Until we run into one of our area’s seemingly never-ending detours or other serious road construction projects, most of us continue to take fast and easy road transportation for granted. These days, we think nothing of jumping into our autos and cruising 50 miles or more to shop in some specialty store or to eat in a fancy restaurant.
It wasn’t always so. In fact, it wasn’t that many years ago that getting from place to place out here in once overwhelmingly rural Kendall County and the rest of northern Illinois was a real—often literal—pain.
The earliest White settlers who started arriving in the late 1820s had two choices. They could ride a horse from place to place or they could walk. As for shopping in fancy stores or eating in exclusive restaurants, well, those things just didn’t exist.
Back in the days of horse travel, 20 miles was about the limit of a day’s journey. A man, back in those hardy days, could also walk about 20 miles a day without too much trouble. When the Kendall County was established in 1841, the county seat was centrally located at Yorkville. But when voters moved it from Yorkville to Oswego, those folks down in the southern part of the county were obliged to stay overnight if they had some county business to transact, since a round trip of 20 miles (I0 each way) was about the limit of a day’s travel. That’s one of the main reasons the county seat was moved back to centrally-located Yorkville by vote of the county’s taxpayers in I859.
If you were in a big hurry to go a long distance in the 1830s, you took a stagecoach, in which your journey was completed in stages. At each stop (10-20 miles apart) the horses on the stagecoach were exchanged for fresh ones so the trip could be completed as soon as possible. In Kendall County, there were a number of stage stops, some owned by the Frink and Walker Stage Coach Company, and others owned by private parties.
But those early roads in the 1830s were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie, most of which had originally been Indian trails. Even calling them trails might not be quite accurate.
In March 1831, Juliette M. Kinzie traveled with her husband John and a small party from Prairie du Chien in modern Wisconsin to Chicago. The travelers, with someone described as an experienced guide, planned to take what was then known as the Great Sauk Trail east to the Fox River of Illinois, where they planned to then turn north-northeast to Chicago. But as she reported in her book Wau-Bun: The Early Day in the North-West, the supposedly experienced guide could not find the reportedly well-traveled Sauk Trail, and the party was forced to make its way as best it could across the rolling prairies of northwest Illinois. Fortunately for them, the Fox River’s pretty hard to miss and they did reach it, although some miles north of where they’d expected to.
Native People here in northern Illinois usually walked from place to place. They weren’t the horse-riding war-bonneted Western types seen in movies. And they walked astonishing distances. Once a year, most of the Sauk and Fox tribes of western Illinois hiked all the way to Canada and back to trade furs for guns, jewelry, axes, and other items with British traders on the afore-mentioned Great Sauk Trail.
Since the trails were used by people walking afoot, they took the route of least effort, going around sloughs, swamps and other impediments and using the best fording places across the regions numerous rivers and creeks. A modern remnant of this early travel history is Grove Road south of Oswego, where motorists may note it takes a big sweeping curve for no apparent reason. Back in the 1830s though, there was a dense wooded area there surrounding a large wetland—which the settlers called the Big Slough—that had to be bypassed. And so it went.
But as soon as settlers began arriving, though, formal roadways began to be laid out. These included roads from Chicago to Ottawa at the head of navigation on the Illinois River that boasted three separate branches and the two branches of roads from Chicago to the rich lead-mining Galena region.
The road to Ottawa was the first one laid out, connecting Chicago at the foot of Lake Michigan to the Illinois River and thence down to the Mississippi.
In the summer of 1831, the Cook County Board formally established the first county road west of the growing village, leading to Ottawa. According to the county board of commissioners’ minutes, that earliest branch of the Ottawa road was to run “from the town of Chicago to the house of B. Lawton, [Bernard Laughton’s tavern at modern Riverside] from thence to the house of James Walker on the DuPage River [at Plainfield] and so on to the west line of the county.”
The road began on the lakefront at Chicago and headed west across what travelers and city residents alike described as the “Nine-Mile Swamp” on modern Madison Street to Western Avenue where it became known as the Barry Point Trail and then southwest to Laughton’s Tavern.
Barry’s Point was a patch of timber that extended east from the Des Plaines River named for an early settler. By the time the road was officially laid out from Chicago, Mr. Barry had died and his widow, the Widow Barry, was living there.
