Category Archives: Montgomery

The Great Wabausia Swamp just keeps coming back

It’s been a bit damp this spring around my neck of the woods.

The farmers have been having problems getting into the field, and ancient wetlands have reappeared where field tiles have either been broken, collapsed, or filled with silt and not replaced or repaired. Those ancient wetlands are what interest me.

When the first settlers began arriving, they found rolling prairies punctuated by streams lined with trees, groves of hardwoods, and a large number of sloughs and other wetlands, both large and small.

Drainage of the Fox Valley’s wetlands began almost at once, although serious drainage really didn’t get going in a big way until technology took a great leap forward. And for that we can credit Scottish immigrant John Johnston.

Johnston arrived in New York in the early 1800s, settling in the western part of the state where he began buying up wetlands others were avoiding. Johnson read about new farmland drainage techniques being perfected in England and Scotland, particularly the use of underground clay drainage tile. He got a design for a clay tile from Scotland, and then found an earthenware manufacturer willing to produce them for him. Johnson buried the tiles in shallow ditches on his farm, directing the drainage flow from wetlands on his property into nearby streams. Almost at once, his farm became far more productive, the drained wetlands being especially fertile. His neighbors quickly noticed the improvement to his farm and decided to join him in using tile to drain their own wet spots.

Since many of Kendall County’s earliest settlers came from New York State, it’s not much of a stretch to assume they knew about Johnston’s success. And wetland drainage was a real priority on the Illinois prairies. The earliest technique was to simply dig a ditch from a wetland to a nearby stream. Then in 1854 the mole ditcher was invented, a contraption that when drawn by yokes of oxen or teams of horses created a small subterranean drainage tunnel. It was hard on both man and beast, but a mole ditcher could drain about a half mile a day. But there were problems. The machine worked well in clay soils, but drains pushed through more friable soils tended to quickly collapse, not only blocking the flow but also creating dangerous holes in fields into which men and animals frequently stepped.

1880 Dayton Tile Works

By the 1880s, clay drainage tile was being manufactured in towns large and small, including at Dayton, just north of Ottawa in LaSalle County.

It was about that time that tiles evolved from Johnston’s original design began to be produced in Illinois for drainage use. By the 1860s, clay tile plants in Joliet and Chicago were producing miles of the drainage innovation. And by the 1880s, factories even in small towns were producing tile in even greater numbers.

Ever more expansive drainage projects became possible thanks to laws passed by the General Assembly in the 1870s allowing landowners to combine into drainage districts, financed by property taxes levied on affected landowners.

By the 1880s, landowners who farmed around the Great Waubonsia Swamp began trying to figure out how they could drain the mammoth wetland. The swamp covered some 360 acres on both sides of the Kendall-Kane County line in sections two and three of Oswego Township and sections 34 and 35 in Aurora Township.

When Eli Prescott surveyed the east-west dividing line between the two townships in 1837, the found the swamp—actually a reed marsh—to be impassable. As a result, he was forced to off-set his survey line to the south in order to keep working on dry ground.

The next year, James Reed took on the job of surveying Oswego Township. The survey party marked out every section line in the township, running the north-south lines and the east-west lines to create an accurate grid that would be used by the federal government to map and then sell the land.

As established by the U.S. Government after the original plan laid out by Thomas Jefferson the land in the old Northwest Territory was to be accurately measured so it could be sold. Instead of the hit-or-miss methods of surveying in the old original states, the Northwest Territory would be surveyed on a grid of neat squares, the basic one of which was to be the “section.” A section was to be a mile square, and contain exactly 640 acres. Thirty-six of these sections would be combined to form a township. Townships, in turn, would be combined to form counties. Keep in mind, however, that at this stage of the game, we’re not talking about governmental townships, but rather a technical surveying term that denotes a 36 square mile plot of land. Actual township government wouldn’t come to Illinois until the 1850s, nearly two decades after the surveying was completed.

1838 Wabausia Swamp

The impassable Wabausia Swamp on the 1838 U.S. Government survey map of Oswego Township drawn from notes taken by surveyor James Reed. (Little White School Museum collection)

Reed and his party started laying off the north-south and east-west lines in Oswego Township in July of 1838. Each time they got to a section corner, Reed carefully noted what mature trees were visible and what their bearings were. He also described the quality of the land he could see. Then one of the members of his party was tasked to dig a hole in which a post was set, surrounded by two quarts of charcoal and a two foot high mound of earth was built up around the post.

When Reed’s party—it consisted of Reed, three other helpers, and the fellow who cut the posts and dug the holes for the section corner markers—checked Prescott’s work on the northern boundary of Oswego Township, they, too, ran into the swamp. Reed said in his field notes that it was called the Wabausia Swamp by the locals. In 1838, Reed found the swamp covered with “2 or 3 feet” of water and tall reeds. And 1838 was not a particularly wet year, either. For instance, Reed’s party was able to directly measure the width of the Fox River in and around Oswego by using their surveyor’s chain instead of having to do it by triangulation, suggesting the river was low enough for Reed and his buddies to easily wade across in several spots.

In addition, Reed measured Waubonsie Creek as it flowed out of the swamp as only 7.2 links wide (a link was 7.92 inches long; 100 links made a chain, which equaled 66 feet), meaning it was only about 4’9” wide where it exited the swamp—far from a raging torrent.

As measured by both Prescott and by Reed, the swamp covered nearly 360 acres, and was undoubtedly a rich resource, both for the pioneers and for the Native Americans they had displaced. The swamp was an excellent fish hatchery that undoubtedly contributed to the Fox River’s large population of Northern Pike and other species. And it probably provided a wonderful habitat for waterfowl. It also acted as a giant blotter, soaking up stormwater runoff and releasing it slowly instead of allowing it to rapidly flow into the creek and the Fox River.

1876 Wabansia Slough

Named the Wabansia Slough on this 1876 map of Oswego Township, the wetland on the Kendall-Kane border was still imposing. Drainage efforts would begin within the next decade. (Little White School Museum collection)

On anyone’s normal scale, 360 acres sounds big—and in fact, it was big. But other western wetlands dwarfed it. The infamous Black Swamp around the southern shore of Lake Erie along the Black River was 1,500 square miles—not acres—in extent.

But the area’s farmer-pioneers didn’t see the Great Wabausia Swamp’s benefits. Instead, they viewed wetlands as obstacles to progress, not to mention wastes of good farmland. The shear size of the Wabausia Swamp, however, saved it for several decades. Not until the 1880s was it finally drained. Maps of 1876 still show it, though slightly shrunken. By 1890, it had largely disappeared from maps.

The 1880s ushered in the most active era of drainage in Kendall County—and the entire Midwest. According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, more than 10,000 miles of drainage tile were laid in Illinois during 1880 alone. The acceleration in laying drainage tile was helped along by the invention of tile-laying machines, such as the Blickensderfer Tile Ditching Machine and the Johnson Tile Ditcher. According to a Blickensderfer advertisement, “with one horse, man & boy, it will do the work of from 10 to 15 men.”

