It’s really no longer realistic to deny that climate change and the weather it’s causing are having major geopolitical effects.
Back in the early 2000’s, Syrian drought may have contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war that further destabilized the Middle East. And now, much warmer than usual winter temperatures in Europe are blunting Vladimir Putin’s attempt to blackmail NATO into stopping their support of Ukraine by cutting off natural gas supplies. Thanks to those warmer temperatures, Europe’s natural gas usage is so much lower than usual that its price is actually declining.
Meanwhile here in the U.S., climate change is creating extreme weather events that are happening far more often and that are far more destructive than in the past. And those of us old enough are watching the actual change in climate. Those snowy, sub-zero northern Illinois winters of our past have gradually given way to winters that feature some early low temperatures and snowfalls followed by generally milder late winters than in the past.
As you might think, then, climate also had some major effects on northern Illinois during the settlement era when the warming of the globe had started but wasn’t really noticeable, not to mention the lack of our modern cold weather gear, from Thinsulate gloves to comfy coats and insulated boots.
The 1830-1831 Winter of the Deep Snow plagued everyone in the Old Northwest, from the region’s Native People to the newly arrived White settlers then starting to move into the area. The aftermath of the privations the winter caused the region’s Native People may have even been one of the causes of 1832’s Black Hawk War. And while the following winter of 1832-1833 was not as hard, it was also a difficult one for the new arrivals out here on the northern Illinois prairies.
But Mother Nature wasn’t always trying to thrust misery on us humans. Sometimes the weather offered an unexpected boost. And that was the case in the new year of 1833.
As the county’s first historian, the Rev. E.W. Hicks, reported in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “The year 1833 opened out splendidly, as if to make amends for the hardships of the year before. The snow went away in February, and early in March the sheltered valleys and nooks by the groves were beautifully green, and by the end of the month, stock could live on the prairies anywhere. It was an exceedingly favoring Providence for the few pioneers who remained on their claims; for had the spring been cold and backward, much more suffering must have followed. The tide of emigration set in early, and in one summer more than trebled the population of the county.”
The extended Pearce family was among the first to arrive, rolling up on June 1 to the claims they’d staked the year before. The party consisted of Daniel, John, Walter, and Elijah Pearce and their brother-in-law, William Smith Wilson. Elijah and wife settled north a bit, on the east side of the Fox at what’s now Montgomery and so did their son-in-law, Jacob Carpenter. Daniel and his wife and children chose land along Waubonsie Creek where Fox Bend Golf Course and Windcrest Subdivision are now located in Oswego. Wilson, their brother-in-law built his cabin at what is now the busy “Five Corners” intersection in downtown Oswego where modern Ill. Route 25 and U.S. Route 34 meet. John and Walter, meanwhile, settled on the west side of the river.
Earl Adams and Ebenezer Morgan had staked their claims in what eventually became Kendall County in 1831, but were prevented from settling here in 1832 by the Black Hawk War. The two men and their families arrived in 1833, Adams at his claim on what is now Courthouse Hill in Yorkville and Morgan along the creek near Oswego bears his name.
Many of the earliest settlers who had been uprooted by the Black Hawk War also decided to return in 1833, setting back in their former homes, if they were still standing. George B. Hollenback moved from the site of his old store to a site not far away, thus becoming the first settler in what became Newark after being known for several years as Georgetown. John Doughtery and Walter Selvey came back to their claims, too.
Millwright John Schneider had helped Joseph Naper build his mill on the DuPage River at what eventually became Naperville. In 1833 he came farther west to the Fox Valley looking for a likely mill site. He found it at Blackberry Creek’s mouth on the Fox, and staked his claim with the intention of building a mill the next year.
New Yorkers John and William Wormley walked west from the Empire State and made their claims on the west side of the Fox River just above where Oswego would one day be located.
In May, a wagon train with Joel Alvard, William and Joseph Groom, Madison Goisline and Goisline’s brother-in-law, Peter Minkler, and their, families, along with Polly Alvard, a widow with two children, and two unmarried men, Edward Alvard and Jacob Bare, headed west from Albany County, N. Y., with the goal of settling in Tazewell County here in Illinois. It was an arduous journey as they battled through the infamous Black Swamp bordering Lake Erie to the south and then making the numerous river and wetland crossings here in Illinois. In the end, Peter Minkler decided to settle not far from what would become the Village of Oswego along the trail that today is a busy road carrying his family’s name.
Shortly after arriving, two of the Minkler party—Peter Minkler’s mother and his brother-in-law—both died. Old Mrs. Minkler’s death was blamed on the rigors of the trip west from New York, while his brother-in-law Madison Goisline accidentally shot himself in the shoulder while pulling his rifle out of his wagon, and soon died of infection.
Out in North Carolina, David Evans heard about the richness of northern Illinois from a friend who served with the U.S. Army during the Black Hawk War. Evans apparently came by river, down the Ohio and then up the Mississippi to the Illinois where he followed his friend’s directions up to Ottawa. From there, he followed the Fox River up to Big Rock Creek, and walked up the creek for a couple miles where he staked his claim, becoming the first settler in Little Rock Township. He built his cabin there and the next year brought his family west.
John Darnell, another North Carolinian, had settled with his parents and brothers in Marshall County, located about midway between LaSalle-Peru and Peoria in 1829. In 1833, hearing good things about the Fox River Valley, he came north and staked a claim in the timber along Little Rock Creek. The word he sent back to Marshall County was so enthusiastic that in 1834, his parents and five brothers all decided to settle here as well.
Meanwhile down in modern Seward Township, Hugh Walker had staked a claim, broke 10 acres of prairie sod and planted wheat in the spring of 1832, only to be run off by the Black Hawk War. He sold his claim to Chester House in 1833. The grove on the claim was soon named for the House family—the location of today’s House’s Grove Forest Preserve. Mrs. House was well-known for keeping a candle burning at night in their cabin’s west window as a guidepost for prairie travelers. “So level was the prairie, and so clear from underbrush and trees, that the feeble ‘light in the window’ could be seen for six or eight miles,” Hicks reported in 1877.
Vermonter John Shurtliff had arrived at Plainfield in 1831. In 1833, he moved west out onto the prairie about a mile from House’s claim, settling along AuSable Creek. Shurtliff hired early entrepreneur Peter Specie to break seven acres of prairie as a start, repaying Specie by driving his breaking team for a month.
Arriving around the same time was Daniel Platt, another New Yorker. In 1785, his family had established Plattsburgh in that state. He, however, decided to try his luck in the west, arriving in 1833. For $80, he bought “The Springs” from the Rev. William See—today’s Plattville—and thereby the Platts became the first settlers in Lisbon Township.
Meanwhile in today’s Big Grove Township, more New Yorkers arrived, this time from the hotbed of anti-slavery agitation, Oneida County. Brothers Eben and Levi Hills along with William Perkins and their families all arrived in 1833, Eben coming by wagon with the families and Levi and William came west via the lakes. It was still rare for lakes shipping traffic to arrive at Chicago in 1833 because the harbor wouldn’t be completed for another year. In 1833, in fact, only four ships arrived at Chicago. In 1834, however, the Federal Government financed digging a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River to create a safe harbor for ships. That led to an explosion of ship arrivals at Chicago, 250 in 1835, 456 in 1836 and the number continued to grow every year.
The year 1833 wasn’t memorable simply for all the families who arrived to settle out here on the prairies near the Fox River, however. The final treaty with the region’s Native People was signed in Chicago in 1833 that ceded their land east of the Mississippi River—and some west of the river, too—to the U.S. Government. Three years later, government officials backed by the U.S. Army moved the region’s Native Americans west and away from their ancestral lands.
And as the year came to a close, Mother Nature put on an astonishing light display for all the new settlers to look on with awe. On the Nov. 10, 1833, a huge meteor storm lit up the night sky in spectacular fashion the settlers named “The Night of the Falling Stars.”
“Those who saw it never forgot it to their dying day,” historian Hicks reported.
This year, we’re celebrating the 190th anniversary of that momentous “Year of the Early Spring” that brought so many of the Fox Valley’s first settlers west to Illinois. And interestingly enough, there are still plenty of descendants around these parts of some of the enterprising, intrepid folks who ventured out of the Eastern forests onto the tallgrass prairies of northern Illinois to make a better life for their families.
Some historians like to bicker about whether the driving force in history is people or events, in other words, do individuals create historical events or do historical events create significant individuals through their reactions to those events?
Actually, when you get right down to it, history doesn’t seem to be much more than a series of accidents and mistakes that combine to form a historical context lurching from one catastrophe to another. If that might be a trend in history, then the history of North America has certainly seems to have followed it.
The New World’s accidental history began as soon as Christopher Columbus weighed anchor on the coast of Spain and headed west across the Atlantic. This week, we commemorated the results of that voyage, which proved catastrophic for millions of Indigenous people in North, Central, and South America while creating opportunities for downtrodden people elsewhere on earth for the next five centuries.
When Columbus finally sighted land at the end of his voyage 530 years ago this week, he was positive he had discovered either China or India. But as one historian noted, he hadn’t even discovered Indiana.
Instead, Columbus landed on an island off the coast of what became known as the Americas but was so convinced he had reached the mysterious East that he named the inhabitants of his new discovery Indians, a name not a few of them have been trying to live down ever since.
It seems to have been, in fact, a fortunate thing that Columbus never actually found North, Central, or South America, given his murderous proclivities. The first people Columbus stumbled across were the Tainos, a peaceful bunch in which Columbus immediately saw possibilities. “They should be good servants,” he wrote in his journal. After which he instituted a brutal regime of torture, rape, and murder against them in order to steal whatever gold, silver, or other valuables that might have had.
After establishing a colony on the island of Hispaniola during his second voyage to the New World—and in direct violation of his orders from the Spanish monarchy—Columbus figured the numerous indigenous people living there would make fine slaves, and so he began shipping hundreds of them back to Spain, and enslaving thousands more on Hispaniola allowing Spaniards serving under him to rape, pillage, and murder.
As historian Samuel Elliott Morrison put it: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”
Alarmed by the reports they were receiving about the brutality of Columbus towards not only the Native People, but also Hispaniola’s European colonists after Columbus’s fourth voyage, the Spanish crown ordered an investigation. That led to Columbus’s arrest and return in chains to Spain where the authorities stripped him of his titles.
Despite Spain’s initial decision to treat Native People with respect and kindness, when it apparently occurred to them they didn’t have to worry about reciprocal attacks from organized Indian or Chinese armies, the ethical gloves came completely off. And the Spanish quickly came to consider all the Indigenous People as surplus population. Five hundred years before the Germans perfected the method, the Spanish practiced the Final Solution on entire peoples living in North, Central, and South America.