The purpose of the road was to regularize the northern portion of the already well-used and familiar trail known as the Potowatomi Trace. By the 1830s the trace was more often called the High Prairie Trail, leading from the lakeshore at Chicago to the head of navigation on the Illinois River. During most of the year, that point was at Peru, although during periods of sufficiently high water on the Illinois River, steamboats could make it to the docks of the larger town, Ottawa.
Plank roads were the first real transportation improvements in Illinois as roads were paved with planks sawn or split from oak, walnut, or other hardwood trees. As you can imagine, such a road would use a tremendous amount of wood. And since wood rots, plank roads weren’t very durable. But in a time that considered forests as inexhaustible, plank roads were a very sensible way to weather-proof major highways. All the plank roads in the Illinois-Indiana area were toll roads. While one was planned to extend from Indiana through Plainfield to Oswego, no plank roads were ever built in Kendall County.
The Illinois and Michigan Canal was the first real economically feasible mass passenger and freight transportation system proposed for northern Illinois. The canal was designed to link the Illinois River with Lake Michigan, funneling everything from grain and livestock to lumber from northern forests down the Illinois and Mississippi River systems to the seaport of New Orleans—-and allowed international trade to flow the other way as well. The I&M Canal produced an economic miracle as the swampy little town of Chicago suddenly exploded into an economic giant.
Railroads soon followed the canal, and eventually led to its downfall as the prime transportation artery of our area. The Chicago and Northwestern, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, the Illinois Central, and other railroad companies all sprouted to meet need for efficient transportation. The first railroad (the Burlington) ran through Kendall County in 1853, bypassing Oswego, which still favored plank roads. The Fox River Valley Railroad was constructed through Oswego in 1870, finally giving Oswego a transportation window on the rest of the U.S.
And at the turn of the century, interurban trolley lines began running, with one line running from Aurora to Yorkville through Oswego, and another running south from Yorkville to Morris, the Fox and Illinois Union Electric Railway.
But farmers still had to get their crops and livestock to market and farm and town families alike had to get to places—school, shopping, church—that weren’t necessarily convenient to either rail or trolley lines. It was far from easy.
On March 12, 1890, the Joliet News had observed: “The farmers of Will and Kendall counties are just now realizing what public road economy means. Only those living on gravel roads have been in Joliet since before Christmas. Hay, butter, eggs, poultry, and onions have been commanding good prices in this market, and just a few farmers could avail themselves of this condition. The buyer and seller might as well be a thousand miles apart.”
Until 1913, Illinois townships were responsible for financing road construction and for their maintenance outside municipal limits. The system barely worked even while most travel was by horse-drawn vehicles. By the time the 20th Century dawned and growing numbers of autos and (as they were called at the time) auto trucks, were traveling the roads, the system was at the breaking point.
The financing method put unfair burdens on sparsely populated townships. Road mileage might be the same as in heavily populated townships, but in less populated areas of Illinois, fewer taxpayers were available to shoulder the burden.
Then in 1911, a new state law allowed collection of motor license fees, with the money earmarked for road construction and maintenance. As soon as the state was involved in road financing, they began investigating better construction techniques. A major benefit of good roads, it turned out, was because it was much cheaper to drive a vehicle on a hard-surfaced road than on one with a dirt surface.
During tests in Cleveland, Ohio, five two-ton White trucks with full loads were driven over various road surfaces. They averaged nearly 12 miles per gallon on concrete roads, but less than six miles per gallon on dirt roads. Concrete also beat the asphalt roads of the era (nine miles per gallon). Brick roads were nearly as good as concrete, but were labor-intensive to build. Gravel roads, too, were much better than dirt, with a fair gravel surface allowing the trucks to average about seven mpg, and a good gravel surface giving 9.4 mpg.
So if motorists, those driving autos as well as commercial trucks, could save so much gasoline, state officials figured part of that savings could be used to build the better roads so many seemed to be demanding. The calculation went as follows: Assuming the average motorist drove 8,000 miles a year, half over medium to poor roads at eight miles per gallon, over hard roads the mileage would double, saving 250 gallons of gas a year, or $57.50 a year (at the then-current price of 23 cents a gallon). So any annual fee under $57.50 would save motorists money. In the event, auto taxes were figured not to rise to more than $12 a year to fund good roads.
