Tag Archives: transportation

How the Post Office helped settle America

As the frontier of the new United States moved ever farther west, post offices, the post roads that served them, and the newspapers that were given preferential treatment by the post office made up the glue that held the new republic together.

When they were still scattered groups working their way towards the inevitable confrontation with Britain, the members of the Committees of Correspondence realized that reliable, secure communication—in those days that meant the mails was essential. The existing colonial mail system operated by the British government, was expensive and was definitely NOT secure, since it was common practice for post office personnel to open and read suspicious communications. Thus the conspirators established the Constitutional Post, North America’s first truly independent postal system.

mail-on-horseback

Carrying the mail on horseback, as it mostly was during the first decade of the nation’s existence, was expensive (one man on horseback could only carry so much mail) and dangerous for the mail carrier since the mails usually contained money.

When it came time to create a more perfect union with a new Constitution, the founders recognized that a safe, secure national postal system, open to all at the same price, was not only vital to the new country’s growth, but was required if the representative democracy they’d invented was to function properly.

Starting with the first post office department under the Articles of Confederation headed by Benjamin Franklin, the mail was defined as anything carried in the official portmanteau, a large satchel secured with a special lock, for which postmasters were supplied a special key. Anyone without a key could not, by definition, be a postmaster because they could neither accept nor send mail via the official portmanteau.e

The term “mail,” in fact had always referred to the bag in which communications were carried, since it was a derivation of the French word “male,” meaning sack or bag.

While official mail was carried in the portmanteau, unofficial communications were carried outside the portmanteau—outside the mail. Some of the earliest debates in Congress concerned what was considered part of the official mail to be carried in the portmanteau and what would not be so considered.

With the Constitution approved and in effect, Congress tried to settle the debate over the official carriage of the mails with passage of the Post Office Act of 1792. Besides having a tremendous impact on the economic growth of the new nation, the act had a momentous impact on the settlement and the economic development of the Old Northwest Territory that included the modern states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Among the act’s most important provisions were:

¶ Codifying Congress’s power to establish post offices and post routes in accord with Article I, Section 8, Clause 7 of the Constitution. Previously, the Post Office Department established post routes. Congress’s involvement assured the number of post offices would quickly expand due to constituent pressure, even on the lightly settled frontier;

¶ Forbidding government inspection of the mails. In Europe, the mails were routinely intercepted and inspected by the government. With the assurance of privacy for all users, from the government itself to individuals and businesses, were able to use the mails confidently;

¶ Establishing the basis for the symbiotic relationship between the post office and stagecoach companies. By the 1830s, the stage companies, due to their reliance on mail contracts for anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of their revenues, were virtually quasi public arms of the federal government; and

¶ Mandating the inclusion of all newspapers in the official mail. Previously, newspapers were carried outside the mail—outside the official portmanteau—meaning their delivery was often hit or miss at the whim of the stagecoach drivers or horseback mail carriers. The act required all newspapers, regardless of content, be carried in the portmanteau, thus assuring regular and prompt delivery of the kinds of information Congress deemed vital to an informed electorate.

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

And then, two years after the War of 1812 began, Congress passed the Post Office Act of 1814, further strengthening the nation’s mail delivery system. Among its provisions, the law mandated extending mail service to all county courthouses. Included in the law were existing courthouses—county seats—and those contemplated in the future. With the Northwest Territory beginning to be divided into states (Illinois would become a state just four years later), this provision proved essential to settlement. Once a county was established, it was guaranteed to receive mail service through at least one location, the county seat, no matter how small or how isolated that county and its seat were.

1830s-arrival-of-the-stage

By the 1820s, roads in the old 13 Colonies had been sufficiently improved to permit the use of stagecoaches built in Troy, N.Y. and Concord, N.H. Eventually, the Concord Coach became the stage industry’s standard vehicle, although companies also used a variety of other wagons and carts as well.

Postmaster General John McLean, who took office in 1823, instituted a number of other innovations that, by 1830, made the U.S. Post Office the world’s most effective postal delivery system.