1882 Blickensderfer tile drain ditcher S

American ingenuity developed machines to help with the backbreaking work of digging drainage tile ditches. According to the company, their machine, pulled by one horse and overseen by one man and one boy could lay as much tile in a day as 10 to 15 workmen.

With money to be made, businessmen began exploiting local clay beds to produce drainage tile, including at a factory in Millington. It seemed like everyone was trying to get in on the action. And for good reason.

As the Record’s NaAuSay Township correspondent put it in the paper’s Nov. 29, 1883 edition: “The cost of tiling looks large at first glance to some farmers and many of them are kept from improving their land because they fear the expense; but it is a fact that any tiling done, if well done, will pay for itself in three years in nearly all cases. To tile land is to make it absolutely certain that the land can be worked earlier in the spring, especially if the season is wet; that it can be cultivated much sooner after rains, and that in dry season it will not suffer from drought to any such extent as untilled land will; tiling is a wonderful fertilizer; it absorbs moisture with remarkable facility and retains it with equal tenacity.”

1900 abt Drainage 2

Even though machinery was available, it was expensive, so most farm tile was dug in and laid by hand. Above, the Hafenrichters, Hummels, and Elliots laid this 24″ clay tile in 1900 to drain land along Wolf’s Crossing Road in Oswego Township. (Little White School Museum collection)

And, indeed, corn production was 50 percent higher on drained Illinois wetlands than on normal, dry farmland.

While efforts to drain other large wetlands in the county got plenty of press, for some reason draining the Great Wabausia Swamp did not. As noted above, we have to rely on maps of the township, and scant mention in local media. Efforts apparently took several years. For instance, a mention in the Sept. 1, 1909 Kendall County Record suggested drainage activities in and around the marsh were not only active, but were picking up speed, especially in the area closest to Aurora and Montgomery: “Surveyors are busily at work on the new drainage ditch along the Waubonsie creek. This ditch will reclaim many acres of land in the Binder slough and along the many curves of the creek. The outlet of the ditch will be on the farm owned by Fred Pearce.”

Eventually, a 24-inch clay drainage tile was laid all the way to the Fox River, with a deep cut through the ridge overlooking the riverbank, that finally drained the huge marsh.

But draining a wetland and eliminating it are two very different things, as anyone can see after a particularly heavy rain. The Wabausia Swamp comes back year after year as a large shallow flooded area bordered by Hill Avenue, U.S. Route 30, businesses along the east side of Douglas Road, and parts of Montgomery.

Periodically, area land planners and developers suggest it may be time to reestablish the marsh, at least in part, to again act as a stormwater sponge, just as it had for eons before the first white settlers arrived. The 2008 recession pretty much put paid to the most recent plans, but it’s still an idea whose time may come again. And that would be good news for everybody who lives or owns land along the creek settlers named after Chief Waubonsee.

 

 

 

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Filed under Business, Environment, Farming, Government, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Science stuff, Technology

No need to drive: When we took the trolley to our neighborhood amusement park

As the calendar moves steadily towards summer, area residents are looking forward to a season when entertainment opportunities seem to be never-ending. From community celebrations like Oswego’s PrairieFest to Yorkville and Plano’s Hometown Days, to Montgomery’s MontgomeryFest to community swimming pools to family reunions and picnics, there’s always plenty to enjoy here at home.

Of course lots of local folks also enjoy traveling to some of the Midwest’s theme parks to enjoy roller coasters and all the other amusement rides that only show up locally when carnivals briefly visit.

Fox River Park siteAt the turn of the 20th Century, though, Kendall County residents didn’t have to drive for hours or wait for the next carnival to arrive to enjoy amusement rides. Rather, all they had to do was come up with the five cent fare for the interurban trolley ride to extreme northeast Oswego Township, just south of Montgomery, where Riverview Park stood along the west bank of the Fox River. Today, the park grounds are an expanse of grass and mature trees, the former location of a massive manufacturing plant operated by AT&T Technologies. The plant was demolished in 1997, returning the land back to the grassy oak and hickory savanna it was more than a century ago.

The amusement park and the interurban trolley line from Aurora to Yorkville were built at the same time. Indeed, both trolley and park depended upon each other for financial survival.

In April 1897, Ill. State Sen. Henry Evans of Aurora incorporated the Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Railway Company with the goal of connecting Morris on the Illinois River with Aurora, the terminus of the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroads suburban service, and an important stop on the CB&Q’s main line.

Interurban trolleys powered by overhead electrical wires were the nation’s first mass transit system that served large metropolitan areas as well as rural areas. Starting in the last two decades of the 19th century, a web of interurban lines was built crisscrossing the nation, connecting villages and cities across the country, and along the way providing convenient passenger links to thousands of farm families. At one time, it was possible to ride, using transfers, from the Mississippi River to the East Coast wholly on interurban cars.

While Sen. Evans’ proposed line was to be just one strand in this interurban web, it was nonetheless an important one for the Fox Valley and Kendall County. In the days before paved roads, it was often impossible for residents to travel other than by rail during certain seasons of the year. That was especially true of rural residents.

The new trolley line aimed to help with that problem. The right-of-way for the line left Aurora on the west side of the river, and proceeded south to the end of River Street in Montgomery. From there the tracks passed under the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch line tracks just south of Montgomery, and then followed the river south paralleling today’s Ill. Route 31. At the intersection of today’s Ill. Route 31 and U.S. Route 34 in Oswego, the tracks turned east and crossed the Fox River on the Oswego bridge. At the top of today’s Washington Street hill, the tracks turned south again, running down the middle of Oswego’s Main Street to modern Ill. Route 71, which they followed to Van Emmon Road. The trolley line then curved toward Yorkville, paralleling Van Emmon Road the line’s southern terminus at Van Emmon and Bridge Street—today’s Ill. Route 47.

1911 FR Park mapSome portions of the old track bed are still visible along Route 31 if you know where to look, and are quite obvious along Van Emmon Road.

Actual construction on the trolley line began during the summer of 1899, with construction of the affiliated amusement park beginning at the same time.

Many of the nation’s interurban lines used the lure of amusement parks located along their rights-of-way to persuade people to ride the trolley on low-ridership weekends and holidays. Since electrical service was necessary for the trolley cars, it was also available to power amusement rides and bright electric lights at the parks. Along with Kendall County’s Riverview Park, other interurban-connected parks in the area included, in 1904, Electric Park along the DuPage River in Plainfield and, later, Exposition Park on Aurora’s north side.

