Tag Archives: railroads

A great lake guaranteed Illinois’ economic success

Depending on their viewpoint and the era during which they lived, early explorers and settlers considered Lake Michigan to be either a priceless water highway deep into the interior of North America or a 307 mile long barrier to western travel.

The earliest European explorers didn’t even know Lake Michigan existed, thanks to the antipathy towards the French by the Iroquois Confederacy. French adventurers explored and mapped Lake Superior in the 1630s, long before the Iroquois allowed them passage to discover there was great water highway to the south. Not until Marquette and Jolliet explored south along the western store of Lake Michigan in 1673 did its length become appreciated.

A decade later, René-Robert Cavalier de La Salle used Lake Michigan as the major route to his new commercial colony in Illinois. By doing so, the French were able to bypass the Ohio River route to the west, the northern reaches of which were controlled by the well-armed and organized Iroquois Confederacy and their British allies.

Until the end of the French and Indian War in North America in 1764, Lake Michigan was, literally, a French lake. French forts controlled the Straits of Mackinac, Green Bay, and periodically Chicago and the mouth of the St. Joseph River at the southern end of the lake.

After the era of French control, the British controlled the lake for only a decade and a half or so before the new United States wrested control of most of the Great Lakes during the Revolutionary War. The War of 1812, essentially a short, less successful, continuation of the Revolution, did manage to solidify U.S. control over the lakes.

1831 Fort Dearborn

Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the Chicago River in 1831, just a few years before the U.S. Army built a channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River.

During the era of U.S. pioneer settlement, Lake Michigan became more an impediment than a help to settlement. That was because there was no harbor at the southern end of the lake. The rivers emptying into Green Bay gave access to the Mississippi River via portages to the Wisconsin River, but that left the interior of what would become Illinois difficult to reach. Sailing ships that arrived in Chicago had to lighter their cargoes using small boats to laboriously across the sandbar blocking the mouth of the shallow and sluggish Chicago River. The ships themselves, however, could not enter the river and so were unable to dock to ride out the storms that frequently blew up. As a result, ships had to quickly unload and get back out into the lake to avoid being driven ashore by rough weather.

Settlers that came west to Detroit, where there was a port, were hindered in heading overland to the Illinois prairies along the old Territorial Road by numerous bogs and swamps in Michigan and Indiana.

Not until the 1830s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dug a channel through the sandbar, was a true harbor created at Chicago. The new channel allowed ships to enter the Chicago River and safely dock, and also made unloading cargo a lot faster and less labor-intensive. Almost overnight, Chicago became a major Great Lakes port. In 1833, only four sailing ships called at Chicago. In 1834, after the first channel through the bar opened, 176 sailing vessels arrived.

Chicago’s position so far south allowed ships to carry grain from the prairie hinterland in the Des Plaines, DuPage, and Fox River valleys directly to the great eastern cities and return with goods ranging from finished products to lumber to build the great city that was taking shape along the lake shore.

Chicago Grain Elevators

According to the Library of Congress, this illustration shows some of the grain elevators on the Chicago River just as Chicago was becoming the premier grain transhipment point in the nation.

In an astonishingly short time, in fact, Chicago displaced St. Louis as the chief grain shipment center in the west. St. Louis was well located on the Mississippi, but that was a curse as well as a blessing. Grain elevators, when they were finally invented and then perfected, could not be safely located on the shore of the great river because of its frequent floods. Chicago, however, with its location on Lake Michigan and the slow, sluggish Chicago River, was not affected by flooding since the lake level remained constant. That meant grain elevators could be built along the Chicago River—and the riverbank was soon lined with the towering structures.

In the late 1840s, the Illinois and Michigan Canal was completed, linking Lake Michigan with the Illinois River—and from there the great Mississippi-Ohio-Missouri River system. The canal made shipping grain that much more efficient since it could be sent both south on the canal to the New Orleans market as well as east on the lakes to the New York market. In addition, the canal offered farmers living near its banks an easier shipping destination than hauling it overland all the way into Chicago.

At virtually the same time, railroads began to stretch west to Chicago and beyond, and the era of shipping cargo strictly via the lakes was over. Railroads that headed straight west from New York, Baltimore, and the other great eastern cities eventually met Lake Michigan, where they had to curve south to pass the end of the lake. And that made Chicago an even greater city. Not only was it still the lakes’ greatest port, but it quickly became the great rail center of the West.

With both ships and trains arriving in Chicago in large numbers, the population of the city and its hinterland quickly grew. It proved a boon for Kendall County, with new settlers able to cheaply and easily travel west from their old homes to Chicago and then undertake a short overland journey to the rich prairie lands along the Fox River. Once settlers arrived in the Fox Valley, they found themselves in an excellent location to easily get both their crops and livestock to the growing markets in Chicago and to take advantage of lower cost goods from raw lumber to finished clothing.

More than almost any other geographical feature, Lake Michigan has had the greatest long-term effect on the economic growth of Illinois throughout the history of the region. Although the lake is no longer the vital shipping link with the East it once was, its effect on rail and road transportation routes has guaranteed that Illinois will remain a U.S. economic powerhouse for the foreseeable future.






Filed under Environment, Farming, History, Illinois History, Technology, Transportation

It was St. Louis vs Chicago—And we’re not talking baseball, either

Got to thinking about my last post on plank roads and how local officials in the early 1850s rejected railroads, figuring that paving roads with wooden planks was the best technological fix for the era’s terrible roads.

You shouldn’t get the impression that those folks here in Kendall County were the only ones who misread the likely future that railroads were going to create. Something very similar happened down in St. Louis, with an even bigger economic impact as rejecting railroads had up here on our small farm town.

From the early 1830s to the early 1850s, as the pioneer era matured, Illinois became a huge grain exporter. Early on, the trick was to actually export all that excess grain farmers were beginning to produce using better agricultural techniques and increasing mechanization. One way to get it to market was to let it walk all by itself by turning grain into cattle and hogs that could be driven to Chicago. But to get the grain itself to market meant hauling in wagons over the region’s primitive road system.

Loading grain sacks

Until grain elevators were perfected, grain was shipped in sacks from the farm to market. Each sack was handled numerous times until it reached it’s ultimate destination, a process that was expensive and time-consuming.