McLean was an organizational genius who artfully perfected the hub and spoke delivery system invented by Joseph Habersham, a former Georgia merchant who was John Adams’ postmaster general. Habersham’s system, introduced in 1800, made every post office in the nation into either a hub or a spoke.

The system relied on central distribution offices—the hubs—which supplied a number of satellite “common” post offices that comprised the spokes of the system.

McLean also perfected the system under which the post office department controlled the mails at individual post offices, but relied on quasi-private contractors to carry the mail from office to office. To move the mail during early days of the republic, that meant brave men on horseback willing to fight off wild animals, thieves (no credit cards or money orders in those days, cash only), and angry Indians. Eventually, as roads were improved, companies were established that moved the mail with wagons and then coaches by stages, broken up by stops where teams could be changed, mail exchanged, and passengers fed and rested. And thus the derivation of “stagecoach.”

By 1828, McLean’s network of private stagecoach contractors was in place and working very well, although he frequently and bitterly complained about stage company owners cheating on their contracts. As perfected by McLean, the system of private stage contractors required such close cooperation between the post office and the contractors that the stage companies were actually little more than extensions of the post office itself. In fact, before 1840, a stage company that lost its mail contract bid was required to sell its coaches, horses, and other assets to the successful bidder.

When the Post Office Act of 1792 was passed, most mail in the former colonies was carried by horseback because of the near total lack of even rudimentary roads. State governments jealously guarded their rights to build and maintain roads, resisting every effort of the Federal Government to lend a financial hand, an attitude that nearly drove President George Washington (a huge post office supporter) to distraction. So to get around the states’ resistance, instead of creating roads, Congress created post routes. And as those post routes were established, their citizens demanded state and local governments improve their road systems, because people wanted their mail on time.

As the frontier moved west, so did McLean’s system. Chicago was awarded a post office in March 1831, with its mail delivered on horseback from the hub at Detroit, whose mail was delivered via the Great Lakes. The next year, a one-horse stage wagon went into service between the two towns, followed by a two-horse wagon in 1833.

Ottawa, 60 miles southwest of Chicago, was granted its post office in 1832, with mail arriving from Peoria either overland or up the Illinois River by steamboat. Communities in Kendall County, through which two of the three major Chicago to Ottawa trails ran, received mail from both the Ottawa and Chicago hubs.

Our small county of Kendall got its first post office at Holderman’s Grove on the Chicago to Ottawa Road in April 1834, with other offices springing up in 1837 at the villages of Little Rock, Oswego, and Newark.

With the establishment of post offices, the county’s new settlers could correspond with the folks back east and could also make sure they were informed citizens thanks to the newspapers carried in the official mail.

Today, the post office still provides a vital, dependable, secure link to every community in the country, even as it tries to survive attacks by those whose goal it is to transfer government services, and our tax dollars, to private companies.

 

 

 

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Filed under Business, Local History, Newspapers, People in History, Transportation

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

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

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

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

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

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

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

1830s-arrival-of-the-stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1843-12-17-barber-letter

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

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

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

1840s-stage-road-map

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

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

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

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

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

1845-frink-walker-offices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1840-arrivals-of-the-mails

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

At least Illinois will always have the cheeseburger…

While the hamburger sandwich as we know it today, a ground beef patty served on bread or a bun, may have been invented in a small town diner in Texas (views vary; strongly), it’s pretty much a sure thing that the cheeseburger was invented right here in Illinois.

When Kendall County’s first pioneer farmers arrived, they found a land of almost inconceivable richness where opportunity seemed limitless. The problem was, that while the Fox Valley’s rich, deep topsoil grew extremely bountiful crops, it was difficult to get all that grain, livestock, and other farm produce to a market where someone would pay for it.

Grain was expensive to ship overland due to the region’s truly awful road system. Until well after the Civil War, most rural roads (and most of them in small towns, too) were little more than dirt tracks across the prairie that turned into bottomless quagmires after every rain and following the spring melt of every winter’s snow.

