which flows through communities like Elgin and Aurora, empties into the Illinois in downtown Ottawa. Ottawa is also home to one of the largest skydiving operations in the country, Skydive Chicago.[17][18]

The Ottawa Historical and Scouting Heritage Museum honors Ottawa resident, William D. Boyce, founder of the Boy Scouts of America.[19]

Jacob C. Zeller founded the Zeller Inn and Court Place Tavern in 1871, at 615 Columbus Street. The original Zeller Inn was demolished in 1982. The Zeller Inn tavern, originally known as the Court Place, still remains, now called Zeller Inn. The courtyard patio area on Columbus street is where the original Zeller Inn stood. The tavern contains the original mahogany bar built by the Sanders Bros in Ottawa, marble counters, tiled floors and walls, stained glass door and light fixtures. It also was known for its Gilded Age brilliance — tiled mahogany bar, carved gargoyles, pressed-tin ceiling and solid oak backbar. The mirror on the bar is the same since its establishment in 1871, which was brought over from the 1800s era European Worlds Fair. Zeller's initials, JCZ, are still visible in a tiled mosaic on the side of the bar and in the glass light domes that hang from the ceiling. This is one of the oldest taverns in Illinois, with original features which remain intact and displays the architectural details prominent in the late 1800s.


Ottawa was served by two local newspapers. The older of the two, The Times, was formed in 2005, when the Streator-based Times-Press merged with The Daily Times, based in Ottawa. It is now an online newspaper. The second was a weekly newspaper called Ottawa Delivered, which closed in 2012.[20] Ottawa is also served by the NewsTribune of La Salle, Illinois.[21]

Ottawa also has two local radio stations, WCMY-AM at 1430 and WRKX-FM at 95.3.

Radium City documentary

In 1986, documentary film maker Carole Langer made a film that covered the plight of the so-called "Radium Girls" who worked in the watch dial industry. The young women, who had been told the paint was harmless, ingested deadly amounts of radium after being instructed to lick their paintbrushes to sharpen them; as a lark, some even painted their faces and fingernails with the glowing paint.[22] Over time, many of the women developed anemia, bone fractures, sarcomas, and necrosis of the jaw, a condition now known as radium jaw. Many of these women died young.

The documentary interviews survivors from the industry who relate their experiences of the poisoning and the bureaucratic hurdles they met in seeking compensation and justice. Radium City outlines the aftermath of these events with a focus on the social and political consequences as well as the medical ones.

According to the film, after Radium Dial Company opened in 1918, workers began to get sick, and a lawsuit was brought against the company. With the looming lawsuit, Radium Dial closed in 1936, but then re-opened in 1937, under the name Luminous Processes in another part of town. Luminous Processes remained in operation until 1978.

The film shows the dismantling of the empty building where Luminous Processes was housed as well as the hot spots from where the Radium Dial Company was dismantled and buried throughout the city. After the plant closed and before it was dismantled, many residents took items from the factory for their homes. This spread the contamination even further. The building materials from the Luminuous Processes building were eventually turned into landfill. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began removing contaminated material in 1986.[23] The work continues.

Areas still affected by radiation

Sixteen areas of Ottawa are still radioactive.[24] The United States Department of Health and Human Services released a study,[25] outlining areas where contamination by radium-226 (Ra-226), as well as emissions of radon-222 (Rn-222), are at or above normal levels. These areas include homes, public areas, schools, and even a car sales lot that is housed directly over the old Radium Dial Company site. A score of 28.5/100 or higher qualifies an area for the Superfund National Priority List, and Ottawa's hazardous ranking score is 50/100.