Although Columbus thought he’d found India or China (he remained convinced until his death), it quickly became apparent to others that a) there seemed to be a major error in their calculations of the diameter of the earth and b) there further seemed to be a large mass of land taking up all that space between Europe and Asia. Due to those miscalculations of the Earth’s diameter, those early explorers thought that what turned out to be North, Central, and South America was a narrow island. Stories of rich nations and cities just beyond the horizon, some undoubtedly concocted by Native People eager to see murderous, greedy Europeans go elsewhere, became a staple of the colonization of the New World.
So, when the French landed in Canada and began exploring to the west, they were sure they would soon reach China. In fact, a series of rapids on the St. Lawrence River was named La Chine because early colonists were sure China was just up the river a few miles beyond the rapids. With that as a precedent, every time a French adventurer took possession of land as the boundaries of exploration were pushed ever farther westward, it was with one eye on the Chinese. For instance, when the French seized the Sault Ste. Marie rapids leading from Lake Superior just before 1620, the official doing the taking had brought along rich robes for the ceremony because he was sure a few Chinese potentates would show up for the festivities.
The conviction that rich Asian markets lay just beyond next hill to the west drove two centuries’ worth of searches for the non-existent Northwest Passage. And unlike those homicidal Spanish conquistadors, the French generally tended to be more benign in their colonial treatment of Native People.
French geographer Louis Jolliet and Jesuit missionary and linguist Father Jacques Marquette, who were sent to discover whether the Mississippi River was a sort of Southwest Passage to the Pacific, both had high hopes of finding the long-sought route. Instead, they discovered the Mississippi didn’t flow southwest. Rather, they found, it headed pretty much directly south or slightly southeast to end up emptying into the Gulf of Mexico and not the Gulf of California as had been hoped.
The Jolliet-Marquette expedition had began in 1673 when Jolliet was commissioned to find out exactly where the Mississippi went given Native People insisted it led to a huge body of water. He and a few companions left Montreal and paddled up the Ottawa River following the old trade route the Chippewa and Ottawa people had blazed and perfected centuries before.
The party crossed Rainy Lake and portaged into Georgian Bay of Lake Huron, eventually arriving at the French post of St. Ignace. There they picked up Father Marquette, who was added to the expedition for his linguistic skills.
The party then paddled down the western shore of Lake Michigan to the Fox River of Wisconsin that emptied into Green Bay. Paddling up the Fox, they portaged to the Wisconsin River at the site of today’s Portage, Wis., and then followed the Wisconsin down to its mouth on the Mississippi.
During their voyage down the Mississippi, Jolliet made navigational observations until, upon reaching the mouth of the Arkansas River, he realized the Mississippi had to flow into the Gulf of Mexico not the Gulf of California. In addition, at the mouth of the Arkansas, they were welcomed by an Indian village whose residents were using Spanish trade goods. That was alarming because Spain and France were quarreling at the time, creating a potentially unhealthy atmosphere for the French explorers.
So the expedition turned around and paddled back north. Reaching the mouth of the Illinois River, they were advised by some helpful Native People the smaller river was a shortcut to the Great Lakes, so they became the first Europeans to explore the Illinois River Valley. Both Jolliet and Marquette commented on the rich prairie land they saw during their voyage north, and both correctly predicted the territory would prove to be a productive farming region.
Father Marquette lived just one more year before dying on the lonely Lake Michigan coastline near modern Marquette, Mich.
Jolliet was within sight of Montreal when his canoe upset in some rapids and he lost all of the journals and maps he had made during the expedition. However, he reconstructed much of the information, and that eventually caught the attention of Robert René Cavalier, Seur de la Salle, who concocted a grand scheme for the settlement of the lands Jolliet and Marquette had first explored as well as lands along the south shore of Lake Michigan east of the Chicago River.
And so it came to pass that nearly 200 years after Columbus landed, LaSalle finally discovered Indiana.
It would have been a grand sight, seeing voyageurs paddling their canoes down the Fox River here in what’s now northern Illinois as the winter fur-trapping season ended. The water sparkling as it dripped off their red-tipped paddles, the voyageur crews’ colorful costumes contrasting with the flowing water, and the French paddling songs drifting on the breeze would have been spectacular, wouldn’t it?
If it had actually happened, yes, it would have been pretty spectacular.
But the truth is, the Fox River has always been a shallow, although wide, stream whose water levels varied widely, making navigation iffy at best during most of the year and downright impossible the rest of the time.
Every spring for well over a century, brigades of huge 35 to 40-foot freight canoes—called canots du maître (master canoes) or Montreal canoes—set off from Montreal and Quebec, each canoe laden with some three tons of goods destined for fur trading posts all over the Great Lakes region—and beyond. The route started just above the Lachine Rapids at Montreal on the Ottawa River. Paddling upstream via a number of often dangerous and usually difficult portages on the Ottawa, the arduous route then ran up the small Mattawa River, where paddling upstream ended at its source on Trout Lake and crossed the height of land where streams began flowing into Lake Huron. From there it was down into Lake Nipissing and then into the French River for 70 miles of easy paddling downstream into Georgian Bay and Lake Huron for the sometimes stormy paddle to the fur trade depot of Michilimackinac at the straits between lakes Huron and Michigan.
There, the goods were broken down into smaller cargoes for smaller 20 to 25-foot north canoes that were handier on the inland trade routes to the actual post of traders, such as the one at Chicago and posts on the Illinois River. The main route to get to the Illinois Country was via the Chicago portage—which, depending on how full or empty the Des Plaines River was could be up to 60 miles long—or the St. Joseph River east of Chicago.
To get to the Chicago portage, the brigades had to paddle right past the mouth of the Root River just south of today’s Milwaukee in modern Wisconsin, a short portage from which led to the headwaters of our Fox River—which is not to be confused with the Fox River that empties into Green Bay. So the Root-Fox route would have cut off some distance to reach the Illinois River, but the Fox usually wasn’t deep enough. Not that fur traders never used it, of course, but it seems as a regular route on the fur trade highway, it was a very, very minor player indeed.
In fact, the only account we have of a French party considering using the Fox as a shortcut from Lake Michigan to the Illinois River post at Le Rocher—Starved Rock—ended with the French missionaries and the boatmen transporting them to their destination in central Illinois deciding to go on to Chicago instead of chancing finding deep enough water in the Fox.
The route they investigated went up the Root River and then over a nine-mile portage to Muskego Lake in what is today southeastern Waukesha County, Wis., which empties into the upper reaches of our Fox River.
Traveling in 1699, Father Jean Francois Buisson de St. Cosme, a Seminary priest on his way to the Mississippi River, reported that “some savages had led us to hope we could ascend [the Root River in Wisconsin from Lake Michigan] and after a portage of about two leagues might descend by another river called Pesioui [our Fox River] which falls into the River of the Illinois about 25 or 30 leagues from Chikagou, and that we should thereby avoid all the portages that had to be made by the Chikagou route. We passed by this river which is about ten leagues in length to the portage and flows through agreeable prairies, but as there was no water in it we judged that there would not be any in the Peschoui either.”
Although apparently not a regular route for French and Indian fur traders, the Root–Muskego Lake–Fox route was apparently used by at least some hardy and adventuresome travelers because the portage is clearly marked on a variety of maps of northern Illinois drawn around the time of the War of 1812.
The frequent lack of sufficient water in the Fox was not the only problem, of course. Maps from the late 1700s until the 1820s suggest that the Fox Valley was fairly lightly populated by Native People. There were only a few permanent villages along the river during that era, including at what is today called Maramech Hill near Plano and in the Oswego area near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek. Those were considered “permanent” villages, but they undoubtedly moved frequently as the farmland around them played out. It’s also likely villages were established at one time or another at or near the mouth of Blackberry Creek and all the other creeks that empty into the Fox. The farming was generally pretty good in those spots with rich bottomland soils, as was the fishing, which meant good living conditions.
During the winter months, those permanent villages broke up into small family groups, which, in turn, moved to their favored winter hunting grounds so as to spread out the hunting pressure during the lean times of the cold and snowy months.
Along with hunting, the Native People did their trapping at those winter camps. For instance, Chief Waubonsee, whose permanent village was located along the Fox from Oswego north to Batavia depending on the year, reportedly spent his winters with his family along the Illinois River. A lot of other Potowatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa family groups from northern Illinois spent their winters there, too, and that made it profitable for fur traders to open depots along the river. In particular, the American Fur Company, which took over the trade in the Old Northwest Territory after the Revolutionary War had a series of fur trade posts along the river that were regularly serviced from the company’s western headquarters at Fort Mackinac.
The fur trade ran on a time-honored schedule that was established by French and, later, British traders starting in the early 18th Century. In the late spring, canoe brigades arrived from Montreal and Quebec to drop off trade goods for the coming season and to pick up the furs that had been accumulating at the posts during the previous winter. As the prime peltries were brought in during the winter and early spring months, they were stretched, dried, and packed into 90 lb. bundles, called pièces, in preparation for shipment. When the brigades arrived, they off-loaded trade goods for the coming season–which had been carefully packed in the same dimension 90 lb. pièces as the furs would be–and reloaded the big freight canoes with the bundles of pelts, which were then transported back to the trading headquarters on the Ottawa River.
By the 1820s, the fur trade brigades had given up using the traditional birch bark freight canoes and were using Mackinaw boats, sturdy double-ended craft that could be either rowed or sailed and could carry about the same amount of cargo without the maintenance problems and fragility inherent in bark canoes. By the 1830s, when settlement began in earnest here in the Fox Valley, the fur trade had almost entirely ended in northern Illinois. The furbearers had been trapped out, the Native People upon whom the companies relied on as major fur pelt suppliers were being forced west of the Mississippi by government removal policies, and northern Illinois was rapidly being turned into farmland by ever-increasing numbers of American settlers.
Even though the Fox River may not been much of a voyageur highway, it was a key part of the Old Northwest’s rich history and heritage during the fur trade era.
The earliest American settlers came to Kendall County starting in the late 1820s on foot, and by wagon, ﬂatboat, and steamship on Lake Michigan via Chicago.
Oswego’s first settlers, William and Rebecca Wilson and their children, along with their extended family, the Daniel, John, and Walter Pearces, traveled here to the Illinois prairie by wagon to settle permanently in the summer of 1833. The four men had walked west the summer before prospecting for good land and decided the area at and near the mouth of Waubonsie Creek on the Fox River would be a good spot to settle. They brought their families the next year.
In 1834, John and William Wormley walked all the way to Oswego Township. According to Rev. E.W. Hicks, Kendall County’s first historian, they walked from New York State with nothing but their riﬂes and a change of clothing. The Wormleys said they averaged 36 miles per day on the trip. When you stop to think about it, that’s pretty good going. U.S. Cavalry standards usually called for a march by horse units of 20 miles per day.
When they got to the mid-Fox Valley, they decided this was the area in which they wanted to settle, so they walked all the way back and brought their families out by horse and wagon the next year. Like the Pearces, descendants of the Wormleys still live in the Oswego area.