In that day and age, grain in excess of needed food for the farm family and livestock feed was bagged, loaded aboard the farm’s wagon, a four-horse team hitched, and the load hauled to market. That market might be in the rapidly growing city of Chicago or, depending on the farm’s location, might be the Illinois River.

No matter where it went, though, it was transported in bags, which were unloaded into a warehouse. They, in turn, were then reloaded onto a sailing ship along the docks along South Water Street in Chicago or aboard a steamboat or flatboat on the Illinois River for the trip downstream to St. Louis. From Chicago, the grain was taken to Buffalo, where it was unloaded once again into a warehouse, for later transshipment down the Erie Canal to the New York City market. After grain arrived via the Illinois-Mississippi route at St. Louis, slaves unloaded the sacks onto the Levee, a broad strip of land extending along the city’s entire riverfront, where it was stacked for later sale or to be reloaded by more slave labor aboard a steamer or flatboat to be shipped down to New Orleans.

1857 Chicago port

This detail from J. T. Palmatary’s 1857 bird’s-eye view of Chicago shows why the warehouses and grain elevators along South Water Street offered so much efficiency in handling everything from lumber to grain. All manner of transportation, including rail cars, wagons, and sail and steamships could load and unload cargoes simultaneously.

All that loading and unloading took time, and time is money. With the introduction of rail transport, efficiency in loading and unloading became a pressing goal of those engaged in the grain trade. To that end, in 1842, Buffalo, N.Y. grain merchant and warehouse owner Joseph Dart invented the grain elevator. Dart’s elevator was a tall building that consisted of a series of vertical grain bins. Once grain had been removed from its sacks and moved to the elevated bins using steam power, it could be moved from bin to bin or loaded aboard canal boats, lakes ships, or rail cars by gravity alone. It was a great idea and quickly spread west to Chicago where the city’s grain merchants quickly perfected the concept.

In seemingly no time at all, grain elevators replaced the grain warehouses that lined the banks of the Chicago River along South Water Street. Grain brought in from hinterland farms in sacks was emptied out, graded by quality, and elevated to bins where it was mixed with other grain of the same grade that could then be loaded aboard the new rail cars or on Great Lakes ships for shipment east, or even loaded aboard boats on the new Illinois & Michigan Canal to be sent south to the New Orleans market.

With the old sack system, individual farmers’ grain could be identified from the time it left the farm until it reached its ultimate destination, with farmers known for shipping quality grain receiving a premium sales price. With the new system, fair grading and accurate records were an absolute must, and as you might surmise, there proved to be a lot of ways the new system could be manipulated. And manipulated it certainly was, although that’s a story for another day.

Because the Chicago River and Lake Michigan do not flood, the South Water Street elevator complex could be built right on the river bank, where it could be directly serviced by wagon, rail, canal, and lakes shipping.

1852 St. Louis Levee

Thomas Easterly’s 1852 Daguerreotype of the busy St. Louis Levee illustrates the distance between the river and shoreline warehouses dictated by the ebb and flow of the Mississippi River’s water levels throughout the year. Every barrel, box, and sack of cargo had to be physically carried across the levy to and from waiting steamboats.

Not so in St. Louis. There, the Levee was not only a transshipment point, but was a buffer for the city against the power of the Mississippi, which frequently flooded. As a result of the unpredictable river, grain elevators could not be built directly on the Mississippi’s riverbank, but had to be located some distance from the river. That meant no direct access to the city’s elevators by steamboats on the river.

In addition, St. Louis’s economic leaders decided, much like their counterparts in Oswego, that railroads were not the coming thing in transport. The decision was to stick with steamboats, since the city already had infrastructure in place for them. Not only that, but the city fought against the idea of a direct rail connection across the river, forbidding any rail bridges to be built. Indeed, when the first rail bridge spanned the Mississippi, it was not at St. Louis, but rather crossed the river from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa. And then St. Louis’s steamboat interests fought the bridge’s existence in court, the case decided in the railroad’s favor thanks to the legal acumen of their lawyer—himself a former flatboat crewman who transported bags of corn to New Orleans—Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, Illinois.

Chicago, meanwhile, was becoming the nation’s central railroad hub with commodities from the huge hinterland surrounding it flowing into the city, and finished goods flowing out. There was good reason that when circumstances, including rural free mail delivery, made mail order businesses possible, the nation’s two largest, Sears, Roebuck & Company and Montgomery Ward & Company, located in Chicago.

1874 Eads Bridge, St. Louis

James B. Eads’ revolutionary bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis didn’t open until 1874, more than two decades after a web of rail lines extended from Chicago to the rest of the Midwest. The bridge created the city’s first direct rail link to the east side of the Mississippi, but it proved too late to succeed in competition with Chicago.

St. Louis didn’t get its direct railroad connection with the east bank of the Mississippi until 1874, when James B. Eads’ remarkable, innovative bridge opened to traffic. Eads built his bridge despite the opposition of steamboat interests who remained economic powers in St. Louis despite railroads having proven to provide economical, year round transportation.

By that time, however, Chicago was preparing to steal the crown of the Midwest’s economic leader from St. Louis, a disparity that has only gotten greater over the ensuing decades. In 1840, St. Louis and St. Louis County had a total population of nearly 36,000, dwarfing Chicago and Cook County’s population of just 10,201. But by 1870, while the population of St. Louis and county had grown to 351,000 people, Chicago was already crowding it with 349,000. In 1880, St. Louis’s city and county population had barely increased to 382,000 while Chicago and Cook’s population had continued its strong growth to 607,000 and by 1890, the population of St. Louis was 488,000 while Chicago’s population had nearly doubled to 1,192,000.

Would the fate of St. Louis have been any different had the city embraced railroads in the 1850s instead of grudgingly accepting its first rail link east of the Mississippi two decades later? Possibly. Even probably. But it’s also pretty clear that Chicago would have surpassed St. Louis no matter what given the Windy City’s location that let it take advantage of direct connections via the Great Lakes and railroads to the New York market and rail and canal connections south to New Orleans, not to mention rail connections west across the nation to the Pacific.

But the railroad phobia that was apparently so common in the early 1850s undoubtedly made things worse for St. Louis.

