It was a happy hunting ground to native Indians before 19th-century white settlers laid claim to this fertile strip along the Des Plaines, Du Page, Illinois, and Kankakee rivers. Their influx spawned farms, mines, and–linking Chicago to myriad little towns and the American west–the Illinois & Michigan Canal. To one degree or another, all remain: the I&M Canal is now a National Heritage Corridor, the deep pits of the old strip mines have become man-made recreational lakes, and surviving farm fields crouch beside the “petrochemical plants, electrical generating stations, quarries, and numerous manufacturing plants [that] dot the nearby landscape,” as a visitor’s brochure states, touting the area’s “rich variety of resources.”

European ethnics–Italians, Irish, Bohemians–worked the mines and the fields in the 19th century. Today, many of their descendants still labor in local industry. Joliet alone has some 350 manufacturing concerns. Other major employers are Commonwealth Edison’s nuclear power plants, Stateville Correctional Center, and the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant.

Joliet is the county seat of Will County and the largest of the tangle of towns dubbed “the Joliet area” for purposes of this guide. Many of the locations here are scattered along I-55 south or Route 53 south, or can be reached by taking a westerly jog from Joliet along I-80. The area is an easy day trip from Chicago. The farthest points are about 60 miles from the city–Gardner to the south, and Morris to the southwest.

Among the sights:

The Dresden Nuclear Power Plant, near the town of Channahon, and another plant near Braidwood are run by Com Ed in strict “lockdown”–off-limits to casual visitors. The closest the curious will get to atom splitting is Argonne National Laboratories, 25 miles southwest of Chicago off I-55. Founded in 1946 in conjunction with atomic research being done at the University of Chicago, the lab is run by the U. of C. for the U.S. Department of Energy. Its 1,290 scientists and engineers conduct research on everything from superconductivity to the effects of radiation on genetics. Visitors are invited for an extensive three-and-a-half-hour group tour. It’s free, but guests are required to make advance reservations–not to mention assuaging the tour department’s paranoia by informing them, in writing, of your country of citizenship. The lab is at 9700 S. Cass Ave. in Argonne (708-972-5562, ask for Pat Canaday).

Hungry hordes flock from Chicago and its environs to White Fence Farm near Lemont for its tasty fried-chicken dinner. On Joliet Road, the place has been serving chicken and fixin’s since the 1950s, when multimillionaire coal exec Stuyvesant Peabody hit upon the concept of this “theme restaurant”: home-cooked food in a rural farmhouse setting. The menu includes steak and seafood. There’s also a children’s petting zoo. Call for hours: 708-739-1720.

Continuing south on Joliet Road to Route 53 takes one to Romeoville, a factory and farm town that houses the Isle a la Cache Museum, an interesting stop for kids. Presenting the cultural history of the area during French-Indian fur-trading times, the museum displays birchbark canoes, tools, skins, and Indian trading beads. The staff specializes in educating groups of kids. The Island Rendezvous takes place on June 1, noon to 6 PM. For this re-creation of an 18th-century Indian and fur trader get-together, the staff will be dressed in period attire (some costumes will be available for visitors to model) and there will be food, music, and crafts demonstrations. The museum site also provides access to the Centennial Trail, a six-mile forested loop for hiking and biking. The museum is open every day but Monday and is located at 501 E. Romeo Road (known locally as 135th Street), 815-886-1467.

Lockport is a neat old canal town (more on the canal later) with a historic district worth a meander. The old I&M Canal Office, at 8th and State streets, now serves as the Will County Historical Society Canal Museum (815-838-5080). Free and open 1 to 4:30 every afternoon except holidays, it houses canal memorabilia, antique household items and tools, even the complete examining office of one Dr. Dougall, chief surgeon for the I&M Canal Division. Also at this intersection is the Gaylord Building, housing the Illinois State Museum Lockport Gallery, open 10 to 5 Tuesday through Sunday starting June 11 (815-838-7400). The gallery has recently commissioned outdoor murals to be painted by Chicago muralist Alejandro Romero, among other artists. Community forums will encourage the local citizenry to suggest themes for the murals. Two blocks away, at 1006 S. State, is the acclaimed Tallgrass restaurant, serving nouvelle cuisine for dinner 6 to 9 PM Thursday through Sunday in a turn-of-the-century setting. Reservations are required: 815-838-5566.

In Plainfield, there’s the Lake Renwick Heron Rookery on Renwick Road just east of Route 30 and west of I-55. This curious nature refuge had its beginnings as a gravel pit in 1900. After a few years of deep digging, miners hit freshwater springs, which filled the quarry with water. In ensuing years, the pit was used as a swimming hole, and later as a sewage site. It eventually became so polluted that it was closed. Shortly thereafter, herons started mysteriously arriving and settling in, nesting in trees on islands in the middle of the lake. The lake is now operated by the Illinois Department of Conservation and the Forest Preserve District of Will County, which safeguard the five species of birds that live here: great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, great egrets, cattle egrets (which forage for food in cattle fields), and double-crested cormorants. Because the birds are so sensitive, the rookery is usually closed to the public. This year, visitors are invited in from June 8 through August 31, daily from 8 AM until noon. Call 815-727-8700 and ask for public information.