Those who travelled by wagon had a longer trip, but they could also carry a good deal more equipment and household items with them. Plows and scythes were the main farming implements packed, while the women packed spinning wheels, quilts, candle molds, and seed for the first year’s crop. Sometimes treasured furniture was brought along to make the prairie cabin more comfortable and as a reminder of their former homes and lives.
Pioneers who came by wagon sometimes brought livestock along with them, from chickens and cattle to milk cows. Cows not only could provide fresh milk and cream on the trip, as well as butter. Butter could be made after a fashion while traveling by putting cream in a covered bucket and hanging it from the rear axle of the wagon. The constant jolting and bumping and jouncing of the wagon over the prairie eventually churned the cream into butter.
Settlers who came by wagon from the settled East were in for a shock as they encountered what passed for roads farther west. Roads that were laid through wooded areas still had tree stumps left m the roadway in the 1830s and early 1840s. The stumps were generally cut within two feet of the road surface so that wagons could clear them.
Although the roads did exist, the western residents of the era didn’t seem to be real clear on the concept of government-owned roads. For instance, a traveler on the National Road from Wheeling, West Virginia to Vandalia reported during a journey to Illinois in the 1840’s that “On passing a house newly built we had to avoid a deep hole dug right in the middle of the road (this was the State Road be it remembered), from which the clay for daubing the chimney had evidently been taken. To be sure, the road was a mere track, but there was a good deal of passage on it, and it was the route of a stage carrying the mail.”
Settlers who wished to travel by flatboat first journeyed to Wheeling, Pittsburgh, or some other town on the Ohio River, where their wagon and team were exchanged in trade for a flatboat and usually some cash. The journey down the Ohio brought settlers to Shawneetown in southern Illinois where their flatboat would be traded, along with some cash, for another team and wagon for the trip to the prairies of northern Illinois. Flatboats had value because they were made of sawn lumber, something that was not overly common and so was of some value on the Illinois frontier.
For settlers with enough money, and who didn’t want to bring a lot of personal possessions or livestock with them, the quickest way to get to Illinois from Eastern states was via the Great Lakes. Steamboat travel was ﬁnally becoming commonplace in the 1840’s as a method of traversing the lakes, but sailing ships still predominated. Settlers usually got to Albany as best they could and then took the Erie Canal to Buffalo on Lake Erie. From there, they would board a steamboat for a quick passage (which was also expensive), or would take a lake schooner for a less expensive, though more leisurely (depending on the weather), sailing voyage to Chicago.
Della Agusta Southworth—later Mrs. Lyell Aldrich—an early settler in Kendall County, left an interesting record of such a sailing voyage. Mrs. Aldrich’s family came west to Illinois in 1838 when she was a 10 year-old girl.
“We took passage on the schooner ‘Detroit’ at Oswego, N.Y., on July 6, 1838, and five weeks later arrived in Chicago on Aug. 12. The Welland Canal with its 25 locks, almost one to a mile, was than not constructed to admit easy passage for so large a vessel as ours. So frequent delays occurred from running around and getting stuck in the locks. The keel had been taken off the schooner to save space, which caused her to drift in all directions.
“At Mackinac Island head winds delayed us for more than a week giving us time to visit the places of interest. When we finally reached Chicago, we sailed up the river toward the west, landing on the bank opposite the old log fort.”
It never gets old for me to compare 19th Century travel to travel today. These days, it is about a day’s drive from here to Niagara Falls via four-lane highways—no more waiting a week up at the Straits for the wind to change or the entire trip taking more than a month.
I always think it’s valuable to keep such facts in mind to offer a bit of perspective as we complain about today’s heavy traffic, gasoline prices, or road construction delays.
It’s natural for us to take so many things for granted. And yet everything we see, no matter how mundane, has some history behind it.
That goes for the towns we live in, the roads we drive on, and even the geography of the areas in which we live. Some of those things seem such a part of the landscape that we tend to discount them. The area’s rail lines, for instance, usually don’t enter our thinking unless we have to wait at a crossing for a seemingly endless freight train to pass or we need to catch a commuter train into Chicago.
The short line that once ran from Streator to Ottawa and then north up the Fox River Valley all the way to Geneva is one of those bits of the local landscape that seem to have been there forever. But, of course, it hasn’t been. Like everything else we see on the modern landscape, it had a beginning—and in it’s case, a pretty contentious one at that.
When it was finished in 1870, the line was envisioned not as a mere spur or short line, but rather an independent railroad line that would vigorously compete with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s local rail monopoly. The idea was a good one, but perhaps the hardball financial practices of that era should have warned the Fox Valley residents and local governments who financed the road’s construction that they stood a chance of being cheated out of their investment. And, as it turned out, they were.
In 1853, the Aurora Branch Railroad—what, in 1855 would become the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad and eventually today’s Burlington Northern- Santa Fe Railway—crossed the Fox River at Aurora and then pushed west through northern Kendall County, bypassing the established villages of Oswego and Yorkville.
Though bypassing those towns—Oswego, at the time, was the county seat of Kendall County—the line’s construction did result in the creation of a brand new town at a station between Aurora and Sandwich, which its founders decided to call Plano.
As the Civil War ended, business and agriculture interests began calling for construction of more railroads to serve the Fox Valley. The CB&Q’s monopoly resulted in high freight charges that most farmers thought unfair. For instance, farmers living east of the Fox River were charged lower freight rates than those living west of the river, because the railroad was trying to entice farmers from farther away to use the line.
In 1866 serious agitation began for a CB&Q alternative. Farmers wanted cheaper grain and livestock haulage, while the rest of the Fox Valley communities were looking for a cheaper way to obtain coal from the mines near Ottawa. Coal at the time was becoming an extremely energy source for heating homes and other buildings, as well as fueling the steam engines that were slowly replacing other means of powering everything from farmers’ corn shellers to factory machines to newspaper presses.
As a result, talks about reviving the old Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad Company were held up and down the Fox Valley. The company was originally established at Newark here in Kendall County in 1852. The OO&FRV was to have followed the river north from Ottawa to Elgin via Oswego. The list of directors from local towns reads like a list of Who’s Who among pioneer Kendall County residents: L.B. Judson (founder of Oswego), Nathaniel Rising (a pioneer Oswego miller), William Nobel Davis (prominent politician, farmer, and lawyer), Samuel Jackson, Samuel Roberts (an Oswego hotelier), John L. Clark, and Johnson Misner. But Kendall County voters decided by a narrow margin of 43 votes against borrowing $25,000 to support the road’s construction.
For the next several years, the railroad’s charter was amended a number of times by the Illinois General Assembly, until local interest waned. But then in the post-Civil War years fuel costs rose sharply. And as noted above, coal heated homes and fueled the steam engines that more and more often powered local businesses and industries.
“The general cry from the people of Kane and Kendall counties for cheaper fuel seems to have awakened this slumbering enterprise into a new and more vigorous life,” suggested editor and publisher John R. Marshall in the May 31, 1866 Kendall County Record.
The difference was that residents and local governments seriously promised to put their money where their mouths were concerning the new railroad. In early September 1866, Oswego Township residents voted 220-51 to buy $25,000 in railroad stock (the total was eventually raised to $50,000). Other municipalities and county and township governments along the proposed route expressed strong interest, too. That was a substantial sum for the era, equivalent to about $1 million in today’s dollars.
In 1869, the Illinois General Assembly formally authorized the cities of Ottawa and Aurora, and the counties of Kane and Kendall to sell bonds to pay for stock in the rail line, now named the Fox River Valley Rail Road, which was to extend down the Fox Valley from Geneva to Ottawa and then due south to Streator.
Streator was a relatively new town located on the Vermilion River, on the border between LaSalle and Livingston counties in the midst of what were then called the Vermilion Coal Fields. Originally a hamlet named Hardscrabble, the name was changed to Unionville when it was formally platted in 1865. Just three years later the name was changed again to honor physician and capitalist Dr. W.L. Streator. Streator, from Cleveland, Ohio. Streator had been elected by its board of directors to head the newly formed Vermilion Coal Company, established to exploit the region’s huge coal deposits.
With no truly direct rail connection from the new coal fields north to the growing towns in the Fox River Valley, the new line’s promoters figured a new railroad running along that route would be a definite financial success.
But before the rail line could be built, the definite route had to be selected. Business interests in Morris, due south of Yorkville, lobbied hard for the line to leave the Fox Valley there and run down into Grundy County to access the county’s coal fields south of Morris. But Kane and Kendall promoters of the new line were unimpressed with the Morris boosters’ arguments.
Commented the Record’s Marshall in a Jan. 19, 1865 editorial: “Now, it is patent to all that the business of a road running in that direction with a terminus at the coal fields of Morris would be of little utility, and offer none of the advantages of a heavy freight and passenger trade. The carrying coal of itself is nothing. The natural channel for this road is down Fox river, where the greatest facilities are offered for manufacturing, flouring mills, and general produce trade, and at the same time reaching as good goal fields as at Morris, and developing by far a richer agricultural country than can be found in Grundy county.”
As finally established, the plan was for the Vermilion Coal Company to build their own shortline from Wenona, situated on the Illinois Central Railroad, to Streator. Then the OO&FRV line would be built north from Streator to Ottawa and then up the Fox Valley. In the end, Streator’s location in the midst of 26,000 acres of rich coal land, became a rail hub, with six lines passing through or near it.
By June 1866, the route north of Ottawa had been roughly finalized and engineers were hired to survey it. On July 19, the Record reported that: “The surveyors who are laying out the route for this road arrived in Yorkville on Tuesday evening and will have the survey completed from Ottawa to this place today. The gentleman in charge of the survey informed us that he finds the route very favorable for the economical and rapid building of the road. The route surveyed commences at the Illinois river [in Ottawa], crosses Fox river at Mission island, passes a little back of Millford [modern Millington], crosses Hollenbeck’s creek just west of Millbrook church, runs a little north of Mr. West Matlock’s and comes into Yorkville on Hydraulic venue. The river bottom at the Mission crossing is of solid rock and favorable for bridge building.”
Work on the road was nearly ready to begin in March and April 1867, when Fox Valley interests had to fend off an attempt by Will County interests to have the road run north to Plainfield from Streator. Ralph Plum, treasurer of the Vermilion Coal Company, hastened to reassure Fox Valley residents the route up the Fox was assured. In a letter to the editor of the Record on April 18, 1867: “The work we have already undertaken cannot be regarded by any business man in other light than as a guaranty that our whole interests are identical with your own…
“We have never doubted since we first looked over the map of Illinois, that our best market lay up the Fox River Valley, and we are sure that the superior quality of the Vermilion Coal will secure for it a sale in many localities where other coals are sold, yet the Fox River Valley (and Northern Illinois to be most directly reached therefrom) is most emphatically out best market, for we can reach it to a better advantage than any competitor, the moment the Fox River Valley Railroad is completed.”