There’s probably a lesson for us there, but as I’ve noted before, the real trick is to figure out what that it might be and then make use of the lesson learned. Because if current events show us anything at all, it’s that humans not only stubbornly refuse to learn history’s lessons, but more often than not refuse to admit there are any lesson to be learned in the first place.

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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, History, Illinois History, Law, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology, Transportation

And plank roads seemed like such a good idea, too…

Elon Musk and his Tesla autos have been in the news lately, and not all in a good way. Apparently there’s a self-driving feature on the newest Teslas that perhaps ought to be called a ‘self-driving’ feature, especially after a Tesla recently drove itself right under a semi, killing the Tesla driver.

Tesla’s now warning owners that “self-driving” isn’t exactly full auto-pilot, but rather that it’s probably helpful if drivers pay at least minimal attention to where their cars are going. Which sounds like the kind of advice adults really shouldn’t need to be given.

A lot of work is going into creating self-driving cars these days, and not just by Musk’s Tesla. But Duncan Black, one of my favorite bloggers, is skeptical, and I think he’s right to be.

The good thing about self-driving cars, of course, is that they’d use the same ground transportation foundation that manual driving cars use, with no need to create any new infrastructure for them to use. So in that way this latest bit of transportation technology growth somewhat mirrors the thinking behind the growth of plank roads back in the first half of the 19th Century.

Starting in the late 1840s, railroad companies were established to tap the huge northern Illinois agricultural market, with the eventual goal being to connect Chicago with the Mississippi River, a transcontinental rail line then only the vision of a few dreamers. But in order to get on the way to the Big Muddy, they first had to start by crossing northern Illinois’ Fox River.

Not that the railroad promoters looked at the Fox River Valley as simply an obstacle to be dealt with, of course. The area was then, as now, an extremely rich agricultural area. Livestock and grain flowed east to Chicago from the farms that dotted the prairies in DuPage, Kane, Kendall, and Will counties in a broad band stretching around the growing city on the lake to the west and south. And finished goods, lumber, and other items made the return trip west, all on the terrible, inadequate roads of the era.

What farmers wanted to do was get their livestock and grain to the lucrative, fast-growing market Chicago had become. Livestock could be driven to the stockyards (we think of cattle drives as western happenings, but they took place right here in Kendall County, too), but grain had to be hauled. Chicago was such a market draw that farmers as far west as Rockford, and even Iowa, drove horse-drawn wagon loads of corn, wheat, barley, oats and other grains to the growing market. It wasn’t easy, but it could be done, though at a relatively high cost in both time and materials.

Because of the already heavy investment in horse-drawn transport, it made sense to a lot of the strongest boosters in the Fox and DuPage River valleys to improve the area’s roads instead of investing in a completely new form of transportation technology like railroads.

Oswego & Indiana Plank Road script

Like many companies in the early 19th Century, the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company issued their own currency. Using the stuff was chancy at best, but in an era when recovery from the contractionary policies of the Andrew Jackson administration had destroyed the nation’s economy, it was sometimes any port in a monetary storm.

The investment was not just in horses and wagons, either. Inns and taverns along the major roads in the area, blacksmith and farrier shops, wagon makers, wheelwrights, farms that raised draft horses, veterinary facilities, farmers who grew the fodder and oats needed to feed those thousands upon thousands of horses, and all the other myriad things that made the system work was woven into the very fabric of that period’s life.

As a result, when railroad entrepreneurs began seeking routes from Chicago to the west, they ran into opposition in more than one community as local businessmen tried to keep their personal financial apple carts from overturning.

The story of Oswego’s decision to forego participation in the railroad projected to extend from Turners Junction—West Chicago—south and west across the Fox River is well known, locally at least. Oswego’s city fathers said thanks but no thanks to the railroad, which crossed the river at Aurora instead. Why did they do something that seems to us to be such a silly thing? Because they firmly believed improved roads, not railroads, were the answer to the region’s transportation dilemma.

Plank road sketch

Plank roads were built by laying down logs spaced closely together, and then topping them with two stringers. Thick planks 10 to 12 feet long were then fastened to the stringers. Plank roads worked well when new, but deteriorated quickly in northern Illinois’ climate.

In those years, roads—which were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie—turned into long stretches of impassable sticky soup every spring and after every hard rain. The availability of timber, however, meant it was possible to pave with thick wooden planks to create an all-weather surface. Such plank roads quickly became popular ways of getting crops to market. Typically, plank road companies would be formed after being chartered by the state legislature. Stock would be sold to raise money and the road would be built, with tolls charged to use the all-weather surface.

One such plank road was projected to extend from Chicago to Naperville and then on to Oswego. Capt. Joseph Naper, founder and namesake of Naperville, was one of the major promoters of that plank road. He used his considerable influence to keep the railroad from passing through Naperville, and it’s not unlikely he also persuaded Oswego officials to oppose the rail line crossing the Fox River at Oswego. Naper, like other men of substance at that time, had interests in hotels and taverns, as well as in several other aspects of road transportation, including lots of plank road company stock.

Oswego Indiana Plank Rd Tollgate

A sketch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road toll gate that was located about a mile and a half southeast of Plainfield on what is today U.S. Route 30 at Lily Cache Creek in Plainfield. Despite its grand name, the plank road reached neither Oswego nor Indiana. (Illinois Digital Archives and Plainfield Historical Society collections)

Then there was the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road Company, established in the late 1840s, with the aim of extending a plank road from Oswego to Joliet, and from there due east across Will County to Indiana. Promoters and officers of the plank toll road read like a roll call of early Joliet business and political leaders, including Illinois Governor-to-be Joel Matteson.

According to Joliet railroad historian, Bill Molony, the O&IPR Company’s survey for the road’s route was completed in May 1851 and the right-of-way was obtained. According to Molony, the section from Plainfield to Joliet was opened in 1852 or 1853. Travel on that stretch was heavy, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that the road would quickly be extended west to Oswego. And, in fact, work started on the stretch west of Plainfield to Oswego, but funding quickly dried up as the newfangled railroad was proving to be not only feasible but also faster and more economical even than plank road traffic.