Joliet, founded in 1831 and named for 17th-century French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet, was dubbed “Stone City” in its early years because of the large numbers of buildings constructed of local limestone. The main high school, on Jefferson Street downtown, is a nice example. A focal point of town pride is the beautifully restored Rialto Square Theatre at 102 N. Chicago St., a palatial vaudeville house that boasts the largest hand-cut crystal chandelier in the United States and a gigantic pipe organ; today, it hosts shows like Frank Sinatra and A Chorus Line (815-726-7171). Much of downtown Joliet has been malled in that now-classic faux cobblestone style so popular in renovation circles a couple of decades ago. The mall seems mainly to offer the town’s seedier characters a comfortable place to hang out. A different kind of energy pervades the Will County Courthouse, 16 E. Jefferson, which swarms with lawyers in dark suits and nervous-looking defendants who’d presumably like to steer clear of Stateville Correctional Center, the notorious prison just a couple miles northeast.

Jefferson Street is a main east-west drag lined with the customary fast-food places and strip malls. Head west on it from the courthouse to find two restaurants filled with lawyers out to lunch (just look for the parking lots filled with big cars). Earl’s Cafe, 1987 W. Jefferson (815-729-1971, closed Sundays), is done up in pastels, serves a varied menu, and has a bar popular for liquid lunches. Al’s Steak House, 1990 W. Jefferson (815-725-2388, open seven days), is a dressy, dimly lit steak joint with the kind of hush-hush atmosphere that might lend itself to plea bargaining.

Just one long block north of Jefferson is Western Street, entryway to the surprisingly quiet, tree-lined Cathedral Historic Area, a neighborhood of spacious abodes built by the area’s manufacturing and mining moguls. The well-preserved architecture ranges from Victorian to Prairie style to suburban ranch.

On the east side of town is Pilcher Park, Joliet’s biggest, boasting virgin land for hiking, a nature center, and the 15,000-square-foot Greenhouse conservatory. Bicentennial Park, between Jefferson and Western streets downtown, is much smaller but fronts the Des Plaines River. For one weekend in June, two in September, and two in October, the Pride of the Heartland launches a river cruise here that goes all the way to Columbia Yacht Club in Chicago–at least a six- to eight-hour trip. The cost is $45 per person, and advance reservations are required: call 815-740-2344.

South of Joliet is the town of Channahon, whose name is Indian for meeting of the waters: the Des Plaines and Kankakee converged to form the Illinois River; the area once provided plentiful fishing and hunting for the native Indians. Just a generation ago, Indian arrowheads could still be found easily on undeveloped land. Two restaurants here draw crowds: Bill Resech’s Czech Village Manor Restaurant, west on Center Street at Route 6 (2800 E. Eames St.), is part lime-green-vinyl coffee shop, part old-fashioned dining room, serving such Czech food as Prague tenderloin and a Bohemian deli plate, consisting of meat loaf, smoked butt, pickles, tomatoes, cottage cheese, and bread and butter. Reservations are required on weekends: 815-467-4545. Rittof’s, at 608 Fryer St. (815-467-9803, open seven days), is in an old frame house with peeling paint–it looks like a dive, but actually this cozy tavern and dining room serves good, cheap sandwiches, fish, chicken, and cold beer.

Just a block from Rittof’s is Canal Street, which provides access to the Illinois & Michigan Canal and the miles of woods and parks that run beside it. The state of Illinois constructed the canal between 1836 and 1848 along a route that is believed to have been a river about 8,000 years ago. Many of the laborers were Irishmen from Shannon and Dublin, lured here by newspaper ads placed in those towns. An engineering marvel with dams, aqueducts, bridges, and 15 locks to lift and lower boats, the 97-mile canal connects the South Branch of the Chicago River with the Illinois River at LaSalle/Peru, and thus in effect connects Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River. Because the canal transported farming and manufacturing products so efficiently, it was the impetus for the settlement of northeastern Illinois and made Chicago, rather than Saint Louis, the hub of the midwest. In the mid-1880s, railroad transport became more efficient than water, and the canal went into decline. Though there is still quite a bit of industry nearby, today the canal is basically a recreational area offering canoeing, fishing, hiking, biking, cross-country skiing, and camping. In 1984, it was named the nation’s first National Heritage Corridor.

The Channahon access point to the canal features an idyllic picnic area overlooking a rushing dam, and a children’s playground with swings and slides. There’s also access to the I&M Canal State Trail, a 60.5-mile gravel hiking and biking trail that stretches to LaSalle. McKinley Woods (south of Route 6 on McKinley Road) offers guided hour-long nature walks along these trails every Thursday at 2 PM through August. Call 815-727-8700 and ask for public information. The Des Plaines Conservation Area, Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area, and Gebhard Woods are other good-sized wooded preserves along the canal.