Then on March 5, 1868, the Peoria Democrat published an unsourced bombshell of an article contending the OO&FRV company as well as the Vermilion Coal Company, were willing to turn over their charters to the CB&Q Railroad as long as the Burlington promised to offer guarantee a “perpetual” fair coal transport rate to Fox Valley communities. The bombshell report caused a huge uproar because the whole idea behind building the OO&FRV in the first place was to escape the CB&Q’s stranglehold on Fox Valley freight rates.
But on March 18, the Ottawa Free Trader reported the Democrat’s article wasn’t true—at least as far as anyone knew. “On inquiry of the officers of the F.R.V.R.R, we have come to the conclusion that, beyond as a sketch of what might be and very possibly yet will be, there is nothing in it. The officers of the Burlington Road and certain capitalists interested in the Fox R.V.R.R. have for a week or two past been in close consultation in N.Y., and it is possible that a hint from that quarter may have inspired the article in the Peoria paper, was thrown out as a feeler; but no definite agreement or arrangement of the kind indicated in that article, we are satisfied, has yet been arrived at.”
In retrospect, the OO&FRV’s board members and local boosters should have given a little more credence to the story.
The railroad company, with proceeds from its tax-purchased stock in hand, contracted with a man named Oliver Young to build the rail line from Streator north. And that’s where it got interesting. As part of the contract, signed Jan. 20, 1869, the railroad, upon completion, could be “used, managed and controlled” by Young.
“The object of the Directors to build this road and run it independently, with a view to making it a valuable road to the public and a paying one to the stockholders,” Marshall wrote in the Record on Jan. 28. But that clause gave Young virtual carte blanche, something the line’s board members apparently overlooked in their eagerness to get it built and operating.
Not a railroad builder himself, Young then contracted with the firm of C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Construction went fairly quickly. On Sept. 16, 1869, the Ottawa Free Trader reported: “The determination is to have the iron horse from Streator at Ottawa before the 1st of December, and to have the whole road done before another year is gone.”
On Oct. 14, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Work on the Railroad is now commenced; the ground through town was broken yesterday; the initiatory ceremonies were limited to a short speech from John W. Chapman, briefly showing the auspiciousness of the enterprise and that everything connected with it augurs success. He welcomed the shovel and spade saying there were the basis to greatness to wealth, to civilization, and to many other things…[Oswego founder Lewis B.] Judson with a spade broke the first ground and [wagon maker William] Hoze conducted the first wheelbarrow full of dirt; to-day a gang of from 15 to 20 men and several teams are at work.”
The Record reported in December that “Railroad hands hereabouts now get $1.50 a day.”
Then in early March 1870, the old rumor of the secret sale of the OO&FRV line to the CB&Q raised its head once again. The Ottawa Free Trader said not to worry though, that they’d looked into it. “There is quite a buzz up Fox river, we are told, over a rumor that the Fox River Valley Railroad has been sold out to the Burlington road, or some other road or connection, and instead of running to Aurora and Geneva, will stop at Sandwich, Somonauk or somewhere in that vicinity. These reports are without the slightest foundation. The road, we are confidently assured, will be completed to Aurora within the coming year. The sale of the road from Streator to Wenona to the Jacksonville and St. Louis R.R. Company in no way affects the road from Streator northward. The people up Fox River may rest easy. The road is ‘all right.’”
Work on the railroad moved forward steadily, with a few housekeeping details finally settled. On June 2, 1870, the Record reported that “The Common Council of Aurora has at length granted right of way through the city to the Ottawa and Fox River Valley Railroad by a vote of 8 to 2. This question has been agitated for over a year, and is just settled. The road will run up an alley just back of River Street.”
In that same edition, the Record reported that it wouldn’t be long before actual rails would be laid along the line through Kendall County: “On Wednesday the 25th, nine carloads of railroad material belonging to the Ottawa & Fox River Valley Railroad arrived at Montgomery. It consisted of 5,000 ties and the remainder of bridge timber for use on the bridge across the Fox River. It is the determination of contractor Young to have all the grading between Aurora and Ottawa finished before June 15th when the men will be free to labor on the extension to Geneva.”
Not that there weren’t a few legal snags still in the way of getting the road built through Kendall County. The “not in my backyard” movement is nothing new, and it was big enough to cause some initial headaches for the rail line’s boosters. Eventually, county government had to take the unusual step of condemning land for the rail right-of-way. As the Record reported on June 9, 1870: “Messrs Henry Sherrill, John K. LeBaron, and Oliver Havenhill were engaged on Tuesday and Wednesday in assessing damages and condemning certain lands over which the Fox River Railroad is to pass. There are several farmers who will not give the right of way, nor do they want the road to cross their farms, and this course has been forced upon the Railroad Company. Three men of more integrity could not have been found in the County than the gentlemen above named. Engineer Wilson accompanied the party.”
If anything, enthusiasm for the line’s completion was increasing. Marshall, writing in the June 16 Record, observed that “Passing through Montgomery on Saturday we were pleased to see huge pile of ties and bridge timbers for our railroad. Also, the grading done from that village to the river. We will have a ride on that road before 1870 is passed,” he predicted.
To a general community-wide celebration, on Oct. 6, the first engine and cars puffed into Oswego from Aurora on the newly laid rails. Exulted the Record’s Oswego correspondent: “There is no longer any need for Oswegoans to be poor or have the blues, no excuse now for dull times. I want to form a co-partnership with someone who has plenty of stamps in order to start a Daily newspaper; somebody ought to set themselves up in the banking business and furnish with money, which is still tight, the OO&FRV to the contrary notwithstanding. This town is now presenting fine opportunities for capital seeking investments.”
That same week, Marshall wrote an editorial in the Record about the coming of the new rail line to Yorkville that for the normally taciturn publisher was almost giddy: “By next Tuesday, weather permitting, the iron horse will be in Yorkville to awaken the people by a regular railroad whistle. On Monday afternoon we saw the train about two miles west of Oswego and the tracklayers hard at work laying from half to three quarters of a mile per day. The train is made up of three or four flat cars and the same number of box cars with CB&Q engine No. 54 to draw them…After 15 or 20 years’ working, the friends of this road are about to see their hopes realized by the completion of the road, and we all rejoice.”
On Oct. 27, Oswego received its first load of freight on the new rail line, a load of lumber for businessman William S. Bunn. By that date, the rails had been laid within a mile of downtown Yorkville.
Then on Nov. 3, Marshall reported from Yorkville that the county seat was finally a railroad town:
“On Thursday last, the 27th of October, 1870, a train of cars on the Fox River Valley Railroad entered Yorkville for the first time. It made the people of the villages feel big.
“Engine 54, belonging to the CB&Q R.R. drew the train. On Friday, Hon. W.P. Pierce came down as a passenger from Oswego.
“It was rather amusing to see the locomotive haul up along side of Crooker & Hobbs’ pump there to have its tank filled with water by means of buckets. Ground has been broken for a water tank just east of the Saw-mill, near the head of the [mill] race.
“A switch has been put in east of Black’s rag-house, with all the appurtenances. By the time this reaches our readers the train will be out of sight down the river, leaving only about 12 miles of track to lay between here and Ottawa.”
But those persistent clouds on the horizon concerning ownership of the new line were continually darkening. On Oct. 13, the DeKalb News reported that “The CB&Q company have gobbled the Fox River road, operations upon that line have been stopped north of Aurora, which city will be the northern terminus. The grading has been done as far north as Geneva, but the iron will not be laid.”
Marshall tried to find out what was really going on, and decided the report couldn’t be true, flatly stating “there is no doubt whatever but what the iron will be laid to Geneva.”
Unfortunately for the new railroad’s stock and bond holders and prospective customers, those rumors over the past several months turned out to be all too true. In July of 1870, Force & Co., the company actually building the rail line, using the excuse that the new rail line didn’t have any equipment to operate after construction was finished, secretly contracted with James F. Joy, president of the CB&Q, to provide rolling stock and other equipment for the line—despite the fact the line did indeed own two locomotives and dozens of rail cars.
Then on Aug. 20, 1870, Force & Co. secretly leased the whole railroad (which it didn’t own—yet) to the CB&Q for 99 years. The last piece fell of the elaborate con job into place in October when Young, for “a valuable consideration” (we can only guess what it was) assigned all his interest in the rail line—remember he could “use, manage, and control” the line however he wanted—to Force & Co.
In early November, the facts finally got out that the CB&Q had indeed seized control and de facto ownership of the road by means of the secret Force & Company 99 year lease. The Railroad Gazette reported the facts of the CB&Q’s coup, adding: “We are authorized to say that the road will be completed to Geneva and the whole operated as a branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy road.”
This tangled but ruthlessly efficient series of events resulted in the CB&Q tricking its own disgruntled customers into taxing themselves to build a rail line which the company itself now controlled. And those dreams of cheap coal? The CB&Q’s lease pointedly stated: “The said party of the second part (the CB&Q) …agrees…that in the transportation of coal over said demised road it will charge no more or higher rates than shall be charged for the transportation of coal over like distances on the railroad of the said party…”
As Marshall dryly put it in a November 1872 editorial comment: “The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”
The affair resulted in local governments holding a lot of worthless railroad stock—after all, it was stock in a railroad company without a railroad—and thousands in debts. The efforts of individual and local governmental bondholders to recover their money would stretch on for decades. One positive outcome of the fraud scheme was to spur the formation of a union of farmers and laborers that was politically active for some years, nominating the first female candidate for local office in Kendall County.
But it was generally acknowledge that while the new rail line was a huge economic boost for Fox Valley communities, its birthing process left a bad taste in nearly everyone’s mouth—except the CB&Q and those in the OO&FRV’s management who connived with them.
Commented the Rev. E.W. Hicks concerning the scandal in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “Happy the far off day of the mercantile millennium when every man can enjoy the sight of the world on wheels passing through his field without the discomfort of losing his railroad stock by swindling directors.”
What does it take to make a hero? What, in fact, does that word really mean?
We tend to throw “hero” around a lot these days. Sports stars in each generation, from Babe Ruth to Walter Payton to Michael Jordan are described as heroes. Men and women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq were described as heroes. The hostages held in Iran back in the ’80s were called heroes.
But sports heroism consists mostly of being born with physical gifts and then using them to earn lots of money performing in front of sports fans. Not much actual heroism there. The men and women serving in the military were doing their jobs—tough jobs—and doing them very well. Those who left family and friends (including female soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who left spouses and children including newborn babies, and their homes) certainly verged on heroism if they didn’t exactly achieve it. The diplomats imprisoned by the Iranians 40+ years ago weren’t precisely heroes, although they acted, for the most part, heroically.