In the end, of course, the enthusiasm for plank roads turned out to be a blunder. Steam engines didn’t require oats or horseshoes and they didn’t get tired or die while working hard in hot Illinois summers. They could run all day and all night, rain or shine, winter or summer. Once the classic “I” shaped steel rail was perfected, maintenance on rail lines became a relatively minor part of the entire cost of transporting goods. Not so plank roads, which required constant maintenance and even then the surface often proved unreliable. Broken planks damaged wagons and often injured or even killed horses.

By the late 1850s, rails not roads were seen to be the transportation wave of the future. But the damage to local economies had already been done. Writing in the Sept. 5, 1855 Kendall County Courier, an early settler writing under the pen name “Plow Boy,” reported that:

“In 1850, a [rail] road was commenced from the Junction to Aurora, thereby connecting with Chicago. A committee of agents of the railroad company waited upon the citizens of Oswego, and solicited their cooperation in extending the road to Oswego. But they were met with insults. They were told that Oswego could do favorably enough without a railroad. That a plank road was the thing that would throw railroads in the shade, and monopolize the whole business of transportation. The consequence was that Oswego was without either railroads or plank roads.”

As a result of this misplaced faith, Naperville didn’t get a rail link to Chicago until the mid-1860s, and Oswego and Yorkville didn’t get their rail links until 1870. At least Naperville’s rail line was a main line link; Oswego’s and Yorkville’s was a spur line.

To us, with the advantage of 20/20 historical hindsight, the decision to refuse participation in extending rail lines, but instead to champion plank roads seems crazy. But at the time, it all seemed perfectly reasonable and justified by the economic imperatives of the day. The challenge has never been to look back to see what we’ve done wrong; it’s always been to try to look ahead and figure out which of the available options is the right one.




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Filed under Aurora, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Technology, Transportation

They paved paradise…

Did a story for the Ledger-Sentinel (although corporate has apparently decided to just call it the Ledger these days) a few weeks ago that recapped the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census for Kendall County.

This most recent national farm census was taken in 2012, with the results finally released in 2014. I’d been thinking of doing a piece about it around the time it was to be released, but then the whole thing slipped my mind until late spring this year.

Farm censuses have been taken for almost 200 years now, with the first one taken by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1820 as part of the regular decennial population census. That was the practice until 1950, when the census bureau started collecting farm data only in years ending with 4 and 9. In 1978, that was changed to taking the farm census in years ending in 2 and 7. Finally, in 1997, Congress moved responsibility for collecting farm data to the USDA—which seemed pretty logical to me—and keeping the requirement to collect the data in years ending in 2 and 7. Thus the 2012 census.

When I finally got the data entered into my trusty spreadsheet, I have to admit being surprised—astonished, really—at the amount of farmland the census showed had been lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

Collar Counties

Kendall is the only non-Collar County to border on three of the six Chicago metro region Collar Counties, putting it in the perfect spot to absorb overflow population from fast-growing Kane, DuPage, and Will counties.

Previously, the largest amount of farmland lost to development had been the 8,313 acres lost between 1992 and 1997.But between 2007 and 2012, Kendall County lost an astonishing 37,131 acres of farmland to development. In the 57 years prior to 2007, the county had only lost a total of 28,365 acres to developme

Granted, it was clear that the county’s strong growth was going to catch up with it sooner or later. Between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population grew from 39,413 to nearly 115,000. My hometown of Oswego went from 3,914 to 30,303 during the same period.

But in the five years between 2007 and 2012 the biggest recession since the Great Depression hit the nation, and it hit Chicago’s collar counties particularly hard. It’s an indication of just how frenetic the financial industry was driving inflation of the nation’s housing bubble in the years immediately prior to the crash of 2008. Billions of fraudulent dollars were changing hands as vast tracts of farmland in Chicago’s hinterland were purchased, subdivided, and developed. Infrastructure—streets, curbs, gutters, water and sewer lines—was being pushed as developers rushed to provide the new homes the financial industry required to keep the bubble inflated through a whole host of actions that ranged from simply unethical to downright illegal.

It took a while for the development train wreck to come to a standstill and the dust to settle. When it did, not only had a bunch of productive farmland been sold for development, but also vast swaths of it had been covered with all that infrastructure listed above. And that meant that while some land sold for development could still be farmed because it was vacant, a lot of it simply could not.

The disappearance of so much farmland capped a long-term period of population growth in Kendall County, particularly in its northern three townships, but also in the county’s eastern tier of three once almost entirely rural townships. Oswego, situated in Kendall’s northeast corner, is a member of both groups.

NaAuSay and Seward townships, situated directly south of Oswego, until this most recent flood of growth hit in the 1990s, had no municipalities in their boundaries. But then Plainfield began expanding across the eastern border of NaAuSay Township, while Joliet and Minooka began intruding into Seward. And that’s how come some residents of Joliet and Plainfield send their children to Oswego schools. It’s also one more reason why so much farmland was lost to development in the five years prior to 2012.

The northern tier of Kendall’s townships—Little Rock, Bristol, and Oswego—had been undergoing growth for years prior to the inflation of the housing bubble. Oswego and Bristol, especially, were the subject of growth hurtling down the corridor along U.S. Route 34—called Ogden Avenue east of the Kendall County border—that accelerated to extraordinary levels after the construction of the huge Waubonsie Interceptor sewer line. The 60” diameter sanitary sewer line was built down the Waubonsie Creek valley from what was then called the Fox Valley Mall to Montgomery, where it crossed the Fox River to the Fox Metro Water Reclamation District’s treatment plant.

As soon as adequate sanitary sewer capacity was available, residential and commercial growth along the Route 23 corridor in Kendall County exploded. Why? For the same reason folks found the county a good place to live way back in the 1830s. Back then, the search was on for cheaper land that was good for farming in a location not too far away from the Chicago market that even in the early 1830s had begun to grow. As soon as U.S. Army engineers figured out how to drive a permanent channel through the sandbar at the mouth of the Chicago River, creating for the first time a safe harbor for Great Lakes shipping, that growth turned exponential.

The Chicago region’s population grew outward from the Lake Michigan shore, first spurred by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s commuter line that terminated at Aurora, and then after World War II by the web of multi-lane limited access expressways that stretched from Chicago north, south, and west.

