West Chicago was the first Illinois community created by the coming of railroads. A few settlers owned property in the area of present-day West Chicago as early as the late 1830s. The town itself, however, did not begin to form until 1849-1850, when the tracks of the new Galena & Chicago Union Railroad reached the vicinity. Because several railroads were the principal cause for the creation of West Chicago, a brief survey of the activities of those companies is in order.
The G&CU (which eventually became the Chicago & North Western) was Chicago’s first railroad. The laying of its track west from the city began in 1848, with the intent of reaching the Fox River, Rockford, Freeport, and Galena. The railroad arrived in what is now West Chicago in November 1849, and reached Elgin in February 1850.
The decision to lay tracks directly northwest from the West Chicago area to Elgin upset residents of the Fox River communities of Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles. They realized that the new railroads were going to transform the area. For example, the 40-mile mail run by train in 1850 from Chicago to Elgin took three hours, while the 44-mile mail run by stage from Chicago to Aurora to Sugar Grove over mud roads took 16 hours. Any community without access to this new, speedy means of transportation would be at a serious disadvantage.
Therefore, residents of St. Charles formed the St. Charles Branch Railroad in 1849. This line ran from St. Charles to a junction with the G&CU just north of present-day West Chicago. Another company built a two mile long track from St. Charles to Geneva, thus connecting Geneva, by way of the St. Charles Branch, with the G&CU at West Chicago.
From the 1874 Atlas & History of DuPage County, Illinois.
Batavia and Aurora residents were involved in the building of a different railroad, the Aurora Branch. This line (which eventually became the Burlington) laid tracks from the West Chicago area to Batavia, and then Aurora in 1850.
Thus, by late 1850, three railroads joined at what is now West Chicago. Because so many trains met at this juncture, water and fuel facilities for the locomotives were built, as well as an eating house and hotel for travelers. Very quickly a town formed, one that was known as Junction, Illinois.
By 1853, for reasons too complex for this present publication, the G&CU halted the track-laying of its Chicago to Galena line at Freeport. The company decided instead to build a second mainline, running west from Junction to DeKalb and then to Fulton, Illinois. Because its two mainlines met at Junction, the G&CU expanded its facilities, building a three stall roundhouse and a mill for repairing rails. As a result, a number of new employees and their families located in the community.
John B. Turner, president of the G&CU and a resident of Chicago, owned several acres of land in what is now the center of town. As more people settled in Junction, Turner recognized the opportunity to make a profit by platting his land and selling off lots. He, therefore, recorded the community’s first plat in 1855 under the name of the Town of Junction. He also donated two lots – one to the Congregational Church, another for an early school.
Turner’s plat is the section of town just south of Washington Street. As a railroad executive, he assigned railroad-related names to many of the first streets — Depot Street (now Main Street), as well as Chicago, Galena, and Fulton streets, named after the three projected terminal cities of the G&CU.
In 1857 Dr. Joseph McConnell and his wife Mary platted a second portion of town, those lands lying just north of J. B. Turner’s plat. The McConnells were early members of the Congregational Church and were deeply appreciative of Turner’s donation of land to the congregation. Therefore, they chose to record their plat as the Town of Turner in honor of the railroad president. There now existed a platted Town of Turner and a platted Town of Junction. As a result, the community took on the name of Turner Junction.
At this time in the mid-1850s, the new community was quite small and undeveloped. John Lakey, who served as master mechanic (superintendent) of the small G&CU shops, wrote the following recollection in 1895:
It was in the pleasant month of June 1854, that I came to the small railroad town that is now known as Turner, Illinois, then only a Junction station of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, with its Dixon Air line and a road running south to Aurora and LaSalle.
The principal buildings belonged to the railroad company. There was a two-story building 30 X 75 feet, used as an eating house. ( There was also) the “Store” occupied by the McDonald Brothers and across the road was a small building used by W. I. Mowry as a post office and grocery.
On one side of the highway (then North Street, now Washington Street) there was a brick 3-stall engine house, and adjoining it was a brick blacksmith shop used for repairing T-rails. These were the principal buildings and not one of them are in existence at the present time, they having either been burned or torn down and removed.
The railroad company owned twenty-two acres of land, lying northeast of the main track and south of the highway. This land was vacant at the time. On the north side of North Street lands owned by Dr. Joseph McConnell, and southwest of the main track the lands were the property of the Winslow heirs. None of this land was platted, hence none had land to sell.
Most of the residents, who were chiefly farmers or railroad employees, appear to have been of English or Irish stock. A sizable number came from New York State. Tradition has it that they worked on the new railroads in New York in the 1840s and migrated west as the Illinois’ railroad boom began.
Census information of 1860 and 1870 for Turner Junction is imprecise. The community did not draw clearly defined boundaries until it incorporated in 1873. Census takers in 1860 and in 1870 counted everyone listed in the area of the Turner Post Office. The 1860 figures show 722 residents, while in 1870 there were 1,086 residents.