Local heroes are hard to come by, too. Perhaps that’s because we live in such a mundane community that there is little need for heroism here in northern Illinois. But we’ve had a few. Oswego native Slade Cutter was a bonafide World War II hero. Teenager Robinson B. Murphy was a legitimate hero, earning the Medal of Honor during the Civil War. And teacher Anna Brown achieved hero status in 1877 by saving one of her students from being run over by a train at the expense of losing part of a foot, crippling her for the rest of her life.
Several years ago, while going through some newspaper clippings donated to the Little White School Museum in Oswego, I came across another real life local hero. Just a year older than young Robinson B. Murphy, she nonetheless selflessly endangered her own life to save others.
Helen Gilmour was just 16 years old on that Tuesday afternoon in April 1943 when she stood waiting for the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s gas-electric motor car—locals all called it the Dinky—to pull into the Oswego depot down at Jackson and South Adams streets.
The country was in the midst of World War II. Gilmour, a student at Oswego High School, was waiting at the Oswego depot to take the Dinky to Aurora to help her parents, Mr. and Mrs. James Gilmour of Wheatland Township, celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary.
But although it had been scheduled to arrive at 4:05 p.m., the car was running an hour and a half late due to engine trouble at Streator.
Following the end of regular interurban trolley service in the late 1920s, the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad began using the Dinky, which looked like a large trolley car, to provide daily passenger service from Streator to Aurora. The 58-mile Fox River Branch Line linked Streator with Aurora via Ottawa, Millington, Yorkville, Oswego, and Montgomery. The service was convenient and economical, offering residents of all those communities the public transportation option to commute to Aurora or Ottawa for jobs, school, and recreation in an era when two-car families were rare.
The Dinky, formally identified as Car 9850, was built in 1928 and was powered by a 275-horsepower gasoline engine that turned an electric generator that, in turn, powered the electric motors that turned the wheels.
The blocky car—no streamlined beauty—was painted a bright orange red, was nearly 78 feet long, and was divided into an engine and control compartment, a Railway Post Office compartment, a baggage compartment, and a passenger compartment seating 32 people.
On that relatively warm April afternoon, the Dinky finally arrived in Oswego about 5:30 p.m. and the waiting passengers, including Helen Gilmour and one of her OHS schoolmates, 17 year-old Harold Alderman, hurried aboard. Motorman F.E. Bishop of Galesburg gunned the noisy engine and the car accelerated, heading north up the grade towards Montgomery. As the car clattered across the Waubonsie Creek trestle near downtown Oswego, mail clerk Paul Chrysler of Elmhurst and Chicago Assistant Chief Clerk John G. Gall of the U.S. Railway Mail Service sorted mail and baggage man Chalmers O. Kerchner of Streator prepared for the short run to Aurora. Conductor P.H. Follard kept track of the occupants of the passenger compartment in the car’s rear.
The Dinky sounded the distinctive “Blat!” of its horn at the North Street, North Adams, and Second Street crossings as it clattered up the gentle grade and across the Route 25 viaduct, laboring to reach 20 mph.
Meanwhile, a CB&Q steam engine and caboose, with engineer Leo Kasid at the throttle, had started from Montgomery south on that same Fox River line to pick up a string of loaded hopper cars at the gravel pits south of Oswego. Fireman R.L. Parker stoked the engine’s boiler with coal as brakemen G.P. Schwartz and E.L. Shields and conductor D.R. Clark settled in the caboose for the short ride down the line to the gravel pit siding. Crossing the Fox River where Boulder Hill would one day be developed, the short train picked up speed as it steamed down the slight grade and around the gentle curve leading to Oswego.
It all seemed routine, but, as the Interstate Commerce Commission report on the accident noted about that stretch of track: “…the view of an engine approaching from the opposite direction is restricted to a distance of 753 feet, because of the cut and the track curvature.”
In addition, Kasid had not read the stack of dispatches he’d picked up on the way south, instead reading them as the train steamed down the grades. Possibly distracted by reading the dispatches, Kasid, who assumed the Dinky had passed that stretch of tracks an hour and a half earlier, didn’t see the Dinky coming towards him around the blind curve.
As a result, just after 5:30 p.m., roughly in back of today’s Oswegoland Civic Center, the steam engine crashed full speed into the Dinky, smashing five feet into the lighter weight car, pushing it 93 feet back down the track before the engine could be stopped.
Minnesota Falk, who lived about 300 yards from the crash site, told a reporter she heard the smash-up in her house and given the on-going war, feared the worst: “I heard the crash and thought it was the Nazis bombing the tracks,” she said.
Dinky motorman Bishop along with baggage man Kerchner and the two post office employees, all riding in the front of the car, were killed almost instantly.
In addition, the Dinky’s fuel tank ruptured and then the fumes exploded, spraying 160 gallons of burning gasoline in all directions, engulfing the front half of the car in flames. Burning gasoline flowed downhill back towards the passenger compartment from the shattered fuel tank, setting everything in its path ablaze.
As the dazed passengers sat in danger of being incinerated, young Helen Gilmour, despite the ankle sprain she sustained in the collision, jumped up and began shepherding the traumatized survivors out of the blazing car.
“I just remembered what I had learned in first aid,” she later told a local newspaper. “We were taught not to get excited, so I didn’t; but it was pretty bad. The injured were lying all over the field. It looked just like a battlefield.”
Her schoolmate, Harold Alderman, critically injured, was rushed to St. Charles Hospital in Aurora, where he later died. A number of other passengers were also seriously injured, including the entire crew of the steam train.
The subsequent Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) investigation found the freight train, because the Dinky was running more than an hour late, was supposed to have waited at Montgomery until the Dinky passed. But faults in the communication system resulted in the failure to inform the locomotive’s crew of the on-coming passenger car. In fact, the steam engine crew, busy reading their stack of orders, never even saw the Dinky before the collision. Why the Dinky’s engineer both failed to see the approaching train and apply his brakes was never adequately explained.
In its accident report, the ICC strongly recommended that all gasoline electric passenger cars be transitioned to diesel engines, which use less explosive fuel. Further, since the surviving train crew said they’d never have proceeded had block signals been installed and working on the Fox River Branch line, the report recommended the railroad install the signals along the entire Aurora to Streator line.
Helen Gilmour went on to graduate from Oswego High in 1945. The community mourned young Alderman’s death. And while much of the mail Chrysler and Gall were sorting at their time of their death was incinerated, some of the letters were saved, arriving at their destinations charred and streaked with soot, causing not a little consternation among local military personnel serving overseas.
The demolished Dinky was replaced, despite the ICC’s warning, by another gas-electric car that provided service until the CB&Q discontinued it, with the last scheduled passenger car on the Aurora to Streator branch finishing its run on Feb. 2, 1952.
That marked not only the end of the Dinky, but also the end of the passenger train era on the Fox River Branch Line that had begun in 1870. It was also the final reminder of the deadly, fiery crash late on that April afternoon in 1943.
Somebody was asking about the long-ago interurban trolley system a few days back and I thought to refer them to a post on this blog, only to find I’ve never really done a post on the basic topic.
I was sure I’d done at least one, but I was apparently confusing this blog with the “Reflections” column I’ve been writing since the summer of 1980—and the “Epochs” column I wrote for the three years prior to that. After all, you write that much stuff you tend to forget what went where and when—because I have indeed written a number of columns on the local interurban systems over the years. Because for a little over 20 years, the interurban system was, as President Joe likes to put it, a BFD.
By late September 1900 residents living in and around Oswego had some new sights to see and marvel at as they awaited the century’s turn at midnight on Dec. 31, 1900.
The window in my great-great-grandmother’s tiny bedroom looked out on the east bank of the Fox River. By that time, virtually all of the trees along the Fox River had been harvested and used for one purpose or another, so her view was clear all the way across the valley, letting her clearly see the area’s latest transportation marvel—the new interurban trolley line running from Aurora south through Oswego to Yorkville. As she put it in a letter to her daughter out in Kansas: “When I can’t sleep at night I can watch the Street cars run out my window over across the river.”
A group of investors had proposed building an interurban trolley line from Aurora south through Montgomery and Oswego to Yorkville in 1897. An early proposal to build a third-rail electric line was quickly discarded in favor of using overhead electric lines. As proposed, the line would run mostly on public rights-of-way using light rails and electrically-powered trolley cars.
In August 1897 representatives of the new (and optimistically named) Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Electric Railroad met with the Kendall County Board to start hammering out a trolley franchise. As proposed, the line would begin in downtown Aurora, run south on River Street through Montgomery and along the Fox River through the new Riverview amusement park then under construction just south of Montgomery before gently curving west to join the West River Road—now Ill. Route 31—for the run to the Oswego Bridge across the Fox River. There, the line would turn east, cross the river on the bridge and climb the bluff to Oswego’s Main Street, where it would turn south once more following Main Street towards Yorkville along what is now Ill. Route 71. At the Cowdrey Cemetery, the line would turn once again to follow the tracks of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Fox River Branch Line between the tracks and today’s VanEmmon Road into downtown Yorkville. This line was never extended to Morris, although another interurban line would link Yorkville and Morris more than a decade later.
Among the issues that had to be hammered out between the county and the company was who would pay for improvements the line required, such as either strengthening or rebuilding the Oswego Bridge. In addition, the company pledged “that in every way possible the company would guard against frightening horses” or otherwise interfering with traffic on the roads alongside which the trolleys would run. In the end, the trolley company agreed to pay $3,500 towards the cost of a new, stronger box truss iron bridge to replace the existing 1867 tied arch structure at Oswego—with Oswego Township to pick up the rest of the tab—and the other issues were ironed out as well.
Residents of the towns the trolley would serve were, in general, enthusiastic about this new, all-weather transportation option. As Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall noted in a Dec. 13, 1899 commentary: “With only four reliable trains a day, it was hard for one to come here and be so late getting into Chicago as is necessary with the regular passenger train. With the electric accommodations, one can go to Aurora and take an early morning train to Chicago.”
Construction began in the spring of 1900 and by June 27, the tracks were completed from Aurora to the west end of the Oswego Bridge.
“Operation of the electric road from the bridge will be commenced this Tuesday afternoon by a free ride of the town and village officials to Aurora and back,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote. “Yorkville will have to wait about three months longer before enjoying such privilege.”
Regular service began in early July from Aurora to the Oswego Bridge terminus. Use immediately proved enthusiastic and frequent. As Marshall wrote on Aug. 1: “That the Aurora and Yorkville electric road will be a great convenience and daily comfort is shown by the way it is used now between Oswego and Aurora. Every day parties drive up from about here [Yorkville] to Oswego and take the car there for Aurora, saving 12 miles’ drive.”
Work continued feverishly the rest of the summer and into the fall of 1900 on the new, stronger Oswego Bridge and the trestle at the east end of the bridge designed to carry the electric line up Washington Street over the CB&Q tracks to Main Street.
By late December, the Oswego Bridge and trestle, along with the tracks were finished and regular trolley service had begun, linking downtown Aurora through Montgomery and Oswego with downtown Yorkville. The first car arrived at the Kendall County seat at 10:45 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, 1900 to enthusiastic applause.