Oswego Township was picked for industrial development in the early 1950s, with sprawling Caterpillar, Inc. and Western Electric plants built. Plenty of land was available at relatively low prices in the area that was outside the Chicago metro area, but close enough, and with the necessary rail connections industry of that era required.

And at the same time, developer Don L. Dise, hearing about the coming construction of those facilities, decided Oswego Township was the perfect spot to build Kendall County’s first super subdivision. He picked the huge Boulder Hill Stock Farm, owned by the Bereman family, as the location for his development, located right across the Fox River from the new Western Electric and Caterpillar plants, figuring the plants’ workers would need housing. Eventually, the Cat plant alone employed more than 7,000.

Calling his new planned development Boulder Hill after the former livestock farm, Dise proposed building out neighborhoods to attract all economic levels, from executives to factory workers. And he succeeded, attracting an eclectic mix of new homeowners, from CB&Q executives to Caterpillar and other local factory line workers, with most of the first homes financed thanks to the post-World War II GI Bill. Not only did the GI Bill promote home ownership, but it also encouraged veterans to get college degrees, which allowed the millions who served in the war to move up to better jobs, and then buy brand new houses from Dise and other developers.

The first families moved into their new Boulder Hill homes exactly 60 years ago.

The late 1950s was the county’s first big spasm of growth. Between 1950 and 1960 Oswego Township’s population doubled. Then it doubled again between 1960 and 1970. As growth to the east continued to accelerate even faster, refugees from Cook and DuPage counties looking for cheaper housing, less traffic, and a small town atmosphere, continued to move into Kendall County, but growth was relatively restrained until the Waubonsie Interceptor literally opened the floodgates.

And that touched off the next era of growth that both flowed and ebbed several times before the financial industry, with the help of Congress and President Bill Clinton, who removed regulations that had kept it to reasonable levels, hit on the idea of securitizing mortgages. Not only did they securitize mortgages, they also figured out how to defraud the entire real estate financing system by methods ranging from forcing appraisers to artificially inflate existing home values to require bigger loans to gaming the home loan system itself to allow mortgages to be awarded to those who could not afford them. Which was fine, because the goal was not to make money off house payments, but rather by selling the mortgages (sometimes several times), bundling them, and dividing them into batches so they could be securitized into bonds for sale to investors. Since the bond rating agencies were in on the fraud and since government was not allowed to regulate the bonds, the amount of farmland purchased at greatly inflated prices in order to feed the need for more and more mortgages to be sliced and diced and sold to suckers was substantial.

In Kendall County alone, it amounted to that 37,000 acre loss in just five years mentioned above. As the bubble inflated between 1990 and 2010, Kendall County’s population tripled. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 2000 and 2007, Kendall was, in percentage terms, the fastest growing county in the nation.

Then the crash came, but here we sit nonetheless.

And what happened to all those farmers as land was gobbled up by developers? Glad you asked. More later…


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Filed under Business, Farming, Frustration, History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Transportation, Uncategorized

Reindeer games…

Both before and immediately after I retired from the news biz I worked on a project to transcribe the “Oswego” news columns from the Kendall County Record from they time they started appearing in the late 1860s through 1969. The object was to create a reference tool for family historians and other researchers. Along the line I accumulated close to 10,000 pages of local news.

As I worked through transcribing those bits of local news, I usually didn’t pay much attention to the content. After all, if I was ever to finish the project I couldn’t get too interested, but occasionally, the words I was transcribing off of often poor quality microfilm jumped right off the page and slapped me in the face.

That’s what happened as I was transcribing the “Oswego” news column from the Record’s March 9, 1898 edition.

“The outfit went through Chicago one day last week,” I typed. “And consisted of 539 reindeer and 118 Laps, including the women and children.”

After which I stopped typing to read the piece Record Oswego correspondent Lorenzo Rank wrote. It turned out to be a fairly lengthy item gently complaining about what he saw as the latest puzzling government boondoggle.

Noting that the government was attempting to assist needy, hungry miners who were struggling to get to the Klondike gold fields, Rank said that a relief expedition had been planned, and the necessary supplies, livestock (those reindeer) and experts (those Laplanders) had been acquired, and everything was on its way to the Klondike.

Reindeer? Laplanders?

And there was indeed a story there, even if somewhat off-kilter, even for a government project. It started out, though, with the best of intentions.

As you may recall, gold was discovered in the late 1890s up in the Klondike region of Canada’s Yukon Territory, which resulted in a gold rush, not to mention the creation of such entertainment staples of my childhood such as “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon,” who with his great lead dog King, went sledding along on both radio and TV.

It took a year for word of the gold strike to get back to the Lower 48 States, but when it did the media created a firestorm of gold lust. The result was the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.

This iconic photo of Klondike gold-seekers packing their one ton of supplies over the Chilkoot Trail in 1898 illustrates some of the realities of the gold rush. (Library and Archives of Canada photo)

This iconic photo of Klondike gold-seekers packing their one ton of supplies over the Chilkoot Trail in 1898 illustrates some of the realities of the gold rush. (Library and Archives of Canada photo)

Tens of thousands of Americans and Canadians headed to the Yukon, either to Washington State and from there north along the coast to Juneau and then on through Alaska to Skagway to reach the gold fields, or overland through Canada where Edmonton in British Columbia was the jumping off place.

The Klondike region is a desolate, isolated place and soon, down in the Lower 48, tales of starving miners began sharing the front pages of newspapers with tales of striking it rich. Those tales of starving miners caught the eye of politicians in Washington, D.C. Proving that panic-stricken responses to real and imagined crises is not some new 21st Century thing, and at the behest of determined lobbying by Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson, Congress appropriated $200,000 (nearly $6 million in today’s dollars). And Jackson made sure he got the lucrative got the contract to get relief to the ‘starving’ miners. Because Jackson knew how to get those supplies to the Klondike fast—reindeer!

Everybody got in on the action trying to separate credulous gold-seekers from their money. Dozens of how-to manuals were quickly written and published, some of which actually had useful ilnformation.

Everybody got in on the action trying to separate credulous gold-seekers from their money. Dozens of how-to manuals were quickly written and published, some of which actually had useful information.

