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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.