By the late 1860s, the Chicago & North Western (as the former G&CU was now known) built a substantial brick depot and a major roundhouse here. Several church structures graced the community, including the First United Methodist Church, built in 1855; the Congregational Church, built in 1867; and St. Mary’s Catholic Church, built in 1868. In 1871 St. Michael’s Evangelical Church was added.
The community had taken on a permanent character, and so the residents incorporated it in 1873 as the Village of Turner. A total of 850 residents lived within the boundaries of the new village, with Lucius B. Church serving as the first village board president.
Population continued to increase, growing from 1,001 in 1880 to 1,506 in 1890. A sizable number of the new residents were German immigrants, who settled in the portion of town near St. Michael’s church.
This population growth demanded added services. In 1873 the community built the three-story Turner Public School. Because of the 50% population growth of the 1880s, the community added the Southside School in 1887 (renaming the 1873 building the Northside School). The village board authorized the construction of the three-story town hall in 1884. This multi-purpose building was designed to house the volunteer fire department, a one-man police department, and the village council chambers.
During these early decades, Turner was chiefly a one-industry town. According to census data, nearly 40% of the men employed in non-agricultural occupations worked for the C&NW.
This situation began changing in the late 1880s with the arrival of a new railroad, the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern or Outer Belt Line. This line is a feeder railroad rather than a cross-country one, transferring freight from one outlying Chicago community to another. The prosperity of the EJ&E depended on its having factories located all along its right-of-way, as a means of generating freight traffic for the railroad. The EJ&E offered free factory sites for any industry willing to locate along its right-of-way. Local developers quickly realized that companies that did locate here would create increased demand for housing, stores and services. Much promotional literature was produced including wall maps of 1893 that proclaimed Turner “Chicago’s Coming Great Manufacturing Suburb.” The advertising copy on the map continues by asserting that:
Turner offers opportunities to manufacturers, mechanics, home seekers, and investors offered by no other point about Chicago at the present time.
Turner has electric lights, asphalt sidewalks, two wide-awake newspapers, fine schools, prosperous churches, good society, and numerous flourishing factories that are bringing it to the front rank as a manufacturing point.
It is located at the junction of the Chicago & North-Western Railway, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railway, and the Outer Belt Line, giving it unequalled shipping facilities with Chicago freight rates.
As part of this effort to attract industry, the community changed its name in 1896 to the Village of West Chicago. The reasoning apparently was that the name helped prospective industrialists to visualize where in the state the town was located, and that “West Chicago” sounded more industrial or metropolitan than did the “Village of Turner.”
At the same time that it changed its name, the community also established a public water works. Before 1 896 fires were fought by drawing water from individuals wells, which occasionally nearly dried up during summer droughts. Fires were, therefore, a serious problem, one that also hindered the effort to attract new development. As John C. Neltnor, editor of the West Chicago-based DuPage County Democrat, editorialized:
If we expect to induce manufacturers and others to locate in our midst we have got to stir ourselves on the subject of water works. Men cannot be expected to invest their money in a place where there is no fire protection.
In October 1896 a sharply divided community voted for the water works, and the village board authorized the construction of a pumping station, reservoir, and standpipe.
The village’s effort to attract industry was hindered by a serious national depression in the 1890s. Nonetheless, several plants did open in West Chicago. Some, such as the Stimmel & Hook Pump Works and Roach & Brandt Millwork (later West Chicago Sash & Door) built plants along the EJ&E. Other plants located along the C&NW tracks, including the Turner Brick Co. and the Turner Cabinet Co.
One of the largest enterprises was a Borden’s milk condensing plant, built about 1906. Since the late 1880s, West Chicago had been the site for the formation of one of Chicago’s largest milk trains. Each morning the C&NW assembled a fifteen car milk express destined for Chicago. It drew cars from three directions and from as far away as Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Because of the volume of milk passing through West Chicago and because of the dairy farms in the area, Borden’s had found this a logical spot for a milk plant. (The plant eventually became a Reid Murdock pickle plant, and later Jel Sea)
As industry located in West Chicago and new jobs opened up, the population increased. By 1900 it reached 1,877, while 2,378 people resided in town in 1910.
At the same time new subdivisions were springing up in outlying areas. One of the moving forces behind these ex-urban subdivisions was the new electric interurban, the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago (later to be reorganized as the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin). This line began service from Chicago to Wheaton to Elgin in the fall of 1902. In 1909 it added a line from Wheaton through High Lake subdivision to West Chicago, and on to Geneva. Just as the EJ&E earlier had tried to attract industry to its right-of-way, the AE&C promoted residences along its tracks, hoping to generate passenger traffic for itself. High Lake, with its communally owned lake and lodge, was one such street car suburb promoted by the interurban, even to the point of the railroad commissioning the foxtrot “Come Where the Birds Sing,” to promote High Lake.
The increased population brought added demands on the community. In 1904 High School District 94 was formed, and in 1908 a new and larger school building replaced the old Northside School. This new building, eventually known as Washington School, housed half of the 1st through 8th grade classes as well as all of the high school classes. In August 1906 the village reincorporated itself as the City of West Chicago, with banker Grant A. Dayton serving as first mayor.