In reality, however, there was no starvation crisis. Figuring that few of the would-be miners knew anything at all about survival in arctic conditions like those along the Klondike River, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (hurrah for Sgt. Preston!) strictly enforced “The One-Ton Rule,” wherein no miner was allowed to cross into Canada unless he had an entire year’s worth of food and supplies. Which is the story behind that iconic photo of miners laboriously climbing the Chilkat Pass with immense packs—each one of those guys had to make numerous trips up and down the near-vertical trail to pack in 2,000 pounds of supplies before the Mounties would let them go on to try their luck along the Klondike River.

So let’s recap: we have a made up crisis (check!), based on sort of a truthful story (check!), strongly promoted by a lobbyist (check!), who stood to personally gain from government money (check!). The more things change, the more they really do stay the same.

It turned out Rev. Jackson was fascinated with reindeer and had been trying for some time to stock Alaska with them. By 1891 he was somehow able to convince the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service—later renamed the U.S. Coast Guard—to import reindeer (also called caribou)  to Alaska from Siberia as food and draft animals. At first, the government also imported Siberians to teach the locals how to raise reindeer, but then Jackson figured out that Laplanders were better at the whole reindeer herding thing.

So when Jackson heard the government was going to give someone $200,000 to get food and supplies to miners in the Great White North, it’s likely the very first thing that popped into his head was “Reindeer!” At least he certainly convinced Congress reindeer were the answer to their problems. Not only could reindeer haul sleds laden with supplies, but they could be butchered for food for the miners and any live leftovers could be used to start yet another reindeer herd in Alaska if the Canadians weren’t interested.

Siberians with their reindeer and sleds in a photo taken in the late 19th Century.

Siberians with their reindeer and sleds in a photo taken in the late 19th Century.

So off he went to northern Norway where he procured 539 reindeer, 118 men, women, and children Laplanders to take care of the reindeer, 418 sleds, 510 sets of reindeer harness, and 250 tons of reindeer moss to keep the animals fed on the trip. The Laps and their reindeer were shipped across the Atlantic, arriving in New York harbor on Feb. 27, 1898. They were loaded aboard rail cars and shipped west to Seattle, creating the spectacle related by Rank as their train steamed through Chicago.

But even before the party reached Seattle, word finally made it back south that thanks to the Mounties and private businesses, nobody was starving on the way to the gold fields. As Rank put it in his Record column: “The provisions now are not wanted, as they only interfere with the trade—private enterprise there.”

Jackson, however, decided, with his Congressional appropriation in hand to continue on to Alaska with the reindeer and their Lap herders. Unfortunately, by that time, the expedition was running out of reindeer moss, and since the animals cannot survive on regular grasses, they were beginning to starve to death. Four died in Seattle, and eight more expired on the voyage up the coast to Haines Mission, Alaska, which the expedition reached on March 29.

The Laps drove the reindeer up into the mountains where the animals were able to find some forage but deep snow prevented them from finding enough of it. By the time the expedition was ready to move up the Dawson Trail along the Chilkat River into the mountains where forage was said to be abundant in May, there were only 228 left.

“Of these some were taken to Circle City and there killed for food, and a few of the remaining animals were taken to the Tanana Valley, where they all disappeared in a short time,” according to C.L. Andrews writing in 1919 in the Washington Historical Quarterly.

Of the Lap herders, some had to be sent back down to the Lower 48 because of a lack of food for them.

Some said that Jackson’s real goal had been to start another reindeer herd with the animals imported from Norway, but Andrews slapped that theory down: “These deer were all sled deer for transport purposes and were gelded males.”

Rather, Andrews suggested the real goal was to import more Laplanders, not the reindeer, into Alaska in order to assure the Laps and Norwegians were dominant in the reindeer herding industry Jackson had worked so hard to create. Alas, that didn’t work out, either, since the Laps reached Nome just about the time the gold fever was at its height.

“There, nearly all of them left the government service to engage in the search for gold, and the colonization scheme passed into oblivion,” Andrews reported.

Rank, in his March 9 Record column, was philosophical about the enterprise, which, he suggested was, if not precisely harebrained, at least overkill, indicating he wasn’t entirely against it because at least it wasn’t rich people being, again, enriched by preferred access to government money.

And finally, Rank wrote, gold rushes almost always turn out for the worst anyway, suggesting it would be good policy to resist any sort of government support for them in the future: “Instead of protection, gold-seeking rushes should be discouraged; they are demoralizing, breaking up families, and while one man be the gainer by them, nine will be losers.”

Which was pretty good advice.

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Filed under History, Illinois History, Kendall County, People in History, Science stuff, Technology, Transportation, Uncategorized

Local historians’ popular ‘What if?’ game

A favorite mind game played by a lot of historians is wondering how things might have been, if only…

For instance, what would have happened had Lee won at Gettysburg? How would North America have fared had George Washington been killed during Braddock’s Defeat in the French and Indian War? What if the Nazis had been first to invent the atom bomb? How would Abraham Lincoln’s life been changed had his mother not died of the “milk sick” when he was a child?

Those kinds of historical speculations are in the cosmic realm—things that might or might not have changed our whole world. But there are thousands of historical micro-events at the local level that have had huge impacts on the ways in which the Fox River Valley grew and developed. Many of those incidents seem minor, but had they turned out differently, our communities would have been profoundly changed.

In the first half of the 19th Century, Montgomery was on the move as the U.S. Government’s official 1842 survey map of Aurora Township illustrates. The road from Naper’s Settlement is shown as a dotted line heading west by southwest, crossing the Fox River on “Gray’s Bridge” marked with the red arrow. (Illinois State Archives Federal Township Plats of Illinois collection)

In the first half of the 19th Century, Montgomery was on the move as the U.S. Government’s official 1842 survey map of Aurora Township illustrates. The road from Naper’s Settlement is shown as a dotted line heading west by southwest, crossing the Fox River on “Gray’s Bridge” marked with the red arrow. (Illinois State Archives Federal Township Plats of Illinois collection)

For instance, what if Daniel Gray, the energetic founder of Montgomery, had not succumbed to illness and died during the winter of 1854? Gray was the founder and the soul of Montgomery. He was reportedly an indomitable force for development and business activities. Upon his death, Montgomery failed to live up to the potential Gray had mapped for it. Had Gray lived, the town could well have grown to rival its neighbor to the north, Aurora, in terms of its industrial base. Gray had, at the time of his death, a number of manufacturing operations going on, including a foundry and a large factory manufacturing farm equipment. At the time of his death he was working on a steam engine factory, something that would have added greatly to the village’s industrial base, not to mention that of the entire Fox Valley.