The radium in Ottawa's water supply occurs naturally in water from deep wells across northern Illinois.[26] A reverse osmosis water treatment plant removes the radium so the city's tap water complies with federal regulations.[27]

Notable people

Main article: List of people from Ottawa, Illinois

See also

Fisher–Nash–Griggs House


  1. ^ a b c U.S. Geological Survey Geographic Names Information System: Ottawa, Illinois
  2. ^ a b Bureau, US Census. "Gazetteer Files". Retrieved June 24, 2022.
  3. ^ "Population and Housing Unit Estimates". Retrieved May 21, 2020.
  4. ^ a b c "The Chicago Portage - Historical Synopsis | Chicago Portage". Retrieved April 17, 2021.
  5. ^ "First Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Ottawa, Illinois". Lincoln Home National Historic Site. National Park Service. Retrieved November 1, 2008.
  6. ^ "List of Sites for the Underground Railroad". Aboard the Underground Railroad. National Park Service. Retrieved November 1, 2008.
  7. ^ "The Jim Gray Case". John Hossack website. Jay W. Preston. Retrieved November 1, 2008.
  8. ^ a b c Sprague, Paul E; Dring, William B. (1975). History, Significance, and Feasibility for Adaptive Use of the William Reddick Mansion at Ottawa, Illinois (PDF). Ottawa Illinois: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. pp. 1–150.
  9. ^ a b Catlin, Betty (1971). Reddick's Library (PDF). Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. pp. 3–8.
  10. ^ "LaSalle County Sheriff William Reddick". LaSalle County Genealogy Guild. August 2016. Retrieved December 3, 2019.
  11. ^ "Illinois SP Washington Park Historic District". National Park Service. 1973. Retrieved December 3, 2019.
  12. ^ "Ottawa Scouting Museum". Ottawa Scouting Museum website. Archived from the original on November 6, 2008. Retrieved November 2, 2008.
  13. ^ "NowData – NOAA Online Weather Data". National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  14. ^ "Station: Ottawa 5SW, IL". U.S. Climate Normals 2020: U.S. Monthly Climate Normals (1991-2020). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Retrieved July 11, 2021.
  15. ^ "Census of Population and Housing". Retrieved June 4, 2015.
  16. ^ "Explore Census Data". Retrieved June 28, 2022.
  17. ^ Starved Rock State Park (Illinois Department of Natural Resources) Archived 2010-09-27 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ "Reddick Mansion (The Reddick Mansion Association)". Archived from the original on January 24, 2011. Retrieved September 23, 2010.
  19. ^ "Ottawa Historical and Scouting Heritage Museum". Ottawa Visitors Center. Retrieved October 5, 2020.
  20. ^ "About Us". The Times (Ottawa). Small Newspaper Group Inc. Archived from the original on July 11, 2012. Retrieved May 4, 2011. The Times, based in Ottawa, Illinois, is owned by the Small Newspaper Group Inc. In September 2005, The Daily Times, based in Ottawa, merged with its sister paper, The Times-Press, based in Streator. The paper is now called The Times.
  21. ^ "About Us". NewsTribune. Retrieved May 4, 2011. In 1946, Mr. & Mrs. Peter Miller purchased the Peru News-Herald and shortly after also purchased the La Salle Post-Tribune. In 1946 these papers were merged into the Daily News-Tribune. Peter Miller III joined the newspaper operation in 1982 and later changed the name of the publication to the NewsTribune.
  22. ^ Wilmington, Michael (January 9, 1988). "Movie Review: 'Radium City' Paints Incredible Horror Story of the Atomic Age". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 5, 2020.
  23. ^ "Ottawa Radiation Areas". U.S. EPA Region 5. Archived from the original on May 12, 2009. Retrieved October 5, 2020.
  24. ^ "Ottawa radiation areas". ToxicSites. Retrieved October 5, 2020.
  25. ^ "Ottawa Radiation Areas" (PDF). United States Department of Health and Human Services. July 25, 2006. Retrieved October 5, 2020.
  26. ^ "Illinois State Water Survey" (PDF). Illinois Department of Natural Resources. July 2006. Retrieved October 5, 2020.
  27. ^ "Water Treatment Plant History". City of Ottawa. Retrieved October 5, 2020.