The city’s population grew by only 9% after 1910, reaching 2,594 in 1920, but then grew a dramatic 30%, to 3,477, by 1930. Industry continued to expand although a major foundry, Union Tool Co., relocated to Ohio.
Several changes occurred during these decades. In 1912 the C&NW built a new passenger depot (now the West Chicago Community Center) and an underpass, as well as the Wilson Street bridge over its mainline as a means of reaching its roundhouse area. At the same time the railroad moved its 1869 depot to the north side of what is now Washington Street, converting it into a freight depot. This new location for the old depot was adjacent to the coach yards, where the suburban commuter coaches were stored overnight, and where as many as four coal-burning steam engines fired up at a time each morning.
Two important changes relating to schools also took place. After the Southside School had been destroyed by fire in 1919, Lincoln School was built in 1921. By the mid-1920s the Northside School had become so overcrowded that two rooms for high school classes were rented at the back of the nearby Buick salesroom. In 1926 the new high school was built on Joliet Street.
Between 1923-25, the city government under Mayor Edward J. McCabe embarked on a major street improvement program, building nine miles of concrete streets and installing an ornamental street lighting system. Starting in 1930, the city renamed several streets and instituted a new numbering system for building addresses.
The decade of the 1930s saw the town’s development slow dramatically. The population actually decreased by 122 residents to a total of 3,355 in 1940. The CA&E interurban abandoned its West Chicago branch in 1937, and the city government opened the City Hall at night as a sleeping place for the homeless.
World War II brought new economic vitality, which was dramatically increased in the post-war years of suburban growth. The population grew 17% during the 1940s to a 1950 total of 3,973; a whopping 80% during the 1950s, to 10,100 in 1970. Part of this growth reflected annexations of existing developments; but much of it resulted from new building, including the construction of a number of apartment complexes. By 1980 the population reached 12,500.
Significant changes in the face and structure of West Chicago occurred throughout the postwar period. The newly formed Rotary Club of West Chicago created the Swimming Pool Association in 1954-5, which in turn sold $100,000 in bonds and built an outdoor pool in the city-owned Reed-Keppler Park. Through local volunteer effort a scout cabin was also built in that park. The West Chicago Railroad and Historical Society was formed in the 1960s, and attempted to save one of the town’s most famous houses, the Neltnor or Anthony Home, as a museum. This effort failed and the building eventually was destroyed by fire, although the Society remained in existence until it was absorbed in 1975 by the new West Chicago Historical Society.
There were, of course, several notable exceptions to the general pattern of civic groups, rather than governmental agencies, trying to carry out community projects. In 1954 the new public library building was built with tax monies. In 1964 the city government assumed the operation of Oakwood Cemetery established in 1858 by the McConnells.
While civic groups remained active in community efforts during the 1970s and ’80s, governmental bodies assumed more of a leadership role. In 1972 the park district was formed. It signed a long-term lease with the city to assume operation of Reed-Keppler Park; for several years it operated the outdoor swimming pool for the Swimming Pool Association, until the city began operating it in 1981; and it acquired Easton Park, Pioneer Park, and Manville-Oaks Park.
The city government, in the meantime, found it had outgrown the 1884 Town Hall building. Fire fighting equipment had already been moved out when the separate fire district was formed. The district replaced the volunteer company. A fire station was built in 1969 on the former site of Washington School, while the police department relocated to McConnell Street. In 1975, under Mayor Richard Truitt, the city bought and renovated a former Jewel Food Store, and moved its offices and council chambers there.
In 1976 the city created the West Chicago Historical Commission and the West Chicago Historical Museum in the old city hall. As its bicentennial project, the city established Heritage Commons next to the new city hall. This park, honoring the community’s railroad heritage, is part of the West Chicago Historical Museum.
Under the leadership of Mayor A. Eugene Rennels, the city worked with Nature Conservancy to purchase a 150 acre tract of virgin prairie on the western edge of town. The operation of this land, possibly the largest remaining tract of virgin prairie in Illinois, has been turned over to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.
Civic groups, of course, continued to play an important role. Starting in 1974, the West Chicago Railroad Days Committee sponsored an annual summer festival. In 1975 the West Chicago Historical Society was formed. Initially intended in part as the volunteer arm of the West Chicago Historical Museum, it added its own museum facility in 1979 when Celia Kruse willed the society her 1916 family home.
In 1981 the new West Chicago Community Center, Inc., a not-for-profit group that had its genesis in the West Chicago Coordinating Council of the late 1970s, acquired the 1912 C&NW depot for use as a community center. Raising tens of thousands of dollars and receiving much volunteer labor, the Center renovated the old depot, dedicating it in July 1983. The Chamber of Commerce, another active organization of the time, moved its offices to the depot that summer.
In one small sense, West Chicago’s history was brought full circle in 1981 when the C&NW located its Illinois Division headquarters in West Chicago, on the former site of the old roundhouse. This move by the C&NW appears to guarantee that West Chicago, the first Illinois community created as a result of the coming of the railroads, will remain a significant railroad town for the foreseeable future.
Jerry Musich is Curator of the West Chicago Historical Museum