1905 FR Park birdseye color crop

Hand-colored postcard view of the Riverview Park trolley station, taken from the top of the auditorium about 1904. (Little White School Museum collection)

By November of 1899, the trolley tracks had been extended from Aurora to the park site, and on Tuesday, Nov. 7, the first special trolley cars began operating. According to press reports, Montgomery was decorated with flags to greet the 500 people who showed up for the dedication ceremonies. The park, which Evans’ company named Riverview for its location on the banks of the Fox, cost $104,403.03 to build, plus $1,200 for auditorium seats.

In October 1900 the Kendall County Record‘s Oswego correspondent reported the first Aurora, Yorkville & Morris trolley car had reached Oswego, and by December the line was completed to Yorkville. The completion of the line to Kendall County’s seat of government not only opened up a variety of economic opportunities for everyone living along the line, but it also provided entertainment opportunities for thousands of rural families.

1905 FR Park map blue river

Fox River Park map, 1905

Although it closed each winter, Riverview Park was open for spring, summer, and fall activities each year. In 1900, more than 2,000 persons rode the trolley on the park’s opening day. And it didn’t diminish much in popularity as the summer wore on. The Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on July 18 that “Riverview Park has become very popular with our people. Small parties of both the old and the young frequently spend the afternoon there on fine days.”

By the early summer of 1900 the Aurora & Geneva Railway interurban line had been finished, completing the missing trolley link between Aurora and Elgin, drawing even more visitors south to Riverview Park from upriver towns.

The Record reported that during a game in August, 1906, “A disgraceful slugging match took place Sunday afternoon at Riverview Park, during the playing of the Elgin-Aurora baseball game when, it is alleged, the umpire was unmercifully beaten over the head with clubs and umbrellas.”

1912 FR Park with coaster

From the time it opened, the roller coaster was one of Fox River Park’s most popular attractions. (Little White School Museum collection)

Aurora’s pro baseball team played at the park for a couple years, reportedly with the legendary Casey Stengel on the squad.

Other more sedate entertainment on the park side included visiting the Penny Arcade and the park photographer, or picnicking on the wooded grounds.

On a good weekend during the height of the summer season, as many as 5,000 people a day visited Riverview Park.

Within a few years, the name of the park was changed to Fox River Park to avoid confusion with the new, and much larger, Riverview Park that had been built in 1904 on a 74-acre site at Belmont and Western in Chicago.

1911 FR Riverview Park boats

A bridge connected the small island just offshore in the Fox River with the rest of the park, providing a place for visitors to enjoy boating. (Little White School Museum collection)

Area residents made frequent use of the park, not only to take advantage of the permanent attractions, but also to attend the annual Chautaquas held there every summer that drew some of the era’s best-known speakers. In 1903, speakers included Wisconsin Gov. Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, U.S. Rep. Champ Clark of Missouri, and labor leader Eugene V. Debs. Subsequent years’ Chautaquas featured such well-known personalities as African-American author and educator Booker T. Washington and fire and brimstone evangelist (and former baseball player) Billy Sunday.

1911 FR Park shoot the chutes close

Adventurous visitors could ride the shoot the chutes down a steep incline into the Fox River. (Little White School Museum collection)

Residents could rent space in tents on the park grounds and stay for however long that year’s event ran. Most Fox River Park Chautaquas had a ten-day or two-week run.

The concept became so popular that the area’s black residents decided to hold their own event, apparently a novel thing in those de facto segregated days. The July 5, 1911 Record announced that: “You are cordially invited to attend the first Chautauqua ever held by colored people in the north at Fox River Park Tuesday and Wednesday, July 11 and 12, 1911. Entertainment will include a grand concert of 200 voices of the A.M.E. [African Methodist Episcopal] churches of Chicago and baseball, Leland Giants of Chicago vs. Deppens of Atlanta, Ga., two of the greatest colored teams in America.”

1911 FR Park boating.jpg

This hand-colored 1903 postcard showing visitors boating at Riverview Park almost looks like it was a French impressionist painting. (Little White School Museum collection)

By the 1920s, however, the park’s facilities were getting rundown. The area’s new roads and the increasing use of automobiles meant that those visiting along the banks of the Fox were not only local folks riding to the park on trolley cars. As the Record reported on Sept. 15, 1920: “Sheriff Hextell arrested three men from Chicago Sunday for operating a chuck-a-luck game at Fox River Park. They had driven out from the city and were in the midst of their gambling when the sheriff nabbed them. They were fined $25 and costs each before Magistrate Skinner Monday and the sheriff has some of their diamonds as security for the fines, to be paid the last of the week. Through the efforts of Sheriff Hextell, the park has been remarkable free from gambling. This is only one of many instances when Hextell has brought in gamblers from the park.”

In fact, Henry Ford’s idea to use an assembly line to produce inexpensive automobiles (he invented neither the assembly line nor the automobile but perfected both) affordable by working families eventually killed the interurban trolley industry, along with their associated amusement parks as collateral damage. Autos for the first time gave common people the freedom to travel previously enjoyed only by the rich, and distant attractions proved more popular than small homegrown amusement parks.

As the quality of the park declined, so, apparently did its clientele. On July 6, 1921, a Record editorial complained: “It is time the people of Kendall county woke up to the realization of the moral character of Fox River Park. The sheriff has done his best with what he has to work with to keep order in the place. It is time for Kendall county officials to get some action and protect the morals of the county as well as the reputation of their legal representative, Sheriff Hextell.”

In the end, it turned out Ford’s Model T’s were more potent as moral guardians than the county sheriff, and due to the economics of the situation, both the interurban trolley line and Fox River Park were abandoned in 1925.

Today, the stately hardwood trees shading the old vacant AT&T plant grounds are all that remain of the park enjoyed by so many during those summers more than a century ago.

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Filed under Aurora, Business, entertainment, Environment, Fox River, History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Transportation

Prizefights, Vice Presidents, and trolleys: When rails connected us to everywhere else…

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.

1949 Fox River Branch steam loco

A steam locomotive pulls a train on the CB&Q’s Fox River Branch in 1949.

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.

1890 abt Depot

Passengers wait for the next train at the Oswego Depot about the same year Bull Howson and Tom Ryan and their fans and promoters arrived for an illegal prizefight in 1891. Station agent Henry G. Smith is standing in shirtsleeves fourth from the left. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

1903 (abt) Trolley S. on Main

In this 1903 photo, the AE&C trolley has just dropped off two ladies and is heading south on Main Street towards Yorkville. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

1915 Trolley AE&C livery

There was no missing the brightly painted AE&C interurban trolley cars as they rattled up and down the line from Aurora to Yorkville.

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.”

1942 Dinky at Streator

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s passenger motor car gets ready for a run from Streator up the Fox River Branch to Aurora in this 1942 photo.

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.