With the advocacy of several groups, and spearheaded by William G. Edens (namesake of today’s Edens Expressway in Chicago and several northwest suburbs), a statewide organization was formed to lobby for hard roads, and to draw up specifications for them. Edens, a born organizer, had started out as a railroad brakeman and conductor who rose to organize the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. Then in 1897, he was tapped by President William McKinley to organize the post office department’s new Rural Free Delivery system. Leaving government, he became a successful Chicago banker, active in Chicago’s social and political scene.
Edens, with the support of Illinois Gov. Edward F. Dunne, helped organize the Illinois Highway Improvement Association, including the association’s first convention in Peoria on Sept. 27, 1912. Each member of the General Assembly was invited, and was also asked to appoint three residents of each legislative district as delegates. Also invited were the state’s agricultural, commercial, labor, banking, real estate, automobile, good roads, medical, rural letter carrier, central women’s club, highway commissioner, teacher, and lawyers’ organizations.
Attending the convention from Kendall County were George S. Faxon of Plano, representing the Illinois Postmasters’ Association; and Dr. R.A. McClelland of Yorkville, representing the Kendall County Automobile Club.
The convention’s platform urged state officials to mandate state and county cooperation in the construction of main highways and bridges, establish a “non political” state highway commission, use state funds to improve main highways connecting county seats and other principal cities, improve other roads controlled by township and county officials, use state prison inmates “when practicable” for road building, and use state automobile taxes to finance the system.
Gov. Dunne, in his 1913 message to the General Assembly, contended: “The loss to farmers, because of inaccessible primary markets, and the abnormal expense of transportation due to bad roads, must be considered as a contributing cause of the high cost of living. In some Illinois counties, highways are impassable to ordinary loads for a full third of the year.”
As indeed they were. On March 11, 1903, the Kendall County Record reported from Yorkville that: “It took Harry Leifheit, [mail] carrier on Route 2, two days to make his trip to Plattville and return. Left Yorkville at 7:30 Monday morning and got back at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. No mail taken out Tuesday–the roads are about impassable.”
Not that the effort was entirely clear sailing, since township officials opposed loss of their traditional control. But James F. Donovan of Niantic, president of the State Association of Highway Commissioners and Town Clerks, managed to persuade a majority of his group’s members to get on board.
Farmers protested the cost and wondered whether better roads would benefit them. Skillful political work at the state, county, and township level blunted their objections. Eventually, the Illinois State Farmer’s Institute, precursor of today’s Farm Bureau, came out foursquare in favor of good roads, tipping the balance in favor of support.
Later in 1913, a bill featuring many of the good roads convention’s recommendations passed with the support of dozens of organizations. Prominent among them was the Kendall County Automobile Club.
Locally, the biggest change following the law’s passage was creating a county superintendent of highways. John D. Russell of Oswego, a well-known local politician and farmer, was appointed in Kendall County. Russell served as Oswego Township Road Commissioner from 1887-93. In 1896, Gov. John Peter Altgeld appointed Russell his military aide-de-camp, with the rank of colonel—although he had no military experience. He went on to serve as Oswego Township Supervisor from 1897-1907 and was always a strong good roads supporter.
The new legislation made state funds available for hard roads, but there was no overall transportation plan. In 1914, a short demonstration stretch of 15-foot wide concrete roadway was built along the Fox River south of Montgomery past the site of what would one day become the Boulder Hill Subdivision. Another stretch, financed by Kendall County, was begun from Yorkville along Van Emmon Road towards Oswego on the east side of the Fox River. But without a plan to link these isolated stretches, their economic impact was diluted. It would take another governor and more public pressure to create a viable hard road program.
In November 1916, Democrat Frank O. Lowden was elected governor and immediately pushed the good roads program begun by his predecessor.
“Good roads are a good investment,” Lowden told the General Assembly in January 1917. “Motor vehicles are rapidly supplanting horse-drawn vehicles. When good roads have become the rule, and not the exception as now, auto trucks will likely take the place of horses and wagons in the transportation of the products of the farm.”
Lowden, like Dunne, tapped William G. Edens to organize the statewide good roads effort. Unfortunately, just as pressure mounted for good roads, the nation plunged into World War I.