1860-hog-drive

Until better roads were available, the easiest way to get hogs and cattle to the Chicago market was to drive them there overland.

But grain can be turned into many other useful things, such as cows, horses, hogs, and sheep. Livestock, unlike a bushel of grain, can walk to market all by itself, so until sufficient rail service was available, cattle and hog drives were not uncommon sights as the Fox Valley’s livestock farmers got their animals to the Chicago or Joliet market.

Grain can not only feed cattle destined to be turned into steaks and roasts, of course, but can also be turned into milk, and the products derived from it.

Before the Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road was pushed northeast from Streator to Geneva in 1870, dairying in Kendall County was important, but the county’s relative distance from larger markets meant problems in getting raw milk to market. When the new rail line opened, that helped ease some of the problems getting milk to market, but trains ran on tight schedules that didn’t necessarily match the needs of dairy farmers. And the line was still distant from many farmers, meaning that trips over the terrible roads of the era still meant large investments in time and labor.

oswego-chesse-and-butter-factory

W.H. McConnell’s Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory opened in the spring of 1877. One of its first major contracts for butter and cream was with Chicago’s Grand Pacific Hotel.

And that’s when America’s entrepreneurial spirit kicked in. If it was proving too difficult to get milk to markets in larger towns, why not create milk-processing factories nearer to the farms that were producing it?

One of the first to fill this need was W.H. McConnell. In 1870, a brewery had been built between the East River Road (now Ill. Route 25) and the new railroad right-of-way just north of Oswego’s village limits and atop a strong natural spring. Despite the area’s large German population, however, the brewery was a bust. But McConnell figured it would make the perfect location for a creamery, a factory to turn raw milk into butter, cheese, and other related products. It was adjacent to the railroad line, so getting his plant’s products to market would be easy.

The brewery’s access to a cold, clear fresh water spring offered natural cooling for safe storage of the newly produced cheese and butter, but just to help Mother Nature out a bit, Esch Brothers & Rabe built an ice harvesting and storage facility about a half mile north of the creamery site in 1874.

So W.H. McConnell & Company opened for business early in 1877. Within months, the changeover from beer to butter was complete. By March 1, 1877, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent could report that “W.H. McConnell & Co. are doing an excellent business for a new business at the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory (the old brewery), and have stopped, in a measure, the shipment of milk to Chicago by the farmers in that vicinity. Mr. G. Roe takes his milk to that factory and many others are preparing to do so. The firm means business, and dairymen should give them a try.”

1873-grand-pacific-hotel-chicagoBy May 9, 1878, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that Oswego’s creamery had gotten the contract to supply a major Chicago hotel: “The creamery is now producing 2,600 pounds of butter per week and is furnishing the Grand Pacific Hotel 20 gallons of cream daily.”

The Grand Pacific Hotel was a big deal, in more ways than one. Destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire, it was rebuilt and reopened in 1873, covering the entire block bounded by Clark, LaSalle, Quincy, and Jackson streets. That McConnell was able to get the butter and cream contract was a real coup.

1904 NaAuSay Creamery.jpg

NaAuSay Township’s cooperative creamery was located a good distance from any town, and served dozens of area dairy farmers.

Other creameries soon opened throughout Kendall County. In those pre-electricity days, they were powered by small steam engines, meaning they could be located about anywhere—and they were—from rural NaAuSay Township, where today’s Walker Road crosses the AuSable Creek; to Plattville, Lisbon; and Millington. On the south side of today’s Yorkville—then the Village of Bristol—McConnell opened another creamery at Hydraulic and Main Street, and he also opened one at Bristol Station on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s main line. The Palace Car Creamery Company’s creamery and butter factory was located at the northeast corner of Hydraulic Avenue and Main Street.

