Situated in LaSalle County, Peru and its adjacent neighbor, LaSalle, make up the core of the county.
According to the 2010 census, Peru has a total area of 9.068 square miles of which 8.96 square miles is land and 0.108 square miles is water.
Located on the Illinois River, Peru lies three miles west of the intersection of two major interstate highways: Interstate 39 and Interstate 80. The city is also the western terminus of the historic Illinois and Michigan Canal. Before the Illinois Waterway was constructed, the Illinois River was navigable only up to Peru.
As of the 2010 census, the population density was 1,655.5 people per square mile.
The racial makeup of the city was 96.47 percent white; 0.32 percent African American; 0.18 percent Native American 1.11 percent Asian; 0.01 percent Pacific Islander; 1.16 percent from other races; and 0.75 percent from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 4.08 percent of the population.
There were 4,143 households out of which 27.3 percent had children under the age of 18 living with them; 53.7 percent were married couples living together; 7.9 percent had a female householder with no husband present; and 35.5 percent were non-families. Of all households, 31.5 percent were made up of individuals, and 15.5 percent had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.33, and the average family size was 2.93.
In the city, the age distribution of the population shows 22.0 percent under the age of 18; 7.5 percent from 18 to 24; 27.3 percent from 25 to 44; 21.9 percent from 45 to 64, and 21.4 percent who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 41 years. For every 100 females there were 89.8 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 87.9 males.
The city’s first settler was John Hays, who arrived in 1830. The city was organized as a borough in 1838, and was officially incorporated as a city on March 13, 1851. The original plat was between West Street, Fourth Street, and East Street (now Pine Street).
Since the first steamboat, “Traveler” reached Peru in 1831, Peru had high hopes of being the western terminus for the Illinois & Michigan Canal. That designation went to LaSalle, but Peru became a busy steamboat port at the head of navigation on the Illinois River. Captain McCormick was involved in the Five Day Line, making record fast trips between Peru and St. Louis. Senator Gilson reported to land surveyor, Grenville Dodge the town would soon outstrip Chicago due to its favorable location along the river and railroads.
Water Street was a thin ribbon sandwiched between the bluff and the river and a large industrial district grew up to the east. It was along the river and the canal and was serviced by the Rock Island Railroad and Chicago Burlington and Quincy. These important transportation routes, along with coal mining in at least four mines lasting from at least 1857 until 1949 prompted Peru’s rise to and industrial center. Many entrepreneurs grew into prominent businessman and advanced the interests of Peru and the region. Prominent companies from that time included Maze Lumber, Maze Nails, Peru Plow and Wheel Works, Huse and Loomis Ice Co, Brunner Foundry, Star Union Brewery, Hebel Brewery, Illinois Zinc (Peru and LaSalle were sometimes referred to as “Zinc City”) and many others. Peru’s citizens were bent on improving their town even constructing a plank road, northwest of town, a toll road meant to reach Dixon, Illinois. Peru’s story became a story of two levels. The story of Water Street and the bottoms and the town growing above the bluff. Peru tried hard to link the two.
In 1884, Stahlberg started the United Clock Co. in Peru. Shortly after it went bankrupt and was reorganized with the help of Frederick William Matthiessen as the Western Clock Co. By 1905 it had grown into a national company, producing over one million alarm clocks per year. In 1909, they trademarked “Westclox.” In 1917 they became a model for workers’ benefits, one of the early companies to pay life insurance and have a safety committee, later limiting the work week and building a company park with tennis court and horseshoe courts, school for watchmakers, and scholarships. The company also developed housing for its workers. In 1935 it was the safest company in the nation with 11 million hours without a lost time accident. Despite these advances, one company that they worked with, the Radium Dial Co., saw its employees get radiation poisoning from working with radium.
During World War II the company made mechanical fuses for the government and saw over 600 employees in the armed forces. At its height, it manufactured nearly two million clocks and watches annually and employed over 4,000. It closed the Peru factory in 1980, causing a rapid decline in population in LaSalle and Peru.
Both Peru and neighboring LaSalle share a high school, LaSalle-Peru Township High School, called L-P. L-P has the Cavaliers and Lady Cavaliers as its mascots, referencing Cavalier Rene Robert de LaSalle, who discovered and established forts in the area.
There are a number of business districts in Peru. The largest is at the intersection of I-80 and IL-251. Then there are three smaller districts along the Route 6 corridor, including Peru’s downtown. The largest employers in Peru are the Peru Mall, the Illinois Valley Community Hospital, Walmart, Liberty Village, American Nickeloid,Double D Express, Heritage Manor Nursing Home, Eakas, Target and more.
Peru is the home of at least three very old companies. They are the national headquarters of American Nickeloid, started in 1898, and the W.H. Maze Co, dealing in lumber and nails, which started the year the Illinois and Michigan Canal opened in 1848. Maze Nails is America’s last nail maker. Peru is home to the offices of Carus Chemical Co., started in 1915, today the largest manufacturer of potassium permanganate in the world.
Peru by the numbers
Median household income: $48,689.
Individuals below poverty level: 9.4 percent.
Educational attainment: 91.2 percent with a high school diploma or higher.
Median housing value: $117,700.
Total housing units: 4,905.
Male median income: $35,835.
Female median income: $19,446.
Source: 2015 Census estimates.