“There were two cars down—one with the Aurora guests, the other empty to return with a number of the distinguished populace of Kendall’s capital,” the Record reported on Dec. 26. Welcoming the new arrivals was Record publisher Marshall, who had welcomed the first railroad train into Yorkville 30 years before.
The interurban, providing hourly service from Yorkville from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. every day at affordable rates, was part of a vast interurban rail network that, it was said, allowed passengers to travel via trolley all the way from the Mississippi River—with transfers—all the way to New York City.
In an era of terrible roads, the interurban was a godsend, carrying passengers and freight, including farmers’ milk, to and from Aurora. Everything from fresh bakery bread to high school and college students to office workers to shoppers rode the trolley to and from Aurora daily. In addition, the amusement parks financed by the trolley companies to encourage weekend ridership drew thousands. Riverview Park—later renamed Fox River Park to differentiate it from its much larger cousin in Chicago—featured a variety of amusement rides from a rollercoaster to a huge carousel to a “shoot-the-chutes” into the Fox River. Boating on the Fox, annual summer Chautauquas that drew nationally-known speakers, and even professional baseball attracted huge crowds.
But a little more than a decade later, the line, eventually renamed the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago after several reorganizations, and others throughout the nation found themselves under assault from the ever-growing numbers of internal combustion automobiles and trucks. As cars and trucks became more affordable and much more dependable, the public also insisted on more and better roads. In response, Illinois officials proposed a $60 million bond issue in 1918 to “get Illinois out of the mud” by building a network of paved roads that would link every county in the state.
The $60 million cost of the project was of considerable concern to residents here in Kendall County, always conservative when it came to making public expenditures. But as a Record editorial pointed out on Oct. 16, 1918, the bonded indebtedness was to be paid through gasoline taxes.
“The $60 million bond issue for good roads has frightened many by its name,” the Record pointed out. “They don’t realize that this amount of money is to be raised by the users of automobiles and comes out of their tax as machine owners. Not a cent will be added to the personal or real estate taxes of a person. The good roads will be built and maintained by the auto owner. Vote for the issue.
Despite the nation being involved in World War I, the Nov. 2 bond issue ended up passing easily. Kendall County voters overwhelmingly approved it, 1,532-90.
The interurbans, with their privately-owned rights-of-way, tracks, and cars, quickly found themselves unable to compete with the combination of increasingly inexpensive, dependable motor vehicles and publicly financed hard-surfaced roads. And so, in the 1920s, one by one, the interurban lines closed down.
On Aug. 6, 1924, the Record reported that “Through an order from the Illinois Commerce Commission, the interurban line from the [Fox River] park south of Montgomery to Yorkville will be discontinued.”
In the event, the line carried on until Feb. 1, finally succumbing to the advance of transportation technology and the nation’s willingness to subsidize roads but not rails.
Today, there are scant reminders of the trolley era, but there are still a few bits of evidence it existed. There are still one or two old concrete culvert remnants along Ill. Route 31 and if you look closely between the road and the railroad tracks the next time you drive VanEmmon Road into Yorkville, you will see some of the last evidence of the old trolley line.
Ironically, as we attempt to deal with climate change and the problems emissions from our internal combustion cars and trucks cause, the old interurban trolley system looks like another pretty good idea lost in time.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the coverage it gets in the news, the rate of violent crime in the U.S. as reported to the FBI is actually down significantly from what it was 20 years ago. The caveat is, of course, that the murder rate during the Covid pandemic has gone up in certain areas, but overall violent crime has been on a steady decline.
According to the latest statistics compiled and released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 1991, there were an average of 758.2 violent crimes committed for every 100,000 people in the U.S. In 2019, the last year for which statistics have been compiles, there were an average of 366.7 violent crimes committed in the U.S. for every 100,000 residents.
The reasons for the steady decrease in violent crime seem to be many and controversial. One of the most interesting is the theory that lead levels in the atmosphere all over the country due to lead in gasoline was responsible for the crime increase to begin with. The decline in crime began a few years after leaded gasoline was banned in the U.S.
The folks over at Wikipedia have a good, concise entry on the theory, the nut of the piece being: “Individuals exposed to lead at young ages are more vulnerable to learning disabilities, decreased I.Q., attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and problems with impulse control, all of which may be negatively impacting decision making and leading to the commission of more crimes as these children reach adulthood, especially violent crimes. No safe level of lead in the human bloodstream exists given that any amount can contribute to deleterious health issues.”
Not that leaded gasoline was responsible for all the nation’s past crimes, of course. One of the worst crime waves to strike the country took place in the 1920s and 1930s as well-armed gangs used the new mobility conferred by a combination of fast, dependable automobiles and ever-better roads robbed banks, businesses, and even individuals all over the country.
Here in Kendall County, for instance, back in November 1933, Oswego dentist Dr. Sheldon Bell and his wife were motoring along what is today U.S. Route 30 between Plainfield and Aurora when a pair of road agents held them up. As the Kendall County Record reported on Nov. 8: “Dr. Sheldon F. Bell was one of the victims of the bandits during the 10 holdups in Kane and Kendall counties on Wednesday evening, Nov. 1. He was robbed of about seventeen dollars on Route 22 near Normantown. Dr. Bell was accompanied by his wife, who was not molested. All the robbers wanted was money, rejecting the bill fold and the papers it contained.”
Previously, Kendall County had suffered a plague of bank robberies, thefts, and bootlegging that was all reported in the local press, a situation that would continue until World War II calmed things down considerably. The Dillinger and Ma Barker gangs frequented the area and Al Capone’s illegal bootlegging operations favored our mostly rural county, even after Prohibition ended. One of John Dillinger’s gang, killed in a shootout in Minnesota, was even secretly buried by the gang just outside Oswego.
During that era, local law enforcement, especially in rural areas, was spotty to nonexistent. The Illinois State Police had been established in 1922 with eight officers using World War I surplus motorcycles to enforce state traffic laws, but even 10 years later, confronting organized, well-armed gangs was mostly beyond their capabilities. In October 1929, for instance, a criminal gang cut the telephone wires into and then blocked the roads into and out of the small Kendall County hamlet of Millbrook while they blew the safe in the Millbrook Bank, getting away with several hundred dollars. The situation was so bad that the Illinois Bankers Association established their own corps of bank guards.
While that and a lot of other truly fascinating local historical crime stories came out of that era, one of the most interesting really didn’t come to light until the dawn of the 21st Century, several decades after it occurred. Interestingly enough, the incident happened the same year Dr. Bell and his wife were held up.
It started this way: During the night of April 19, 1933, someone broke into the Illinois National Guard Armory in the tiny unincorporated Kendall County community of Plattville. Local, state, and national law enforcement and military officials were alarmed because taken was a virtual armory of four Browning Automatic Rifles (nicknamed with its initials, the BAR), along with 11 Colt M1911 .45 cal. automatic pistols and several hundred rounds of ammunition.
The semi-automatic pistols, the standard .45 cal. U.S. Army sidearm, featured a 9-round box magazine, were heavy, rugged, and extremely dependable. The BARs were powerful, fully automatic weapons that served the U.S. Army as well as the National Guard as their standard squad automatic weapon. Each eight-man squad was generally equipped with one BAR to augment the firepower of the rest of the squad’s Springfield M1903 bolt-action rifles that were standard equipment during those pre-World War II days. Both the BAR and the Springfield rifles were chambered for the powerful .30-06 cartridge.
Plattville was the smallest community in the nation to boast its own National Guard Armory, the base for Company E of the 129th Illinois Infantry Regiment. The armory had been the brainchild of Kendall County resident Charles G. “Timmy” Howell, who commanded it, holding the rank of captain.
The armory was built with community donations and labor and through the pay it provided, Company E provided badly needed cash for more than 100 young men, mostly farm boys, during the dark years of the Great Depression. It also provided valuable training for those young men, most of whom would go on to fight their way through the island hopping campaigns in the Pacific during World War II.
But given its location in a sleepy farming community, the security provided for Company E’s arms and ammunition was simply not up to the task of fending off the new breed of mobile criminals that had lately blossomed.
As soon as the theft was reported law enforcement and military officials alike, began worrying about who, exactly, had taken the guns and why.
Word got around via the neighborhood telegraph while officials did their best to downplay the theft. They did such a good job minimizing it, in fact, that 60 years later, no one had an inkling such a thing had ever happened. As an example, in an oddly naive, but apparently serious, comment, the editor of the Kendall County Record remarked in the paper’s May 3 edition: “Hope the person who stole the four [BARs] from the armory is honest; we’d hate to face these guns in the hands of a crook.”
We can only hope he was prepared to be disappointed, because after a spectacular July 20 shootout between the notorious Barrow Gang—the Bonnie and Clyde and associates made so famous in subsequent movies—and law enforcement officers just outside Kansas City, Mo., some of the BARs and pistols were recovered from the motel rooms the gang had occupied.
The Barrow Gang, made famous to a new generation in Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, “Bonnie and Clyde,” was one of the most violent of the criminal groups afflicting the Midwest during the lawless 1920s and 1930s.
Clyde Barrow was the leader of the gang, with his girlfriend Bonnie Parker (Parker was married to another man who was in jail at the time). Besides Bonnie and Clyde, Clyde’s brother, Melvin “Buck” Parker, and Buck’s wife, Blanche, along with C.W. Jones comprised the most consistent members of the gang. They were occasionally joined by Henry Methvin, Raymond Hamilton, Joe Palmer, and Ralph Fults.
Although the gang garnered a lot of attention thanks to Bonnie and Clyde’s knack for publicizing themselves, they were mostly notable for the short period of time during which they were active, a period that only ran from 1932 to 1934, not to mention their extreme violence.
Early on, the gang primarily engaged in small business hold-ups, but then decided to add bank robbery to their repertoire. The Barrow Gang was notorious among law enforcement for its ferocious counter-attacks whenever confronted by authorities. The BAR was Clyde Barrow’s weapon of choice, something that easily out-gunned the revolvers and shotguns of most lawmen of the era. Although limited to 20-round detachable magazines, the BAR on full automatic could fire more than 500 rounds a minute. John Browning invented the weapon for U.S. troops during World War I, where it proved extremely effective, with its relatively light weight, mobility, high rate of fire, and long range—the BAR was accurate up to 1,500 yards and had a maximum range of nearly three miles. It could also be loaded with armor-piercing rounds, something else Barrow favored.
The automatic weapon with which most law enforcement agencies of the era were armed was the Thompson Submachine Gun—the famed Tommy Gun. The Thompson, however, while having a faster rate of fire than the BAR, fired the same cartridge as the .45 cal. pistol, and had an effective range of only 170 yards or so.