With sufficient markets available, Kendall County farmers responded by greatly expanding their dairy herds. In 1870, the U.S. Government’s farm census reported there were just under 6,000 dairy cows on county farms. By 1880, the number ballooned to 9,000 before topping out in 1890 with 9,500 dairy cattle.

In order to get milk to the creameries, farmers first hauled their own, but within a short time, some farmers figured there was money to be made hauling their neighbors’ milk to local creameries.

Graham farm scene

Fred Graham, sitting in the wagon at left, was one of the Kendall County farmers who earned additional money by hauling milk from dairy farms to the Oswego Cheese and Butter Factory in Oswego.

In 1900, the construction of the Aurora, Elgin & Fox River Company’s interurban line down the Fox River from Aurora to Yorkville offered a handier way to transport farmers’ milk to creameries in Aurora. In addition, the development of efficient motorized trucks and the subsequent improvement of roads also made it easier to get milk to markets once considered far too distant.

The changes in transportation led to the disappearance of the small local creameries that dotted the rural landscape since larger dairies could pay more money for farmers’ milk and were more profitable.

kraft-cheese-box

Joseph Kraft packed his patented processed American Cheese in 2 and 5 pound wooden boxes that were shipped all over the world. The cheese melted nicely, leading a nameless Kraft worker to invent the cheeseburger sometime in the 1920s.

And with all the dairy products being manufactured also came innovation. Chicago dairyman Joseph Kraft patented a method of processing cheese into a product that was not only more stable than the familiar cheddar, Swiss, and brick cheeses (meaning it could be stored and shipped far easier), but the process could be industrialized with Kraft’s cheese being mass produced. His new “American Cheese” was packed in tin cans and six million pounds of the stuff was shipped off to help feed Allied armies during World War I.

It proved a popular product here at home, too, especially after cooks found that American Cheese melted nicely without separating like natural cheeses did. At the Kraft Cheese labs in Chicago, they continually experimented with ways to use this new cheese product. One of those innovations was to top a hamburger with melted American Cheese.

And thus was born the all-American cheeseburger.

Kendall County’s love of dairying gradually cooled. Managing a dairy herd is hard, labor-intensive work. Cows have to be milked twice daily, 365 days a year. Hand-milking was hard, but ingenuity soon produced milking machines. But those, and all their myriad parts, have to be thoroughly cleaned after each use. Milk cans have to be cleaned, and the raw milk has to be properly stored so that it’s fresh when the driver picks it up to take to the city dairy where it is processed.

The big dairies merged, and what farmers called the “Milk Trusts” came to dominate the industry. Farmers fought back during the “Milk Wars” of the 1920s and 1930s.

Gradually, like all other agricultural endeavors, dairying became a specialized. Fewer farmers wanted to bother with the labor and expense involved. By 1900, the number of dairy cows on county farms had declined by a couple hundred to 9,300 from its 1890 peak. But by 1950, the number of county milk cows had been halved to 4,000 and nine years later had been nearly halved again to 2,300. During the last farm census in 2012, there were so few dairy farmers in Kendall County that the number of cows wasn’t even reported.

Today, dairy barns still dot Kendall County’s landscape, but virtually none of them are used for the purpose for which they were built. Instead, milk is produced on large corporate-owned dairy farms that are completely divorced from the communities where their milk is sold in stores.

There’s probably more truth than ever before in the old joke about city folks being asked where milk comes from and answering “The grocery store.” And I think we can all agree that it might be a good idea to give a tip of the old hat to Joseph Kraft the next time we bite into a nice juicy cheeseburger.

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Filed under Farming, Food, Fox River, History, Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Oswego, People in History, Technology

Shouldn’t we be in a holding pattern about now?

So what I want to know is: Where is my helicopter?

1951-popular-mechanics

According to futurists in the 1950s, flying to work or to the store to shop was definitely in our future, with a helicopter parked in every garage.

When we were kids, Popular Mechanics magazine frequently published neat articles, complete with illustrations, about the future, wherein we would all be flying helicopters back and forth from work. In “The Future,” we were told, instead of garages, we’d have hangers that would shelter our private flying machines, which we’d use during the week to fly off to where ever we needed to go.