Dinky plan

The CB&Q’s passenger motor car designed crammed a passenger section (with smoking section), a baggage/freight compartment, and a U.S. Railway Mail Service post office into it’s 78-foot length. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

1943 Train-Dinky Wreck 2 B&W

The crumpled and gutted wreckage of the Dinky after the April 1943 collision with a steam engine between Montgomery and Oswego near the site of today’s Oswegoland Civic Center in Boulder Hill. (Little White School Museum collection)

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.

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Filed under Business, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Oswego, People in History, Transportation

U.S. Mail was the Internet of the 1830s

James Herrington apparently enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the tavern business, because he was extraordinarily good at it. But not only was he Geneva’s first and most successful early tavern keeper, but was also the person who lobbied successfully for the Kane County village’s first post office.

In fact, the post office was awarded even before the town had settled on its permanent name. Herrington had begun referring to the new settlement as La Fox, and when its first post office was granted March 12, 1836 at his urging, it was named La Fox. Geneva wouldn’t receive its permanent—and modern—name for three more months, and the postal service wouldn’t officially change the post office name until 1850.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

John Short built the Bristol House as his home, post office, and stagecoach inn. It was just one of several similar facilities sprinkled along stagecoach routes west of Chicago.

Like Herrington, John Short in Bristol (now the north side of Yorkville here in Kendall County) also operated a combination tavern and post office, as did Levi Hills in Lisbon, and many other tavern-keepers throughout our region of northern Illinois.

Early on, the federal government realized reliable communication within and between regions of the country was vital to the new nation’s growth and to an informed electorate. In those pre-railroad and pre-telegraph days, that meant total reliance on the mails, either carried privately or by the national postal service.

One of the first things the Federal government did, once it was firmly established, was to create an official definition for the mail. Starting with the first post office department under Benjamin Franklin, the mail was defined as anything carried in the official portmanteau, a large satchel secured with a special lock. Only postmasters were entrusted with a key for this lock; without the key, the postmaster was, simply not a postmaster because he could neither accept nor send the mail.

While official mail was carried in the portmanteau, unofficial communications were carried outside the portmanteau—outside the mail. Some of the earliest debates in Congress concerned what was to be considered part of the official mail (carried in the portmanteau) and what wasn’t.

1830s-arrival-of-the-stage

The arrival of the mail stage was always an exciting event in pioneer communities in northern Illinois since they brought newspapers, letters, and passengers.

With the passage of the Post Office Act of 1792, Congress began settling that debate. Besides having a tremendous impact on the economic growth of the new nation, the act had a momentous impact on the settlement and, later, the economic development of the Old Northwest Territory. Among the Act of 1792’s most important provisions were:

+++Congress’s assumption of the power to establish post offices and post routes. Previously, the Post Office Department had established post routes on its own. With Congress’s involvement, it was assured the number of post offices would greatly and quickly expand due to constituents’ political pressure;

+++Mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. Previously, newspapers were carried outside the mail—outside the official portmanteau. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to maintain an informed electorate; and

+++Establishing the legal basis for the symbiotic relationship between the post office and stagecoach companies for the delivery of the mail. By the 1830s, the stage companies were virtually quasi-public arms of the federal government. In fact, if a stagecoach company lost the government mail contract, government regulations required all of its rolling stock and horses had to be sold to the new contractor.

Combined, these provisions assured the astonishing success of the government’s first venture into information technology—efficiently delivering the private and business communications and news the mails contained. And each provision had a profound effect on the settlement and development of northern Illinois.

Two years after the War of 1812 ended and still feeling the war’s effects, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1814, with the aim of further strengthening the nation’s mail delivery. Among its provisions, the law mandated mail service had to be extended to any county courthouse. Included were existing courthouses—county seats—and those contemplated in the future. With the Northwest Territory beginning to be divided into states (Illinois would become a state just four years later), this provision proved essential to settlement. Once a county was established, it was certain it would receive mail service through at least one location, the county seat, no matter how small or how isolated that county seat was.

Postmaster General John McLean, who took office in 1823, instituted a number of innovations that, by 1830, made the U.S. Post Office the world’s most effective postal delivery system. It was McLean’s decision to rely on private stage contractors to carry the mail instead of using government equipment and employees. Along with the stage delivery system, McLean perfected and expanded the “hub and spoke” sorting system originally adopted in 1800. The system relied on central distribution offices—hubs—that supplied a number of satellite “common” post offices via the spokes.

While post offices were vital to the growth of the region, sending mail was an expensive proposition in those years. Regular postal rates remained constant from 1825 to 1838, but the rates themselves were high in comparison to the cost of living at that time. A single sheet letter mailed up to 30 miles was six cents. The cost went up to 10 cents if mailed from 30 to 80 miles, 12-1/2 cents for 80 to 150 miles; 18-3/4 cents for 150 to 400 miles; and 25 cents for a single sheet mailed more than 400 miles. Two sheet letters cost double to mail, while the postage was tripled for a single sheet that weighed more than an ounce.

A collection of letters in the archives at the Little White School Museum here in Oswego confirms that postal rates continued unchanged for some years, and also suggests how effective the postal service was in maintaining communications between the frontier and the settled areas in the old colonies.

In December 1843, James Sheldon Barber arrived in Oswego after an 800-mile journey with a wagon train from Smyrna, N.Y. On Dec. 17, he wrote back to his parents describing his journey and his current circumstances. The single sheet letter, datelined Oswego, is marked with 25 cents postage.

1843-12-17-barber-letter

James Sheldon Barber’s December 1843 letter home from Oswego to his parents in tiny Smyrna, NY. The creases left behind when Barber folded the letter origami-like into an envelope, complete with triangular flap closed with red sealing wax. (Little White School Museum collections)

From accounts in Carlyle R Buley’s The Old Northwest: Pioneer Period, 1815-1840 (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1978), and elsewhere, it appears the letters Barber sent to New York are typical of the era. Each is written on a single 10×16-inch sheet of good rag paper folded in half to create a folio of four 8×10 inch pages. The text of each letter is written on three of the pages. The fourth page is devoted to the letter’s exterior that, when folded with origami-like complexity, turned it into a compact 2.5 x 5 inch packet complete with an envelope-like triangular flap on the back, which was fixed with red sealing wax.

One of the most remarkable things about Barber’s letters is his certainty they would be transported east from the Illinois frontier and faithfully delivered in a timely manner at his parents’ home in a small hamlet in upstate New York. At the time, Kendall County was just two years old. Oswego Township had been settled for only 10 years and the village had yet to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding. But even from such a presumably rough and tough frontier region, Barber’s letters made it back to his former home.

1840s-stage-road-map

Major post roads in the Fox River Valley area of northern Illinois from the mid-1830s through the early 1850s.

By the time Barber was sending his letters home, mail routes throughout northern Illinois were well defined. Mail delivery in what are now the 24 counties of northern Illinois (there are more now than back then) had begun adjacent to the Mississippi River when the first post office was established June 6, 1825 and named Fever River (after the small tributary on which the settlement was located), only to be renamed Galena in 1826. Rock Island, located on the Mississippi itself, got its post office in September of the same year. Both offices became major distribution hubs.