On April 13, 1933, when police officers raided the apartment in Joplin, Mo., where Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, Blanche, and W.D. Jones were hiding out after a four-month crime spree, they thought they were raiding a bootlegging operation, which is what suspicious neighbors had reported. But when they confronted the gang, the police were caught by surprise as the Barrow gang opened up with a vicious barrage of automatic weapons fire, killing Constable John Harryman and police officer Harry McGinnis. Although the gang escaped, they were forced by the gunfight to leave most of their belongings and weapons behind.
Six days later, the Platteville National Guard Armory was raided and the four BARs, 11 Colt .45 automatic pistols and hundreds of rounds of ammunition were stolen. A week or so later, the gang hit a bank in Indiana.
During the next two and a half months, the Barrow Gang continued its wide-ranging campaign of lawlessness in Indiana, Minnesota, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, and Missouri as they sped from crime scene to crime scene using the Ford V-8 autos Clyde favored.
In 1934, in fact, Clyde (who had worked as a mechanic before taking up outlawry) wrote to Henry Ford congratulating him on his Ford autos and their V-8 engines: “While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got every other car skinned and even if my business hasn’t been strictly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V-8.”
On July 20, 1933, the gang decided to find someplace to lay low, choosing the Red Crown Tourist Court in Platte County, Mo., just outside Kansas City. But their suspicious behavior caused people in the neighborhood to call the authorities.
This time the police showed up in force armed with submachine guns, a car that had been armored, plus a mobile plate steel bulletproof shield. The armored sedan pulled up to block the garage door behind which the gang’s car was parked, and Sheriff Holt Coffee rapped on the door of one of the two tourist cabins the gang occupied, demanding they come out. No dummy, he immediately ducked behind the steel shield.
Clyde, Buck, and Jones instantly replied with a withering fusillade of BAR fire, literally driving Coffee’s heavy steel shield backwards, although it proved proof against Clyde’s armor-piercing ammunition. The gang also shot up the armored car, this time their armor-piercing .30-06 rounds perforating the car’s light armor, and wounding the driver who backed up to get out of the line of fire, allowing the gang to escape. But both Buck and Blanche Barrow were seriously wounded. Amazingly, none of the dozens of spectators who had gathered to watch, nor any of the police officers were badly injured in the furious gun battle.
It took a while for the Feds to identify and trace all the weapons and other materials they found in the gang’s motel rooms, but on Oct. 19, 1933, FBI Agent J.J. Keating of the bureau’s Chicago office wrote to his superiors: “Will consult commander of Company E, 129th Infantry, Illinois National Guard, with respect to the loss of the Colt 45 pistols, and Browning automatic rifles mentioned in report of Special Agent Dwight Brantley, 9/1/33, Washington, D.C., and inform him that said firearms were taken from the Barrow gang and are in possession of the Kansas City office of this division.”
Presumably, the weapons were later returned to Company E and, hopefully, better secured from being pilfered by passing bandits. And there the matter largely rested until 2003 when Winston Ramsey, editor-in-chief of a World War II history magazine based in England, traveled to the U.S. while researching his book, On the Trail of Bonnie and Clyde Then and Now chronicling the days of Bonnie and Clyde, visiting places the notorious couple frequented during their crime spree.
Ramsey contacted reporter Tony Scott at the Kendall County Record concerning reports he had obtained that the Plattville Armory had been robbed of weapons and ammunition by Bonnie and Clyde, something that no one in the community recalled—or at least would admit to recalling. But then in 2011, Agent Keating’s letter became public, and Tony revisited the story in a couple articles. And by then I’d been working on transcribing the Record’s “Oswego” news columns, along with other news items that sounded interesting. One of those was the Record’s editor writing about the theft of weapons from the Plattville Armory in the paper’s April 26 edition and a follow-up the next week, May 3, 1933.
Granted, there’s no physical evidence the Barrow Gang were responsible for stealing the weapons from the Plattville Armory. And the question of how the gang would have known about the Plattville Armory still raises a few doubts.
But in the book Blanche Barrow wrote about her harrowing adventures with the gang, she said that Clyde and W.D. Jones robbed the Plattville Armory. At least three other books on the gang repeat the same story. And it is a fact that the FBI recovered many of the stolen weapons after the Red Crown shoot-out in Missouri, so the gang certainly had them in their possession.
Would the theft have made sense in terms of opportunity? The gang was in the Joplin, Mo. shootout on April 13, where they lost a lot of their arms and ammunition. They then attempted a bank robbery at the Lucerne State Bank in Lucerne Indiana on May 12. The Plattville robbery took place the night of April 19-20, and Plattville is sort of right in between Joplin and that Indiana bank. Given Clyde’s love of long-distance high-speed driving taking random zigzag routes, it’s certainly possible—maybe even probable—Clyde and W.D. Jones really were the ones who stole all those weapons in the middle of his gang’s crime spree. Which leaves the question of how the gang knew about the Plattville Armory in the tiny rural community unanswered.
In any case, Bonnie and Clyde’s criminal spree came to a violent end a year later. On May 23, 1934, lawmen, taking no chances with the pair’s habit of replying with overwhelming firepower, set up an ambush in rural Bienville Parish, Louisiana, and riddled Clyde’s car with more than 130 rounds of shotgun, rifle, and pistol fire, killing both of the outlaws. Federal authorities said the pair and their gang was responsible for at least 13 murders and robberies and burglaries too numerous to count.
In retrospect, local officials did a pretty good job consigning the Barrow Gang’s Plattville Armory robbery to the memory hole. But like most history, it eventually floated to the surface once again, assuring at least a footnote in the story of one of the most violent crime sprees the Midwest has ever seen.
I was going through some family stuff the other day and came across a small pocket notebook. Perforated Memo-Pad said the cover. When I opened it, I recognized my maternal grandmother’s handwriting right away.
It turned out to be a short travel log my grandmother kept during a trip to a family reunion in Abilene, Kansas in August 1934.
The date alone carries a lot of historical baggage. At that time, my grandparents were farming out on what’s now called 127th Street in Will County’s Wheatland Township. They’d moved to the farm they rented from Louis and Margaret McLaren in 1920, leaving behind town life to give my grandmother—a farm girl born and bred—peace of mind away from quarreling in-laws. My grandfather, a city kid, agreed to take up a rural lifestyle to make my grandmother happy and to get away from his own quarreling relations.
They made a go of it, with my grandfather not only farming but also working as the steam engineer for the local threshing ring and working at his craft of carpentry building and repairing farm buildings.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the nation began suffering through years of severe drought. After the Civil War, railroad companies, with the added lure of the Homestead Act of 1862, had drawn thousands of farmers to move to the vast shortgrass prairies of the Dakotas, Texas, Colorado, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas with promises of cheap—even free—land. And in the 1870s and 1880s the region received sufficient rain to produce good crops. But then came the post-war farm depression, drought, insect infestations, and then to top it all off, the Great Depression.
By 1934, the nation had about hit rock bottom in economic and ecological terms. Corn was selling so cheaply that farmers were burning it in their cookstoves and furnaces rather than pay to haul it to market. And that was here in the normally productive land east of the Mississippi. The farmers who had been lured to the western prairies had put millions of acres under cultivation that, with the loss of the natural prairie grass cover, turned into a dried up wasteland thanks to extreme drought and nonexistent land management. The resulting dust storms ravaged not only that region, but also extended east of the Mississippi right into northern Illinois.
As the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Nov. 15, 1933: “The dust storm Sunday night was one of the worst dust storms experienced in this vicinity in many years. It was just too bad for all the good housekeepers who had finished their fall housecleaning. Even in the homes with doors and windows tightly closed the dust-laden air was disagreeable to breathe. The dust is said to have been blown here from as far away as the Dakotas, where a 70-mile-an-hour wind did considerable damage.”
As bad as conditions were, however, my Pennsylvania German family managed to keep going. The farm relatives our extended family all pitched in to help each other, and also helped out relatives that lived in town. My mother said that while no one seemed to have any cash money, none of our relatives ever went hungry.
And right through the worst years of the Great Depression our extended family continued to hold their annual family reunion. The sixth annual reunion was held on Sunday, Sept. 10, 1933 at the Isaac Lantz farm in Wheatland Township with 85 family members attending. During the reunion’s business meeting, Reuben Stark, a cousin visiting from Kansas, was prevailed upon to give a few remarks.
Back in the 1880s when the railroads were trying so hard to lure farmers to those shortgrass prairies west of the Mississippi, four of my great-grandfather’s adult siblings decided to take them up on it and head west. During a period of a couple years brothers Isaac, a widower and Jacob Lantz and his wife Belle; and sisters Betsy and her husband Christian Schaal and Sarah and her husband Isrial Stark and most of their children headed west to farm on the Kansas plains.
It may have been those remarks from Isrial Stark’s son, Reuben, at the 1933 family reunion that gave my grandparents the idea to head west to attend the family reunion the Kansas Lantzes were planning to hold in late August 1934. Not that it would have taken much to persuade them to take a road trip. Both my grandparents loved seeing what was over the next hill. And with the threshing done for the season, my grandfather was free until the corn harvest began. Whatever the reason, they packed their car, loaded up food for the trip, and headed over to Plainfield to pick up U.S. Route 66.
By the mid-1930s, Route 66, stretching from Chicago west through Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before ending in Santa Monica, California, had become known as both “The Mother Road” and “The Main Street of America.” Especially from Oklahoma and Kansas west, the road by the ‘30s was full of emigrants fleeing drought, dust storms, and grasshopper and chinch bug infestations.
It was also the easiest road for the first leg of the route from my grandparents’ farm just west of Plainfield, Illinois to Abilene, Kansas where the Kansas branch of the Lantz family’s reunion was to be held.
My grandmother didn’t drive, so that chore was up to my grandfather. My grandmother reported they got on the road promptly at 7 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 24, 1934 and drove the first four-hour leg to Bloomington, Illinois. Getting there at 11:15, they stopped for gas and decided to invest 10-cents in a watermelon for lunch instead of wasting time stopping to cook anything. Then it was back on the road until another stop at Sherman, just north of the state capital at Springfield, Illinois, for ice cream cones to cope with the August heat.
At St. Louis, they left The Mother Road and headed more west of south making for the road to Lawrence, Kansas, the college town just west of Kansas City. These days, it’s an easy three-hour drive from St. Louis to Lawrence on Interstate-70. Not so in 1934. They finally stopped for the night at Mexico, Missouri and rented a cabin in a motor court.
They hit the road at 7:30 a.m. Saturday morning, aiming for my grandmother’s cousins’ home at Lawrence, Kansas. Adam Schaal was my grandmother’s first cousin, the son of my great-grandfather’s sister, Elizabeth Ann “Betsy” Lantz Schaal. Even though two-thirds of my great-great grandparents’ adult children had left for Kansas in the 1880s, the two branches maintained relatively close contact. The plan was for my grandparents to stay whenever possible at relatives’ homes—usually my grandmother’s first cousins—to keep those family ties strong. It was a full day’s drive to Lawrence; they didn’t arrive until 5:30 p.m. “Stayed all night. Good visit,” my grandmother reported.