An even bigger question is what might have happened had the CB&Q Railroad crossed the river at Oswego instead of Aurora when it was extending its tracks west of Chicago in the 1850s?

That the railroad favored the crossing at Oswego was mentioned in several early histories and in at least one newspaper account from the 1850s. Whether the railroad was serious about the whole thing was somewhat questionable—after the fact stories like that are a dime a historical dozen. At least they were until I ran across a map in the Library of Congress’s collections. The map, published in 1854— “Rail road and county map of Illinois showing its internal improvements”—was designed to show the existing and proposed public improvements, including roads, canals, and railroads, in the state. The map illustrates a number of rail lines radiating west from Chicago, including the main line from Chicago to Galena, which included the Aurora Branch line.

Today, that line crosses the river at Aurora before trending generally west southwest through Kendall County on its way to the Mississippi River.

The blue line on the Rail Road and County Map of Illinois Showing Its Internal Improvements, 1854 by Ensign, Bridgeman & Fanning, New York marks the proposed route of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad as it was supposed to cross the Fox River at Oswego. After Oswego turned the railroad’s backers down, the line crossed at Aurora instead. (Library of Congress American Memories Collection)

The blue line on the Rail Road and County Map of Illinois Showing Its Internal Improvements, 1854 by Ensign, Bridgeman & Fanning, New York marks the proposed route of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad as it was supposed to cross the Fox River at Oswego. After Oswego turned the railroad’s backers down, the line crossed at Aurora instead. (Library of Congress American Memories Collection)

But that’s not what the plans were in 1853 when the information for the map was gathered. Instead, the railroad wanted to cross at Oswego, and that’s exactly what the map shows. The map shows Aurora Branch line extending west from Turner’s Junction, now West Chicago, southwesterly to Batavia before heading south to Aurora. From Aurora, the line continues south along the Fox River to Oswego, where it is shown crossing the river where it is at its narrowest point, before heading southwesterly once again.

According to a newspaper account from an 1857 edition of the Kendall County Courier published in Oswego, the village fathers were enamored with plank roads, not railroads. In fact, the Chicago, Naperville and Oswego Plank Road company was busy extending a plank road west from Chicago on what would one day become Ogden Avenue—U.S. Route 34. Oswego was to be the terminus of the new road, something that would have greatly enhanced its economic standing. In addition, the Oswego and Indiana Plank Road Company was busy selling shares in their road, which was to connect Oswego with an undesignated place in Indiana. So with the chance to become a plank road hub, Oswego apparently told the railroad company to take a flying leap, which they did, deciding to cross the Fox River at Aurora instead of Oswego. And as a result of that decision, Aurora got the CB&Q shops, the roundhouse, and all the other accouterments of railroading that turned it into one of Illinois’ largest cities.

A sketch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road toll gate that was located about a mile and a half southeast of Plainfield on what is today U.S. Route 30 at Lily Cache Creek in Plainfield. Despite its grand name, the plank road reached neither Oswego nor Indiana. (Illinois Digital Archives and Plainfield Historical Society collections)

A sketch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road toll gate that was located about a mile and a half southeast of Plainfield on what is today U.S. Route 30 at Lily Cache Creek in Plainfield. Despite its grand name, the plank road reached neither Oswego nor Indiana. (Illinois Digital Archives and Plainfield Historical Society collections)

Oswego, meanwhile, lost out all the way around. The Chicago, Naperville & Oswego Plank Road Company went broke after extending the route to Naperville; the section to Oswego was never built. In addition, the only stretch of the Oswego & Indiana Plank Road built connected Joliet with Plainfield on the modern route of U.S. Route 30, plus an extremely short stretch west from Plainfield. It never reached Oswego, either.

It turned out that plank roads were expensive to maintain, and the tolls never covered the construction expenses, much less necessary maintenance. And they were being built just as timber was becoming scarce in northern Illinois thanks to the building boom the area was experiencing.

But the railroad did prove successful. Crossing as it did at Aurora, the line passed two miles west of Oswego, and about that far from Bristol—then the north side of Yorkville. Both towns established stations on the main line, but not until 1870 did the two towns get their own rail line, and then it was a branch line and not a main line.

What would have happened to Kendall County had Oswego accepted the rail crossing in 1853? The county seat might well have stayed in Oswego instead of being moved to Yorkville in 1864, and economic growth would likely have been significant for the whole county.

It’s an entertaining game, historical speculation is. What would have happened had the government followed through with their 1867 survey of the Fox River and made the river navigable from Ottawa to Oswego? What if a con man hadn’t sapped the economic strength of the Illinois and Midland Railroad from Newark to Millington? It’s a great game; anyone can play, and it’s free!

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Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, Transportation

Pre-Christmas nostalgia seizes blogger…

So Thanksgiving is over and now we can start looking towards Christmas?

Although merchandisers have been looking towards Christmas since before Halloween, I always try to restrain myself until all the turkey leftovers have been eaten, the leaves taken back out of the dining room table, and all the glassware and silverware has been shined and put away.

Just a bit ago, I noticed it was flurrying past my office window here at History Central in downtown Troy, which is a lot better than the rain that was falling when I got up this morning. To me, there’s not much more miserable weather than 35° and rain.

At this time of the year, it’s difficult not to reflect on Christmases past. The holiday was a big deal when I was a kid. My grandfather was an enthusiastic fan of Christmas, although at the time I would not have said my grandfather was enthusiastic about anything. He was, with us younger kids at least, gruff and a man of very few words. I don’t remember him ever calling me by my first name, in fact. But at Christmas he became a much more mellow fellow, wandering through the crowd of children and grandchildren, and later, great-grandchildren, with a grin on his normally uncommunicative face.

The CB&Q Aurora Shops car department, woodworking mill in 1898 where my grandfather worked building boxcars and cabooses. The smaller building at right was the steam power plant where my great-grandfather worked.