But while the first two post offices in northern Illinois relied heavily on river transport for mail delivery, nine other post offices were established in the region before the next one (Ottawa) that mainly relied on river transport. Clearly, the region’s growing road system was becoming more vital to the delivery of the mail as new roads connected the county seats and other settlements in the growing region. In fact, by following the creation of post offices, a person can fairly easily follow the evolution of the region’s road system linking its major developing towns.

Around Galena, the postal system was gradually expanded, with Apple River granted an office in 1828 and Ogee’s Ferry—later Dixon—getting its office in 1829. Both Dixon and Apple River were branches that relied on the Galena hub.

As an illustration of how quickly the northwest corner of Illinois was developing during that era, and how unimportant the rest of the northern part of the state was, Jo Daviess County boasted seven of the first 11 post offices established in northern Illinois.

1845-frink-walker-offices

Frink, Walker & Company’s general stagecoach office at the southwest corner of Dearborn and Lake Street in Chicago is where many of the mail routes of the 1840s west of Lake Michigan began. Frink and Walker eventually controlled virtually all the stagecoach traffic in the upper Midwest.

In March of 1831, Chicago finally got its post office, following the establishment of Cook County in January of 1831, with mail delivered on horseback from the hub at Detroit, then the nearest post office. In 1832, mail delivery was weekly from Detroit via a one-horse wagon. The next year, 1833, a two-horse post wagon delivered the mail. Not until regular four-horse stage service started in 1834 did Chicago’s mail arrive more than once a week.

Chicago remained the only post office in northeast Illinois until Ottawa was granted its post office in December 1832, suggesting growth was outstripping the post office’s ability to establish new offices. LaSalle County, of which Ottawa was the seat of government, had been established in January of 1831, meaning it took nearly two years for the town’s post office to be granted.

Chicago and Ottawa were officially linked by a state road in 1833, although it’s likely mail was carried on horseback from the Chicago office to Ottawa beginning in 1832. In 1833, the post office at Juliet (later renamed Joliet) and the DuPage post office, which was located in the extreme northeast corner of Section 19 of DuPage Township, Will County, were both established as Chicago branches. DuPage was a regular stop on the High Prairie Trail from Ottawa to Chicago. Plainfield didn’t get its post office—another branch—until January of 1834, followed in April by the post office at Holderman’s Grove, also on the High Prairie Trail. The post office at Holderman’s was the first in what would, in 1841, become Kendall County.

As settlers began filling the area between the Fox River and Lake Michigan, more branch post offices were established on the region’s major thoroughfares using the Ottawa and Chicago hubs. Cass post office in Downers Grove Township on the High Prairie Trail, Brush Hill post office on the Galena and Ottawa roads, and Naperville were established in 1834, 1835, and 1836, respectively. Aurora and Oswego both got their post offices in 1837.

Montgomery was reportedly on the list to receive its post office in 1837, but the McCarty brothers, Samuel and Joseph, Aurora’s founders, appropriated the post route to Galena. According to at least one history, Montgomery was in line to get its post office, but Aurora supporters were able to somehow delay the delivery of the official postmaster’s key to the Montgomery postmaster. Without the key, of course, the official portmanteau could not be opened, ergo no mail delivery. Meanwhile, the McCarty brothers used their political connections to expedite the application for their own post office. At the same time, Aurora boosters improved the trail from Naperville to Aurora (today’s Aurora Avenue and East New York Street) by bridging the numerous wetlands that lay between the two settlements in the timber—called the Big Woods—that stretched from one to the other. The McCartys also promised the stagecoach company hauling mail over the route that they’d provide free room and board for the stage driver and would also put the coach’s four-horse team up free of charge. The result was that Montgomery lost its first chance for a post office and their direct access to the Galena Road at the same time.

In 1908, when Aurora citizens were polled on what they considered the “principal events in the history of Aurora,” right near the top of the list was “The getting of the post office at Aurora away from Montgomery.”

1840-arrivals-of-the-mails

On June 26, 1840, Ottawa Postmaster M.E. Hollister announced updated mail schedules and routes, including the modified Fox River Trail route from Ottawa north to LaFox–now Geneva in this advertisement published in Ottawa’s weekly newspaper, the  Illinois Free Trader.

Lisbon, in southern Kendall County, had gotten its post office in 1836, thanks to Levi Hills moving the log post office/tavern from Holderman’s Grove six miles out onto the prairie along the High Prairie Trail. Farther west on the Galena Road, Little Rock post office was established in 1837, followed that same year by the post office at Newark.

Meanwhile, at LaFox (Geneva), Herrington operated the post office in his home/tavern. In 1837, mail to LaFox first came from Naperville, and later that year from Aurora. But then in early June 1840, LaFox got its own mail delivery when it became the terminus of a new route up the west bank of the Fox River from Ottawa via Dayton, Northville, Penfield, Bristol, and Aurora to LaFox every Friday.

But just a couple weeks later, the route changed. On June 26, Ottawa Postmaster M.E. Hollister announced the mail up the Fox River Trail would be delivered three times a week—Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. He also announced a route change, with the addition of Oswego to the list. The mail traveled up the west side of the Fox River to the Oswego ford across the Fox, and then north along the East River Road (today’s Ill. Route 25) through Aurora to LaFox

Interestingly enough, many of those post offices established during the go-go settlement years of the 1830s are still in business, continuing to serve their communities 180 years later. And every time you drop a letter in the mail in Oswego or Aurora or Geneva, you’re participating in a bit of the region’s long and fascinating post office history.

 

 

 

 

 

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William Walker: Miner, merchant, soldier, politician

When the Civil War broke out, one of the earliest volunteer military units formed in the Fox Valley was the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment, comprised of men from communities up and down the Fox River.

Although some of the companies raised by well-known citizens originally carried such martial names as the Elgin Guards and the Wayne Rifles, when they were mustered into federal service in the summer of 1861 the companies were renamed with letter designations.

Here in Kendall County, Company D, originally named the Wayne Rifles, was raised in Lisbon by Dr. William P. Pierce; Company E in Little Rock and Bristol, by Charles D. Fish and Albert M. Hobbs; Company F in Newark, by Porter C. Oleson; and Company I, the Oswego Rifles, in Oswego, by Samuel C. Camp and William Walker.

Greusel, Col Nicholas

Col. Nicholas Greusel, commanding officer of the 36th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, was not impressed with William Walker’s military qualifications.

Oswego was the county seat at the time, and Camp and Walker were two of the community’s solidest citizens.

Camp, a Connecticut native, was a prominent lawyer. Walker, a harness maker by trade and an auctioneer by avocation, was the kind of colorful character who knew everyone. According to the regimental history of the 36th, his persuasive gift of gab was primarily responsible for filling out Company I’s roster.