On Sunday morning everyone got up early and had a good breakfast before my grandparents hit the road again at 7 a.m. for the drive to Abilene.
I don’t know if she saw the poem somewhere at Adam Schaal’s or whether she made it up herself, but on the next page is a short verse that pretty much described my grandmother’s outlook on life all the years I knew her:
Not anything should I destroy,
Which others may for good enjoy;
Not even tread beneath my feet
A crumb some little bird might eat.
On modern Interstate 70, it’s about an hour and forty minute drive from Lawrence to Abilene. No such luck back in 1934. My grandfather made the drive from Lawrence to the park in Abilene where the reunion was to be held by noon and in time for the fine potluck dinner. They sat with and visited with another of grandmother’s Kansas cousins, Willard “Will” Stark. Will was the son of Isrial and Sarah Lantz Stark. Sarah was my great-grandfather’s sister and another aunt of my grandmother.
After the reunion they were invited out in the country to Reuben “Rube” Stark’s farm to stay the night, Rube being Will’s brother.
On Monday they apparently slept in because they didn’t get on the road until 9 a.m. that morning. They drove into Abilene for a visit and dinner with Wallace “Wall” Stark and his daughter, Nellie. Wall’s wife, Anna, had died in 1921 and Nellie was keeping house for her dad. Then it was back out in the country to the farm of yet another cousin, Richard and his wife, Jennie, Stark, to stay the evening before starting on the meandering road home.
Since my grandmother was determined to visit as many cousins as possible, my grandfather set his course to the southeast from Abilene to Herington, Kansas, where they had dinner (always the noon meal in those days and in those places) with Grandma’s first cousin, Pearl Stark Taylor and her husband, George. Then it was back on the road southeast to Emporia, where, just south of town, they arrived at William Matile’s farm. He was my father’s father and was still farming what they all called The Home Place just south of town. Two years later, he’d lease a Santa Fe boxcar, load all of his farm machinery, his draft horse teams, his daughter and her children, and John and Henry, his two sons, aboard and move to northern Illinois where his son, my father, was farming. But for now, he welcomed his son’s in-laws to stay the night.
As my grandmother put it, “Arrived at Matile’s at 5 o’clock…ate supper, had a good night’s sleep, ate breakfast, and left for Chanute at 9:30 a.m.”
On the way to Chanute, they were driving along U.S. Route 75 somewhere between Gridley and Yates Center when they had a blowout—a not infrequent hazard of travel in those days before tubeless radial tires. But Grandpa fixed it quickly and they got back on the road, stopping at a one-room school just outside Yate’s Center for a picnic lunch. The rural schools of the era, when not in session, were perfect picnic locations since they always had outhouses, a well with a hand pump, and some handy shade trees to sit under out of the sun.
They got to the house of Peter Schaal—another of Christian and Betsy Lantz Schaal’s sons—in Chanute in time for a nice visit and supper. Then it was out to the farm of 26 year-old Ora Cheney to stay the night. Ora’s mother, Margaret, was another of Grandmother’s cousins through the Schaal family.
The next morning after breakfast, Grandpa and Grandma said their good-byes and hit the road back to northern Illinois. Leaving at 9:30 a.m., they drove to Mountain Grove, Missouri, where they rented a cabin in a tourist court for the night. The next day, they put 290 more miles on the odometer driving to Carbondale in southern Illinois where they stayed in another tourist court cabin. From there, it was a long drive north through Illinois, and it was pretty clear Grandma had about had it with auto travel on 1930s roads in a 1930s automobile. “Rode all day with an awful back ache,” she commented in her travel diary.
They pulled into their driveway at 7:30 p.m. Saturday evening, Sept. 8, 1934 after a 383-mile drive up virtually the entire length of Illinois. Through the years that have passed since that September evening in 1934, I can almost hear my grandmother say, with her ghost of a Pennsylvania Dutch accent, “Ya, it was a nice trip, but I was glad to get back home and sleep in my own bed.”
The trip was interesting both for what my grandparents did and when they did it. Driving through some parts of the country that were hardest hit by the Depression, as well as the natural disasters that were occurring, must have offered sobering sights and sounds for my grandparents. The members of the extended Lantz family that headed west in the 1880s were relatively prosperous farmers and it seems they were still managing despite the nation’s economic troubles, even in the disastrous year of 1934. It’s also interesting that my grandparents had enough money to make the trip in the midst of the Great Depression and to stay in tourist court cabins to boot.
For me, my grandmother’s tiny trip diary offers a glimpse at what my family was doing 86 years ago and what their lives were like.
When his secretary informed him the missionaries from the western frontier had arrived for their appointment during that summer of 1824, we can only guess what U.S. Secretary of War John C. Calhoun expected.
What Calhoun actually got when Jesse Walker strode into the room was a bluff, powerfully built man whose complexion had been weathered during a lifetime spent outdoors, both working at his trade as a tanner and hide dresser, as well as on horseback laboring at his vocation as one of the best-known itinerant frontier missionaries.
On a trip that spanned three months, Walker had ridden east on horseback from his post along the Mississippi River at St. Louis to the Methodist-Episcopal Church National Conference at Baltimore. On the journey, he’d been accompanied by another pioneer circuit rider, Thomas A. Morris, a delegate from the Kentucky Conference.
The man Calhoun greeted was plainly dressed in the manner of frontier missionaries of the era in plain, sturdy pants, coat and vest of wool with a white cravat at his neck, carrying his distinctive large light-colored beaver felt hat that was “nearly as large as a lady’s umbrella,” Morris recalled of his traveling companion.
Walker‘s proposition for Calhoun: If the government contributed part of the cost, the Methodists’ Illinois Conference would establish a school among the related members of the Pottawatomie, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes living along the Illinois and Fox rivers of Illinois. The mission would include a blacksmith shop and a corn mill to grind grain into flour. Not only would Indian children be taught the English language, as well as the Methodist gospel, Walker said, but also their parents would be instructed in the “civilized arts” of farming.
Calhoun probably figured it was good bargain. With it, the government would obtain professional services that had been promised in various treaties for the tribes at little expense. Meanwhile the Methodists would get funding to establish a mission with the aim of converting Native Americans to Christianity in general and Methodism in particular.
Satisfied, Walker returned to Illinois where he set to work to create a permanent Illinois River Valley mission. His first attempt was at the old French village of Peoria near Fort Clark on the Illinois River. Walker and his wife, Susannah Webly Walker, opened a mission school that attracted only six Native American youngsters. Walker soon realized the Peoria mission was located too far south of the main population of the tribes he was trying to serve.
So early in the spring of 1825, Walker, in the company of John Hamlin and six others, rowed their Mackinaw boat up the Illinois and then the DesPlaines River to Chicago to scout new mission locations. During the trip, Walker became the first Methodist to hold services at Chicago.
After returning, the Walkers and five other families traveled up the Illinois above Starved Rock to the mouth of the Fox River where they established a small settlement and mission school—the seed around which modern Ottawa would grow. Some 14 Native American students were soon attending classes at the new mission school. But that site, too, proved too distant from the bulk of the area’s Indian population which was living farther north. At that point, Chief Shabbona and a fur trader and interpreter of mixed Pottawatomie and French Canadian blood named George Forquier (also spelled Furkee), volunteered to help. Shabbona was born an Ottawa but had become an influential chief of the Potawatomi people living within the Three Fires Confederacy. The Confederacy was comprised of groups of Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomi who shared both cultural and family ties.
Shabbona, Walker, and Forquier explored 20 miles up the east bank of the Fox River until they found a grove with a good spring. There, on the site of what soon became the Fox River Mission, Walker drove his claim stakes. It included all of Section 15 in Township 35, Range 5 of LaSalle County, later named Mission Township in honor of Walker’s activities.
That October in 1825, Walker reported about the proposed mission site: “The place is about one hundred miles above Fort Clark [at Peoria], about twenty miles north of the Illinois River, between it and Fox River. The soil is very good, timber plenty, and the spot well watered.”
The following year he reported to his superiors that work on the mission was proceeding: “I have built a house for the accommodation of the family, which consists of eighteen persons.” The large two-story log house measured 20 x 50 feet.
“A smith’s shop, a convenience that I could not dispense with, situated as I was, so remote from the settlements of the whites; a poultry house, springhouse, and other conveniences,” completed the mission, he reported. He said he had 40 acres in crops, seven in fenced pasture, and a one-acre garden.
“Hitherto everything has been attended with much hardship, hunger, cold and fatigue; and the distance which we have to transport everything has made it expensive; but with regard to the settlement, the greatest obstacles are overcome, and a few more years’ labour will furnish a comfortable home and plenty,” he told his Methodist superiors, adding, “The school consists of 15 Indian children, 7 males and 8 females, and two teachers. I am encouraged with the prospect of considerable acquisitions to the school this fall.”
In the missionary venture, Walker was assisted by his wife; his nephew who was also his son-in-law, James Walker, who brought along a horse-powered grain mill; James Walker’s wife, Jane, Jesse’s daughter, who became the teacher at the mission school, and all their children.
The missionaries’ spirits were more than willing, but the local Indians proved infertile ground for mission work—the idea of original sin was often a non-starter with Native People. And besides that, the promised government funding never arrived. Amid rumors the local tribes were to be removed west of the Mississippi, the Illinois Conference decided to close the mission down by 1829. Then to finish the venture off, all the buildings were burned by Indians in 1832 during the Black Hawk War.
Although its life was brief, the mission nevertheless was well-known among early Illinois settlers. When Galena businessman J.G. Stoddard decided to try shipping a ton and a half of lead overland to Chicago in 1829, the expedition aimed to cross the Fox River at Walker’s mission, probably hoping the blacksmith there could make any necessary repairs. Unfortunately, by the time Stoddard’s wagons got there, the mission had closed.
Then in 1831, John Kinzie and his wife, Juliette, traveled from Kinzie’s fur trade post at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin across Illinois to Chicago. Kinzie’s party also aimed to strike the Fox River near Walker’s mission, but they never made it due to poor navigation by their supposedly experienced guide. Instead, the encountered the Fox River just below modern Oswego, well north of the old mission.
After closing down the mission, James and Jane Walker established Walker’s Grove along the DuPage River (the nucleus around which Plainfield eventually formed) while Jesse Walker continued riding his circuit.
Walker’s wife, Susannah, died in 1832 and was buried at Plainfield. Mostly retired, Walker died in 1835 at his farm located where Grand Avenue crosses the DesPlaines River in modern River Grove.
In 1850, Walker’s remains were moved to the Plainfield Cemetery, where he was reburied in the same casket as Susannah. A fine monument that was dedicated there in 1911 gives a brief account of Walker’s fascinating career and hints at his importance in the settlement of northern Illinois.