But On Nov. 5, 1918, while fighting still raged in France, a statewide referendum was held on a $60 million bond issue to build thousands of miles of all-weather concrete roads in Illinois. Led by Edens’ “Pull Illinois Out of the Mud” campaign, the measure easily passed. The vote in Kendall County was overwhelming, 1,532 yes to 90 no.
The measure called for improving 800 miles of roads at state and federal expense; improving 4,800 miles of roads with the bond money to be maintained by auto and truck license fees; using joint state-county funding to improve another 11,200 miles of local roads selected by county boards with approval of the state highway commission; and improving 80,000 miles of township roads with counties providing 25 percent of the cost.
The plan called for bond issue concrete roads to pass through all 102 Illinois counties. In Kendall County, Route 18 was to be our hard road. It was to head south out of Aurora on Lincoln Avenue, along the east side of the Fox River through Montgomery to Oswego on that existing stretch of road laid down in 1914, then south to Yorkville, across the Fox River to Plano on to Sandwich and, eventually, Princeton—the route championed for years by the Cannon Ball Trail Association.
But after the referendum passed, Gov. Len Small, a Republican, replaced Lowden. Small turned out to be one of Illinois’ more corrupt governors, who was politically beholden to the motor transportation industry. So when engineers for the Illinois Department of Public Works and Buildings laid out Route 18’s actual right-of-way, a roar of protest went up. Instead of following the route promised during the referendum campaign, the engineers proposed running Route 18 down the west side of the Fox River as an extension of River Street, past the sheep yards in Montgomery, across the Chicago Burlington & Quincy mainline at the Wormley crossing north of Oswego. From there the route headed southwesterly, bypassing Yorkville to the north and Plano’s business district slightly to the south on a rough airline through Sandwich and on to Princeton. It was the route today of River Street, Ill. Route 31 south to the junction with Route 34 at Oswego, and then on west. Paved spurs were to connect Route 18 with downtowns in Yorkville and Oswego.
The route, the Kendall County Record charged in December 1920, violated several of the requirements laid out in the bond issue legislation. The new route was longer and didn’t use two sections of concrete road already laid in the county along what would become Ill. Route 25 and Van Emmon Road. Further, a costly viaduct over the CB& Q mainline at the Wormley Crossing was required.
“In consideration of Route 18, which the state engineers have so arbitrarily placed as to miss Oswego and Yorkville entirely and to abandon a route which was built with the sanction of the state and was to be eventually taken over as Route 18, the question arises as to whether or not the law is being lived up to,” Record Publisher Hugh Marshall contended on Jan. 26, 1921.
Local consensus was that the new route was picked thanks to the meatpacking and other commercial interests with undue influence on Small to create a direct route from Aurora and Chicago west rather than one that passed through and benefiting local communities.
Despite the protests and the loyal Republicans who predominated in the counties Route 18 would pass through, state officials refused to consider the old route. In fact, by the end of September 1921, all the right-of-way for the new route had been purchased. The final surveys of the right-of-way and design started in 1921, with actual construction starting later that year. By late May 1924, the 18-foot wide concrete highway had been completely laid from Chicago to Princeton and was curing.
Meanwhile in Oswego, state officials approved connecting the concrete section of modern Ill. Route 25 with the Route 18 concrete spur across the Oswego Bridge. In July a new concrete bridge was built across Waubonsie Creek. The old iron bridge it replaced was moved to the Pearce Cemetery entrance road. The connection was finished and opened to traffic in early December.
The section of modern Route 34 from Oswego to Naperville had to wait; work didn’t start until the fall of 1932. By October 1933, the road was paved along its entire length, with the exception of the intersection with the Lincoln Highway, today’s U.S. Route 30, and the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railroad overpass. Not until May 1934 were plans finished to bridge the tracks and to cross under Route 30. The railroad bridge and the highway interchange were not finished until another year had passed.
With the end of the project, Route 34‘s course as we now know it was finished. Eventually the other hard road links, Ill. Route 71, Ill. Route 126, Ill. Route 25, Ill. Route 47, U.S. Route 30, and U.S. Route 52 were finished and Kendall County was linked directly with Chicago and the rest of Illinois via a system of all-weather concrete roads that’s still serving the county to this day.
Today, with traffic on the roads in Kendall County and the rest of Illinois west of Chicago heavier than anyone in 1919 could have conceived, we’re still dealing with the effects those transportation design decisions made so many years ago have on our daily lives.