But after the companies arrived at Camp Hammond in Montgomery for training, arming, and equipping, the commanding officer of the 36th, 44 year-old Nicholas Greusel, decided neither Camp nor Walker—who was the company’s 1st lieutenant—were the people he wanted in command of Company I. He engineered Walker’s resignation in February 1862 and Camp’s in March.

Greusel, a native of Bavaria who immigrated to the U.S. as a youngster in 1834, and who went on to serve as an officer in the Mexican War of 1846, was apparently looking for officers with military experience, and neither Camp nor Walker, while popular with the troops, had any. And by all accounts, Walker didn’t get along with Greusel, either.

Born in Tompkins County, N.Y. in 1833, Walker came with his parents to Illinois when he was a child.

At the relatively young age of 16, Walker joined a party of 24 Illinois Forty-Niners and headed to the California gold fields. Things went fine until the group got to the North Platte River where Indians stole all of their horses, horse stealing being the national sport of the plains tribes. Losing their means of transport demoralized the party and they all turned back except for Walker and his friend Thatcher, who decided to continue west on foot.

After an arduous journey, they arrived at the new Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City, where they were lucky enough to find work to build up their cash reserves before heading to California. But when the good Mormon folks of Salt Lake City found out the two were non-Mormons from Illinois (where the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, had been murdered by a lynch mob in the Carthage jail), they immediately forced the pair to leave.

The two eventually found temporary refuge with a band of Maidu Indians (called Diggers by American settlers), where they were able to at least survive if not prosper on a diet of snakes, roots, and berries. But they kept their goal to get to the gold fields firmly in mind and after a grueling trip afoot, during which they met the famed frontiersman Jim Bridger, they miraculously managed to reach San Francisco.Vigilante justice in San Francisco

William Walker was one of the first to join the San Francisco Committee on Vigilance, which aimed to clean up the raucous city in the near-complete absence of organized law enforcement.

 

Walker took up mining at first, but then decided he could make as much, if not more, money selling miners the things they needed, and so went into the mercantile business. San Francisco was a lawless frontier town at the time, infested with the sorts of miscreants who turn up in boomtowns all over the world. Deciding to help put an end to the violence, he helped found the San Francisco Committee on Vigilance, which cleaned up the town without paying too much attention to legal niceties.

By then, Walker had also managed to make a fortune, but all of it was wiped out by a bank failure. And that was apparently the last straw for Walker because he left California, never to return. Sailing back around the Horn to the East Coast, Walker then headed overland back west to Illinois one more time, this time settling in Oswego. There, on Nov. 23, 1859, he married Philetta, the 19 year-old daughter of prosperous Bristol Township farmer Ansel Kimball.

In Oswego, the couple had two sons while Walker pursued his trade of harness-making and also become a popular auctioneer. Whether it was Walker or Samuel Camp who got the idea to recruit an Oswego company for the new 36th Illinois, with his connections through his own businesses and his wife’s prominent family, it was no surprise he was able to quickly recruit Company I to full strength.

1862 Murdock & Pooley

Alfred X. Murdock (left) and William Pooley were both young Oswego men who served under Capt. William Walker in Company A, 127th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Both were killed in action after Walker relinquished command  during the Battle of Ezra Church. (Little White School Museum collection)

After Greusel orchestrated his removal from the 36th, Walker bided his time until, later in 1862, it was announced a new regiment—the 127th—was being formed in Chicago, with recruitment taking place up and down the Fox Valley. Joining this time with Oswego businessman William Fowler, Walker helped recruit Company A to full strength before it was mustered in at Camp Douglas in Chicago. Company A was one of three recruited in Kendall County, the others being Companies F and K, both raised in Little Rock and Bristol townships. In all, about 240 Kendall County men enlisted in the 127th.

As had been the case in the 36th’s Company I, Walker was elected 1st lieutenant of Company A in the 127th. And when Fowler resigned in December 1862 due to medical problems that would plague him the rest of his life, Walker was promoted to captain and command of Company A. He led Company A until Dec. 1864, seeing hard fighting with the 127th. During his service, he was wounded twice, once in the head by a shell fragment and again in the leg during hand-to-hand combat with a Confederate officer.

Walker transferred to the 23rd Reserve Corps in February 1864, and went on to serve for two years after the war in the U.S. Army, where he was assigned to oversee the ordinance stores at St. Louis.

After he resigned his commission, William and Philetta moved west from Illinois to West Liberty, Iowa, and then on to Beloit, Kansas and finally to Scandia, Kansas where, in 1881, he built that community’s first grain elevator and got involved in Democratic politics. He served two terms as Scandia’s mayor, oversaw building the Scandia City Hall, and served as postmaster, but was never able to repeat the financial success he enjoyed during the Gold Rush.

Walker died on Aug. 20, 1906 in Scandia. In an Oct. 6, 1906 obituary written by one-time friend and Kendall County Record Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank, Walker was described as “positive in his opinions and erratic in the methods of their support, strongly Democratic and prominent in the councils of his party; always found plenty of opposition and thrived upon it. Enjoying life to the full, he liked to see others happy and many were gladdened by his unobtrusive acts of kindness; was incorruptibly honest, it is not believed that a tainted dollar ever passed through his hands.

“Intensely religious by nature, he studied the scriptures with ardor and persistency, but looked not for the light in them; passed the beauties of the Ecclesiastes and dwelt upon Solomon’s Song, made a mountain of David’s sins but missed the Sermon on the Mount. A free-thinker by profession, he strove to maintain his position by arguments with others.

“His heart was big and open and intensely warm, especially toward little children and these will miss him most. He was steadfast in his friendships but bitter in his enmity toward those who had offended,” his obituary concluded.

William Walker was one more of those fascinating, anonymous characters who stroll in and fade out of the stories of every community, playing parts in events great and mundane. They are the stories that make learning about local history so much shear fun.

 

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Main Street isn’t always a main street…

As I suggested in my last post, Oswego’s downtown business district is located on Main Street, a pretty American sort of thing for a town. But there are a surprising number of towns, large and small, where the main business district is not located on Main Street—supposing they have a Main Street at all.

Main Street–now East Galena Boulevard–in downtown Aurora about 1940.

Main Street–now East Galena Boulevard–in downtown Aurora about 1940.

Take Aurora for instance, Illinois’ second city with a population of about 200,000. Downtown Aurora’s main business district—although a shadow of its former self—stretches along Broadway, not Main Street. In fact, Aurora has no Main Street any more. It used to have a Main Street many years ago, a commercial street that crossed Broadway at one of the city’s busiest intersections, but the name was changed to East Galena Boulevard a long time ago. Not so long that my mother, who was born and raised mostly in the East Side’s “Dutchtown” German ethnic neighborhood, didn’t often forget and call it Main Street fairly often before her death in the late 1980s. Today, about the only reminder the city used to have a Main Street is the old Main Street Baptist Church, located on East Galena.

