Every couple of months stories pop up in the local media about the possibility of extending commuter rail service west of Aurora to Montgomery or even as far as Oswego here in Kendall County.
Given how large our area has grown, and how crowded the roads have gotten around these parts, offering direct commuter service from here to towns east along the Burlington-Northern-Santa Fe’s main line all the way to downtown Chicago seems reasonable.
But extending the tracks out here would be expensive, as would adding a station and all the infrastructure it would require, not to mention additional rolling stock and other things no one’s even thought of yet.
Time was, of course, we had passenger service here, first by rail and then by trolley and rail, and then, finally, by bus and rail before affordable, dependable autos and tax-supported roads for them to drive on killed passenger rail service off.
Kendall County, at least the northern part of it, got connected to the rest of the United States when the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad pushed its tracks west of the Fox River in the early 1850s. After attempting to persuade Oswego officials to allow the crossing at their village—the narrowest part of the Fox River along its entire course—the river crossing was made at Aurora, which also became the site of the railroad’s sprawling shops.
After crossing the river, the line did not run through any established county towns. Instead, it bypassed both Oswego and Yorkville. Residents who wanted to board the regular passenger trains had to travel a couple miles north and west of the two towns to do it. Plano, of course, was served because it was built as a railroad town in the first place, landowner Lewis Steward promising to build a town if the right-of-way would pass through his land.
To serve both Oswego and Yorkville, stations were built on the main line. At Oswego Station, some lumber yards and a few other businesses grew up, while at Bristol Station (the north side of Yorkville was then the independent Village of Bristol) an actual small town grew up. Horse-drawn coach service connected the two towns with their stations.
It wasn’t until 1870 that Oswego, Yorkville, Millington, and Millbrook got their own direct rail link following completion of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road that ran from Streator and its regional coal fields up the Fox River through Ottawa to Yorkville and on to Aurora.
Nicknamed the Fox River Branch after it was acquired by the CB&Q, the line offered freight and passenger service to the towns dotted along the southern reaches of the Fox River. Two freight trains each direction ran on the line. Regular passenger service included one round trip each morning and afternoon, allowing residents to easily travel to the wider world. And it allowed the wider world to travel here, too.
For instance, Vice President Schuler Colfax, who served with President U.S. Grant, had friends in Oswego, and he occasionally visited. As the Sept. 19, 1872 Kendall County Record reported from Oswego: “Vice President Schuler Colfax arrived here last week Tuesday on the 1 o’clock train for a visit and immediately repaired to the house of Mr. Sutherland. Hardly anyone outside of the Sutherlands knew of his presence until after he had gone; he wanted his visit to be a strictly private one, and such it was.”
And then there were the illegal prizefights that so infuriated local residents. In June of that year, a new business opened designed to cater to the latest leisure time craze—roller-skating. In the June 17, 1885 Kendall County Record, Oswego Correspondent Lorenzo Rank grumpily noted: “The grand opening of the [roller] skating rink occurs this evening, which doubtless will make the town tremble, for even the minor opening which took place last Saturday caused a lot of racket.”
The rink building was not only fine for roller-skating, however. It’s large open floor proved to also be a fine place for a bare-knuckle prizefight ring. Exactly who agreed to host the fights, which were illegal at the time, that seemed to magically appear was unknown, or at least kept pretty quiet. The first of the bouts was held in February 1890, with two or three subsequent contests before the big fight in 1891.
In the early morning hours of Sunday, Dec. 8, 1891, a special passenger train pulled into the Oswego depot from Chicago. A crowd of Chicago gamblers and two boxers trudged up the Jackson Street hill to the skating rink. Boxers Tom Ryan and Bull Howson warmed up while the ringside crowd placed their bets. According to the Chicago Daily News, in a story with the plaintive headline, “Another Prize Fight—Is There No One to Enforce the Law?” the 14-round fight was one-sided. “Ryan pounded Howson into jelly and won over $8,000 for his side,” the Daily News reported.
While two trains a day to and from Chicago was okay for local residents, it didn’t allow people to easily commute to jobs or to school or other tasks. Then in 1900, an interurban trolley line that was eventually known as the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago was built linking downtown Aurora with downtown Yorkville via Oswego.
Trolley cars made the Aurora to Yorkville trip hourly, and that did create a true commuter system allowing Yorkville and Oswego residents to work in Aurora’s many factories and businesses and shop in the city’s big stores. In the days before Oswego had a four-year high school, the trolley allowed students to commute to East Aurora and West Aurora high schools.
For two decades, trolley and railroad passenger service made it convenient for local residents to travel virtually anywhere in the United States by rail.
But by the 1920s, the U.S. was undergoing a transportation revolution. Not only were motor vehicles, from autos to trucks to buses, being constantly improved, but so were the roads on which they traveled. And unlike the privately-owned tracks that trains and trolleys traveled on, roads were built and maintained by tax dollars. As a result, passenger rail service was being squeezed badly.
The first component to succumb to the competition with motor vehicles was the interurban trolley industry. By the early 1920s, most interurban lines were hanging on by a thread, and one by one, they failed. Finally, it was the turn of the AE&C.
On Aug. 9, 1924, the Record reported: “Through an order from the Illinois Commerce Commission, the interurban line from the [Fox River] park south of Montgomery to Yorkville will be discontinued as soon as buses are provided to take care of the traffic. This permission comes after a long battle with the commission and a period of wretched service by the street car company at this end of the line.”
The bus service started on Feb. 1, 1926, charging a 40 cent fare from downtown Yorkville to downtown Aurora. Within a couple years, the bus line was bought out by the CB&Q.
Meanwhile, the railroad, which had discontinued regular passenger trains on the Fox River Branch, introduced passenger service by what they officially called a passenger motor car and that the residents living along the line nicknamed “The Dinky.” The Dinky used a gasoline engine to power and electrical generator that, in turn, powered the motors on the car’s trucks.
While service was not nearly as handy as the old interurban service had been, it did provide regular passenger service up and down the Fox River Branch line. Each car, 78 feet in length, had a passenger section, along with a baggage section for light freight, and most interestingly, a small railway post office. Mail was collected from each post office along the route, sorted while the car was traveling, and either delivered at the next stop along the way or carried on to the collecting office at either end of the route.
The big drawback with gas-electric cars was the gasoline that powered their engines. That problem became starkly apparent on a warm afternoon in April 1943 when miscommunication resulted in a head-on collision between the northbound Dinky and a southbound steam engine near present-day Boulder Hill. Motorman F.E. Bishop along with baggage man Chalmers Kerchner and the Dinky’s two post office employees, mail clerk Paul Chrysler and assistant chief clerk John G. Gall of the U.S. Railway Mail Service, all riding in the front of the car, were killed as the car’s 200-gallon fuel tank burst, spewing flaming gasoline everywhere. Subsequently, one additional person died, high school student Harold Alderman, who’d been on his way from Oswego to Aurora.
Despite the inherent danger posed by the car’s gasoline engine, the passenger motor cars continued to provide service. In August 1950, the CB&Q announced it was reducing its Dinky service to just one run per day. And then on Feb. 2, 1952, the last passenger motor car up the Fox River Branch made one last stop at Oswego and Yorkville, ending a tradition of passenger rail service that began in 1870.
Nowadays, autos have become so successful that we can barely travel local roads, so choked are they with traffic. And so transportation planners seem these days to be looking back rather than ahead for solutions to the region’s increasing vehicle gridlock. Trolley cars—renamed “light rail”—and commuter rail service are both increasingly popular, at least as concepts, as solutions are sought. It really does go to show that there really are few new things under the sun, which is another fine argument for studying history.