The CB&Q Aurora Shops car department, woodworking mill in 1898 where my grandfather worked building boxcars and cabooses. The smaller building at right was the steam power plant where my great-grandfather worked. (Library of Congress photo)

His family were Germans from Germany, as opposed to my grandmother’s family, who were Germans from Pennsylvania. Both of them grew up speaking German at home, even though my grandmother’s family had immigrated to the colonies back in 1750, while Grandpa’s family arrived in the early 1880s. But while Grandma’s family wasn’t much on religion or holidays, Grandpa’s certainly were. He brought those family traditions with him when he and Grandma and their three kids, at my grandmother’s increasingly desperate pleas, moved out of Aurora to a decrepit Wheatland Township farm.

In Aurora, they’d lived in a new house—my great-grandfather gave them a lot in between the great-grandparents’ house and the lot they’d already given to their daughter and her husband—who was my grandmother’s brother. It was a situation that led, a century later, to make for some interesting genealogy charts.

The problem was that my great-grandmother and her daughter did not get along. There was constant yelling back and forth between the two, with my grandmother literally caught in the middle of their incessant arguments after which either or both would take to their beds whereupon Grandma would be forced to care for either or both of them. After 11 years of that nonsense, she’d had enough and began begging Grandpa to move to a farm, where, she promised, she’d milk cows, feed pigs and chickens, can fruit and vegetables, and generally run the place all on her own, if he wanted.

My grandparents, my Uncle Earl (center, first row), my Aunt Evelyn (left, standing), my Uncle Gerald, who my grandparents raised and then adopted after his mother (my grandmother's sister) died in childbirth, and my mother, about 1944.

My grandparents, my Uncle Earl (center, first row), my Aunt Evelyn (left, standing), my Uncle Gerald, who my grandparents raised and then adopted after his mother (my grandmother’s sister) died in childbirth, and my mother, about 1944.

At the time he had a pretty good job as a crew supervisor working in the sprawling Chicago, Burlington & Quincy shops in downtown Aurora, a job he didn’t want to give up, at least not right away. But luckily enough, there was an interurban trolley line about a mile and a half from the farm they rented. So every morning four days a week (according to his paybooks, which I still have, his crew worked four 10 hour days a week) he’d walk down and catch the interurban to downtown Aurora, work his 10 hours, and then take the trolley home, and walk the mile and a half home. On his three-day weekends, he’d do the heavy farming work out in the fields while Grandma, true to her word, milked eight or 10 cows, fed the pigs and chickens, tended the garden and the orchard, canned and otherwise preserved the fruit and vegetables she grew, and took care of her three kids, one of whom, my Uncle Earl, was afflicted with infantile paralysis and had to be carried just about everywhere.

1920 Holzhueter farm moving day

Moving day in 1920 at the Wheatland Township farmhouse my grandparents rented from Louis McLaren. It took a few weeks to make the place livable and was a far cry from their two-story Queen Anne house on Aurora’s East Side.

But even as hard as their lives were, Christmas on the farm was an important piece of the family’s year. They’d go into Aurora on Christmas Eve so Grandma and the kids could go to St. Paul’s Lutheran Church for the German language service while Grandpa went in search of a Christmas tree and other holiday goodies. He always maintained the best deals on Christmas trees were found on Christmas Eve, in which he was entirely right. It’s just that the trees were always—and this continued right up through the day and age when I was married with my own baby girl—about as forlorn looking as the one made famous by Charlie Brown. But after the bubble lights, ornaments, and the tinsel were applied, they looked festive enough.

Grandpa was startled to find that in the country, living as they did among English and Scots neighbors, Christmas just wasn’t that big a deal. Their neighbors across the field had a son who, like my Uncle Earl, was crippled and who one summer day happened to mention to my grandfather that he loved looking across the frozen, snowy fields at Christmas and seeing the gaily lighted tree in my grandparents’ window. The child’s father offered that Christmas decorating was foolishness that cost a lot of money for no gain to the farm at all, an attitude my grandfather had a hard time getting his mind around.

So the next Christmas, my grandfather bought two Christmas trees at Joe Hauser’s store on Aurora’s East Side, plus some extra decorations. After putting up the family tree, he decorated the other one, and carried it across the field to the neighbors’ house where the youngster was absolutely shocked to find this bit of Christmas cheer was for him to enjoy. And Grandpa did the same thing for the few years the child had left before he died.

My mother and father made a big deal out of Christmas, too. On Christmas Eve, we all went to the church Christmas program, and then enjoyed the gift exchange after. Then it was off to the Bower’s house next to the church where we admired their tree and drank a little eggnog before heading home. Once in a great while, I’d get to open a gift on Christmas Eve, not often. That was saved for Christmas morning. Later that morning, we’d pack up the car and head the two or three miles to my grandparents’ farm, where we’d have Christmas dinner with my aunts, uncles, and cousins, eating around the big table in the long, narrow dining room that, outside of Thanksgiving and Christmas, was used to feed threshing and bailing crews, followed by a gift exchange (we drew names at Thanksgiving). The thrill of the day was when my mother wandered around handing out envelopes with $5 bills to all us grandkids from Grandpa and Grandma.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn's 1956 catalog.

Only some of the grandeur of the Schwinn Corvette I got for Christmas in 1957 can be glimpsed in this cut from Schwinn’s 1956 catalog.

I can still remember the thrill of opening the Lionel train I got one Christmas morning, with switches and a signal tower and a boxcar with a guy who actually slid open the door and popped out! After we moved to town, I found a brand new Schwinn bike standing by the tree one Christmas morning. It was a honey, too, a Schwinn Corvette, with chrome fenders and a three-speed gear shift, not to mention caliper brakes, which took some getting used to.

Though the Schwinn is long gone, I still have my Lionel O-gauge train set, packed in a couple boxes in the attic. The engine still smokes if you put the little white pills down the stack, an the man in the orange boxcar still opens the sliding door and pops out when it’s over that special piece of track. And as the holiday season progresses, I’m hoping I can infuse a little of the Christmas spirit that my grandfather so loved into my own grandchildren.


Filed under Aurora, Nostalgia, Semi-Current Events