Just to our north is Montgomery, tucked between Aurora and Oswego along the banks of the Fox River. Montgomery indeed has a Main Street, but it’s not really a main street, if you get my drift. Instead, Montgomery’s real main street is actually two streets, River and Webster. Montgomery, even more than Oswego, suffered from its close proximity to Aurora, which discouraged the development of a true retail business district. Instead, stores were sort of strung out along River and Webster streets—and not many of them at that. Main Street, meanwhile, runs perpendicular to Webster Street. On its south end, it’s a mostly residential street. North of Webster, Main Street is dominated by the Lyon Metal Products, Inc. factory and some other quasi-industrial properties before it reverts back to a residential area.

Plano's Main Street, laid out from the beginning with stores facing the railroad tracks, is still its main downtown retail street.

Plano’s Main Street, laid out from the beginning with stores facing the railroad tracks, is still its main downtown retail street.

Among Kendall County’s other municipalities, Plano can be considered one with a real main Main Street, and that’s despite the city growing up as a railroad town. Classic railroad towns have their business district stores facing the tracks. Often, there are streets on either side of the tracks, each with blocks of stores facing the tracks—as long as they were designed from the ground up as railroad towns, as Plano definitely was. Lewis Steward had promised the promoters of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad that if they extended their tracks through the extensive land he owned that he’d create a city. Which he did. Plano’s Main Street is laid out north of and parallel to the CB&Q’s main line, with blocks of storefronts laid out on the north side of the street facing the tracks so rail travelers could clearly see them.

With its stores facing the railroad tracks, Plano’s design theory was much like Oswego’s, although when Oswego was laid out by Lewis B. Judson and Levi F. Arnold in 1835, the major mode of transportation was the stagecoach. Therefore the stores were laid out facing Main Street, which was part of the western branch of the well-traveled Chicago to Ottawa Trail, running west southwest from Chicago through Naperville to Oswego and then southwest to Ottawa.

Newark, in far southwest Kendall County, was located on the same mail stage route as Oswego. As a result, Newark’s Main Street, laid out along the Chicago to Ottawa Trail, was also the heart of the village’s retail district. Like Oswego’s, Newark’s stores faced Main Street in an effort to appeal to stage travelers.

Sandwich's main business district street is Railroad Street, with its stores and hotel facing the tracks. Meanwhile, Main Street in Sandwich runs perpendicular to the tracks and has not been an important retail area since the railroad arrived in the 1850s.

Sandwich’s main business district street is Railroad Street, with its stores and hotel facing the tracks. Meanwhile, Main Street in Sandwich runs perpendicular to the tracks and has not been an important retail area since the railroad arrived in the 1850s.

Sandwich, located just across the Kendall County border in DeKalb County, is an interesting example of a town that predated the arrival of the railroad, but which, nonetheless, ended up looking like a traditional railroad town–except for the fact that Sandwich’s Main Street runs perpendicular to the CB&Q rail line. When the rails arrived in the 1850s, the village’s fathers simply changed the emphasis of its business district from Main Street to the aptly named Railroad Street. Main Street still exists as a connector without much commercial impact.

Then there’s Yorkville, the Kendall County seat, which has two Main Streets, neither of which are mercantile hubs. Yorkville started out as two adjoining villages, Bristol and Yorkville. Each of the towns were platted with their own Main Streets, Bristol’s running east-west, and Yorkville’s running north-south, each hoping to be the center of the retail trade in their towns. Instead, however, the bulk of retail businesses quickly located along Bridge Street, which ran north-south across the Fox River bridge.

Bridge Street in Yorkville became the home of business districts on both north and south sides of the Fox River thanks to the bridge crossing the Fox River. That left Yorkville with two Main Streets, one on each side of the river, one running north-south, the other east-west.

Bridge Street in Yorkville became the home of business districts on both north and south sides of the Fox River thanks to the bridge crossing the Fox River. That left Yorkville with two Main Streets, one on each side of the river, one running north-south, the other east-west.

On the south side of the river in Yorkville, Bridge Street provided access up to Courthouse Hill, where the county courthouse was built in 1864.  South of the river, in Bristol, Bridge Street ran past the city square park donated by Lyman Bristol and past several businesses located there to tap the trade on its way across the river.

The two Main Streets were eventually relegated to use as residential areas. In the 1957, the two villages merged into the United City of Yorkville, and the two Main Streets remained as historical artifacts, creating the interesting, and possibly unique, situation of Yorkville residents now enjoying North, South, East, and West Main Streets.

Which really does go to show that Main Street isn’t always a main street.

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A Saturday trip up Memory Lane, Part 2…

Having traveled the route north on Ill. Route 25 thousands of times during my life, it occurred to me last Saturday as I drove it once again that the route is rife with stories, both historical and nostalgic.

Aerial shot taken by Bev Skaggs in the spring of 1959 of the construction of Paul Egan's By-Pass bridge and Boulder Hill Playhouse. It's lack of sharpness is more than made up for by it's subject matter. (Little White School Museum collection)

Aerial shot taken by Bev Skaggs in the spring of 1959 of the construction of Paul Egan’s By-Pass bridge and Boulder Hill Playhouse. Its lack of sharpness is more than made up for by it’s subject matter. (Little White School Museum collection)

In the previous post, I had made it to the bridge carrying U.S. Route 30 over Route 25 and the Fox River beside it. And that’s where we pick up with this post driving up Memory Lane, right where Aurora Mayor Paul Egan’s former U.S. Route 30 By-Pass crosses the river valley. Egan championed the road, which bypassed downtown Aurora, where Route 30 used to go, to get the growing volume of through truck traffic away from the city’s business district. Although Egan was labeled a nut by his political enemies, his vision concerning By-Pass Route 30 was sound. It was a big success. Eventually, the “By-Pass” part of the name was dropped, as was the “Business Route 30” designation of Galena Boulevard through downtown Aurora, and today the bypass is regular Route 30, the fabled Lincoln Highway.

Route 25 crosses under U.S. Route 30 at the north end of the original Boulder Hill development before passing the Bereman mansion still perched up on the eastern brow of the Fox Valley ridge. John Bereman made his fortune selling freckle cream to complexion-obsessed late Victorian women. He bought hundreds of acres of farmland along the River Road containing several farmsteads, calling the whole operation Boulder Hill Stock Farm—namesake of the modern subdivision. Rumor has it he picked the location of the house because it overlooked an island in the Fox River where a high-class house of ill repute was located in summer months, which men enjoyed while their wives and children cavorted at Fox River Park.