Some I&M Canal events may be of interest. On June 29 and 30, the MS 150 Bike Tour takes bike riders on a 150-mile route from Romeoville to Starved Rock (there are also two shorter routes) in a benefit for multiple-sclerosis research; to register, call 800-922-0484 or 312-922-2028. On July 13 and 14, the Fourth Annual Gebhard Woods Dulcimer Festival presents dulcimer concerts, jam sessions, and an old-time dance Saturday night in Morris, Illinois; call 708-852-7902 or 708-456-6292 for more information. And on September 14 and 15, the Fourth Annual Illinois & Michigan Canal Rendezvous meets at Columbia Woods in Willow Springs (Willow Springs Road north of Archer Avenue at the Des Plaines River). The festival features pioneer-style food, crafts, canoe races, entertainment, and games. Call the Heritage Corridor Visitors Bureau at 800-535-5682 for more information on this event or on the I&M Canal in general.

If you continue south on I-55, an exit off Lorenzo Road heading north takes the visitor in the direction of Harborside Marina, tucked under the curve where the Kankakee and Des Plaines join to form the Illinois. This boating oasis includes boat shops, a restaurant overlooking picturesque riverbanks, and the boarding dock for Heartland Cruise Lines, which offers a two-hour buffet-breakfast-and-Bloody-Mary cruise along the Illinois River Sundays at 10 AM; call 815-476-9388 or 815-476-6900 for a reservation. Also in this direction is the Dresden Nuclear Power Plant, off-limits to the public. Its facilities include a pool of water called the Dresden Cooling Lake, in which spent fuel rods from plants around the country are stored. Interestingly, this pool, immediately south of the Kankakee River, is of significant enough size to appear on some local maps, but it seems to have “disappeared” on others.

South past Channahon along I-55 are Wilmington, Coal City, and other old mining towns. Wilmington is a Mark Twainish kind of place with tiny houses along the Kankakee. A hand-lettered sign greets those entering town: “Save the Kankakee River. Don’t let Joliet drain it dry.” A two-year controversy between the two towns revolves around Joliet’s desire to divert water from the Kankakee River to replace water from the Des Plaines River, which contains high levels of radium. Also greeting the visitor is the 20-foot-high, 500-pound Gemini Giant, a green-and-silver fiberglass spaceman that heralds the Launching Pad drive-in restaurant, opened in 1959 and named in honor of the U.S. space program (810 E. Baltimore St., 815-476-6535).

En route between Carbon Hill, Coal City, Diamond, Eileen, and other mining towns, the mostly flat terrain is punctuated by tall mounds, refuse from former mines. The mines, initially deep coal mines, were later replaced by strip mines. A historical marker along Route 53 next to the Diamond Village Hall commemorates a disaster at what was the Diamond Mine of the Wilmington Coal Mining and Manufacturing Company near Braidwood: on February 16, 1893, a mine on marshy land collapsed due to the weight of ice and heavy rains. A monthlong rescue effort discovered no survivors: 46 miners were entombed when the mine was closed down.

Wilmington, Coal City, Braidwood, and neighboring towns have converted their old strip mines into local recreation centers. Throughout the summer, members fish and swim in watery pits up to 80 feet deep. Reportedly all these clubs have a three- to four-year waiting list for “new members” (which smacks of discrimination against outsiders, but we can’t say for sure). Visitors who know a member may attend as guests.

Braidwood, birthplace of former Chicago mayor Anton Cermak (who was accidentally offed in Florida in 1933 when an assassin aiming at President Roosevelt missed), is the site of the Braidwood Nuclear Power Plant. Once again, no visitors allowed. Fossil hunters, however, are allowed access as long as they’re with preapproved groups, many of which come from Northeastern Illinois University and the Field Museum in Chicago. Toward the southern tip of this strip of towns is Gardner, best known for the Gardner House Inn, a German restaurant done in beer-hall decor (120 Depot St., 815-237-8602, closed Mondays).

Finally, if you head back toward Joliet and take a quick jaunt west on I-80 (paralleling the I&M Canal) you’ll find Morris, a town of quaint old homes and heavily trafficked strip malls. Two restaurants here are big draws. Off Route 6, three miles west of Morris, there’s the Rockwell Inn, a neat supper club cozily tucked into the woods. It’s open seven days; reservations are recommended on weekends: 815-942-6224.

And then, tucked into a gargantuan Standard Oil truck stop at the intersection of I-80 and Route 47 is the incredible R-Place, a truck-stop restaurant like no other (815-942-3690). The impressive gift shop is divided into one section for truckers (with overhead bridge-clearance maps and designer mud flaps) and another for ordinary travelers (featuring antique dolls and thousands of other antique toys, not to mention refrigerator magnets from every state of the union). And it has good food that occasionally includes items from Chicago ethnic restaurants: the Klay Oven on Wells Street showed their chef how to do tandoori chicken, for instance. (The line can get long, but it moves quickly.) One outstanding menu item is the “Premium Ethyl,” a four-pound hamburger for $15. But if you can eat it in an hour or less, it’s free. Photographs on one wall of the restaurant show people who have survived and people who have “tried and died.”