Today, of course, the mind sort of boggles at the thought of airborne traffic jams with everyone trying to fly to work. I mean, it’s hard enough now to find a parking spot in downtown Yorkville or Oswego with automobiles. Can you imagine what it would be like if we were all hovering at 2,000 feet waiting for a parking space to open up so we could zip down in our helicopter and run into the hardware store or the dentist office?

Not that the future hasn’t wandered in while we were looking the other way, of course. My nephew out in Iowa now has a GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) receiver on his combine, which is hooked to an on-board computer. The computer keeps track of the yield in bushels as the combine moves across the field and in conjunction with the GPS receiver, essentially makes a yield map of the entire field. That map will, in turn, be downloaded to another computer-GPS combo the fertilizer company has on their machines that will control how much and what kind of fertilizer is laid down next spring.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

On the way to the mini-mart for a loaf of bread and jug of milk.

So while we were all fascinated about whether we would one day come to live like the Jetsons, our everyday lives have been moving into just as futuristic a direction, although a much less spectacular one. For instance, back in the 1950s and 1960s, computers were giant things that filled entire rooms and sometimes entire buildings. Nowadays, we take tiny, powerful computers in our toasters, microwaves, and automobiles for granted, but the advances those mundane tools represent are nearly miraculous.

Microwave ovens, for instance, were non-existent in homes 50 years ago. These days, we not only depend on the small electronic boxes to re-heat our coffee and defrost chicken before we fry it, but the touch of a button pops our popcorn and another button perfectly re-heats last night’s pot roast.

When we were kids, we took the car down to the service station when it was running rough, and the mechanics would use a combination of skill, art, and mechanical knowledge to diagnose what was wrong. Nowadays, “repair technicians” plug a computer into a car’s engine and an instant read-out (usually) reports what’s wrong.

The trouble with the future and predicting it has always been that no one really knows what the effect of a new invention will be. That GPS equipment mentioned above, for instance, was originally designed to allow military units and weapons systems to know exactly where they were anywhere on Earth so that killing could be made more efficient. Who was to know that cheap GPS receivers connected with miniature computers would be used for everything from leading an angler back to the fishing hotspot he stumbled across last month to increasing crop yields by allowing the precise application of fertilizer and seed in the areas where it’s needed?

Actually, futurists usually get into much more trouble when they predict what we won’t be able to do than by suggesting what will or could happen.

deforest-lee

Radio pioneer Lee DeForest was certain the world could be connected by radio waves. But he could not believe that sound and pictures both could be broadcast as a commercial success, illustrating that even visionaries are sometimes myopic.

Take the case of Lee De Forest, for instance. Just before World War I broke out, De Forest was trying to get investors interested in his new idea: Commercial radio broadcasts. From our vantage point, it seems like De Forest was a visionary, but the U.S. Government didn’t think so. In 1913, they hauled De Forest into court, charging him with fraud. A U.S. District Attorney charged with prosecuting De Forest charged: “De Forest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public has been persuaded to buy stock in his company.”

De Forest was eventually cleared and “before many years” radio signals were indeed being broadcast across the Atlantic. But just because De Forest foresaw the value of one invention didn’t necessarily mean he was a true futurist. When it came to moving one more step farther—to broadcasting sound with pictures—De Forest was unable to make the leap. Writing in 1926, he suggested: “While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially I consider it an impossibility; a development of which we need waste little time dreaming.”

So I’m not really sad there’s no helicopter out in our garage, because when it comes to the future, the Law of Unintended Consequences seems to rule. No one ever knows what will be invented or even how something already invented will be used to change our lives. The fellow who invented refrigeration had no idea his idea would one day be used to air condition the country and make possible the economic development of the Southwest and the resurgence of the Old South.

As Benjamin Franklin remarked when someone disdainfully asked of what use a new invention would be: “Of what use is a newborn baby?”

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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.

 

 

 

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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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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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