Gray's Bridge at what was then Graytown, eventually Montgomery, as it looked in 1838 when U.S. surveyors passed through. The road from Chicago to Galena crossed the river on the bridge until Aurora officials persuaded officials to move it to pass through Aurora. (State of Illinois Township Survey Map collection)

Gray’s Bridge at what was then Graytown, eventually Montgomery, as it looked in 1838 when U.S. surveyors passed through. The road from Chicago to Galena crossed the river on the bridge until Aurora officials persuaded officials to move it to pass through Aurora. (State of Illinois Township Survey Map collection)

Not far north of the Bereman House is the old location of Gray’s Bridge, one of the earliest bridges across the Fox River. Built by Daniel Gray, entrepreneur and founder of the village of Montgomery, the bridge was to carry stagecoach traffic on the old Chicago to Galena Road that went through Montgomery via the Fox River ford. Aurora tried every trick it could to lure the stage road (and the resulting post office) away from Montgomery, which it succeeded in doing, striking a fatal blow at Montgomery’s development, one from which it has never really recovered.

From the site of Gray’s bridge north to the modern bridge across the Fox in Montgomery, the banks of the river noticeably change, turning more artificial looking, the result of a cockamamie scheme to dredge the river and build a series of more than a dozen low dams to create a navigable motorboat channel from the Illinois River at Ottawa all the way north to the Chain o’ Lakes. One dam in the proposed series was built north of the bridge at Montgomery, where a coin-operated lock was supposed to allow boaters to pass up and down. The lock was never built, and the channel that was to serve it annually turns into a stagnant, sometimes septic mess in the summer.

But before we get to the dam, we drive past what used to be called the French Cemetery, whose modern official name is Sacred Heart Catholic Cemetery. For many years, it was the closest Catholic cemetery to Oswego and the rural area south of Montgomery, and so became the final resting place for most of the many French and French Canadian pioneers who came to the area, including the Hebert wagonwright family of Oswego and the Danos. At least one of the Dano sons became a Catholic priest.

Passing the east end of the Montgomery dam I note there are a number of anglers trying their luck. The dam is a good place to find early season walleyes, as well as smallmouth bass and the occasional northern pike—even a musky once in a while—at other seasons of the year.

We’re getting close to Aurora now, going through the Ashland Avenue intersection, past the Ashland Avenue bridge across the Fox that Aurora Township tried to valiantly a few years ago to persuade everyone it actually belonged to Aurora or the State of Illinois, bridge maintenance being an expensive proposition. Telling anyone who’d listen that it wasn’t their bridge and they had no idea why anyone would think it was didn’t work out, however. The bronze plaque on the bridge announcing it was built by Aurora Township probably didn’t help their case.

The car passes Spring Lake Cemetery, and I’m old enough to remember when there really was a lake there. Long drained, the old lake has become an expansion area of the landlocked cemetery for more graves. A number of my Tesch relatives are buried in Spring Lake, and I always give a mental tip of my hat to those old cousins as I pass.

Now we’re getting into Aurora proper. Workers’ cottages line Route 25—now also called South Broadway—most now home to Hispanic families. Time was, it was an overwhelmingly German neighborhood but times change. And then we pass the old Fruit Juice House. A sort of local franchise business, the Fruit Juice House had locations on South Broadway, over on what was once Route 30 and is now Hill Avenue, on the West Side on Farnsworth, and at other locations around Aurora. The business offered fresh-suqeezed orange and other juices, along with groceries, sort of like a mini-mart. But they also had some of the best ice cream ever, and a Fruit Juice House chocolate malt was a delicacy.

Aurora's "Burlington Box" brick depot was a bustling place in 1968 when this photo was snapped. It was demolished in 2013.

Aurora’s “Burlington Box” brick depot was a bustling place in 1968 when this photo was snapped. After being allowed to deteriorate, it was demolished in 2013.

Driving farther north, we pass the intersection with North Avenue with its tiny octagon house just around the corner and then past the vacant parcel that used to be home to the Aurora depot. The CB&Q built a lot of those pedestrian depots along their Main Line from east to west. Dubbed the “Burlington Box” style, the buildings were utilitarian if not exactly beautiful. Aurora’s depot was allowed to deteriorate until it had to be demolished. It was unfortunate; it would have made a great restaurant location.

I’m continuing north past the old Firestone tire dealer, and under the elevated CB&Q tracks. The Burlington Main Line used to run through Aurora at grade, but in 1920, the tracks were raised to remove them from conflict with surface motor transportation. The viaducts were great places, when we were hotrodding kids, to gun a thinly muffled engine to produce satisfying, echoing thunder.

This color postcard gives an idea of what a vibrant retail area thrived along Aurora's Broadway—Route 25—until Sears, Roebuck & Company led the move of major retailers away from the downtown to shopping centers.

This color postcard gives an idea of what a vibrant retail area thrived along Aurora’s Broadway—Route 25—until Sears, Roebuck & Company led the move of major retailers away from the downtown to shopping centers.

The mix of stores in downtown Aurora has greatly changed over the past 60 years. No more Ward & Jones furniture, no more Sears, Roebuck & Company (where so many farmers shopped for so much on so many Saturday nights). And no more Fagerholm’s where we bought Dinky Toys and great models (including my model of the Cutty Sark); no more Main Surplus across the street where you could get everything from a bowling ball and bag to army surplus web gear. The three five and dime stores, Grants, Woolworth’s, and Kresge’s are long gone as is the lunch counter at Kresge’s where you could get a great BLT.

Passing Galena Boulevard, we’re now on North Broadway to the intersection with New York Street. The old stage route from Naperville across the river to Dixon and on to Galena, the one Sam and Joe McCarty worked so hard to steal from Montgomery, followed sections of both New

Time was, the roundhouse and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops at Aurora turned out locomotives, freight cars, and cabooses for the entire railroad. The roundhouse, now transformed into a banquet center, brew pub and restaurant, is still a local landmark, though greatly repurposed.

Time was, the roundhouse and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops at Aurora turned out locomotives, freight cars, and cabooses for the entire railroad. The roundhouse, now transformed into a banquet center, brew pub and restaurant, is still a local landmark, though greatly repurposed.

York Street and Galena Boulevard. And now the Aurora Transportation Center is in view. The stately old roundhouse is no longer occupied by steam locomotives under construction but rather is the fine dining destination for many area residents. One of the old former CB&Q shop buildings houses the METRA station. My great-grandfather worked in the shops as a stationary steam engineer, while my grandfather worked there building cabooses and boxcars for almost 20 years.

Saturday, however, there were no locomotives in the roundhouse to be turned around or repaired, and the sprawling shops were long gone. Rather, I’m there picking up the grandtwins and my wife, who’ve enjoyed the day in Chicago seeing the dinos and mummys and fossils at the Field Museum and splashing in the fountain at Millennium Park.

I’ve done that drive so many times I can almost do it on automatic pilot these days, but I can never really forget all the stories. It isn’t just a scenic drive, you see, it’s a trip through history.

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Montgomery, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Transportation