Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age

Tours of Chicagoland

Six tours of Chicago and suburbs from
Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age
by Ann Durkin Keating

West Tour
Map for the West Tour
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Roosevelt Road (SR38) and North Avenue (SR64) were early roads heading straight west out of Chicago, while Lake Street and Ogden Avenue headed west but angled north and south respectively. The first railroad line in Chicago was built west from downtown by the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad Company (known for most of its history as the west line of the Chicago and North Western Railway) beginning in 1848. A second line (the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad) made its way west during the Civil War in the 1860s. These four roads and two railroads fostered an east-west orientation between communities along the routes.

It is here, to the west of Chicago, that the juxtaposition of a railroad and prerailroad landscape is seen most easily. Places near rail stops on the two west lines were drawn into a tight orbit with Chicago (and each other) over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At the same time, in the large swathes of territory between the railroads, older settlements languished but did not disappear from the landscape. The most recent wave of suburbanization in the late twentieth century has transformed many of these areas, but historical societies have successfully saved a sampling of older sites.

Austin and Oak Park were among the first railroad stops out from the city center, and became early sites for commuter settlement. The Austin Town Hall (W1) on Lake Street at Central Avenue, while a twentieth-century building, is a reminder of Austin’s roots as an independent commuter suburb in the nineteenth century (annexed to Chicago in 1889). The Austin Historic District to the south is noted for its ornate Victorian frame single-family houses. Traveling west on Lake Street into Oak Park, historic districts are to the north and south, filled with houses built when this residential commuter suburb boomed, between the 1870s and 1920s. The Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio (W2), north of Lake Street on Forest at Chicago Avenue, is among around sixty other buildings constructed in an early modern style.

Heading south across Oak Park and then west along Roosevelt Road (State Route 38), we drive through the many cemeteries found in Forest Park, including the Jewish Waldheim (1870), Concordia (1872), German Waldheim (1873), Forest Home (1876), and Woodlawn (1912) cemeteries. These cemeteries were founded in the late nineteenth century when funeral trains reached the area on either side of the Des Plaines River. Around these cemeteries developed picnic groves, restaurants, and early amusement parks.

Continuing west along Roosevelt, crossing from Cook into DuPage County, turn south on York Road past 31st Street. On the west side of York Road at the Salt Creek stands the Graue Mill (W3). Completed in 1852 by the German American Graue family, this four-story brick structure with a large water wheel takes us back before the dominance of steam power and the railroad. Three generations of Graues ground grain at this site, which served farmers for miles around. In the middle of the nineteenth century, dozens of mills ground grain and milled lumber. Most disappeared as farmers shifted from grain to dairy, and lumber was shipped around the region along the rail lines.

Returning northward along York Road we pass through the post-1945 suburban development around Oak Brook: toll roads, shopping centers, corporate headquarters, and residential subdivisions. Further north, Elmhurst evidences older patterns, with a nineteenth-century residential core around its rail station and Elmhurst College, with Hauptgebaude (W4) (the Old Main structure on the college grounds). Turning west on St. Charles Road, take Ardmore north into Villa Park. Villa Park first developed along the railroad and then the interurban line running to Aurora in the early twentieth century. The old Ovaltine Factory (W5), adjacent to the train, was built at the end of World War I and operated until the 1970s. Three stories high, with the spare brick construction of the modern style, the factory includes terra cotta trim in white and deep blue. In the first years of the twenty-first century, the structure was converted to townhouses and condominiums.

Returning to St. Charles Road, just past Main Street in Lombard on the south side of the train tracks stands the Sheldon Peck Homestead (W6). The Peck family arrived in this region from upstate New York in the mid-1830s, years before the arrival of the railroad. St. Charles Road connected them to other farmers and Chicago. They built this modest, one-and-a-half-story frame house in 1837, which family members occupied until 1996. It served as a center for a busy farmstead, the first school in the area, and as a studio for Sheldon Peck, who was a portrait painter.

Just a few miles further west along St. Charles Road, Stacy’s Tavern (W7) was a near neighbor to the Peck family during their early years. At the intersection of St. Charles and Geneva Road, the Stacy family purpose-built this frame, two-story tavern in 1846, after finding farmers and other travelers often knocking on their farmhouse door for accommodations. Taverns such as this dotted Chicagoland before the railroad, when it took more than a day to travel to the outer reaches of the region. Travelers could shelter their horses, catch a drink in the taproom (or tea in the ladies’ parlor), eat a meal in the adjacent dining room, and share upstairs bedrooms. Today a part of Glen Ellyn, this site lost its purpose as travelers switched to the nearby rail lines.

Following Geneva Road from Stacy’s Tavern, take Main Street south into downtown Wheaton. Unlike Stacy’s Tavern or the Peck Homestead, Wheaton’s development came with the railroad. Warren Wheaton offered land to the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad when company officers were plotting its route in the late 1840s. He got a rail station in exchange, which fostered an initial burst of town development. Wheaton also donated land to a school which became Wheaton College in 1860. Blanchard Hall (W8), whose central part was constructed in 1853, is the oldest structure on the Wheaton College campus. The town of Wheaton developed between the rail station and the college.

Continuing west along Roosevelt Road (just south of downtown Wheaton), and turning north on County Farm Road, we come to Kline Creek Farm (W9), which preserves a farmstead of the 1890s, including a house, outbuildings, and small fields as a living history museum. The Kline family raised hay to sell to urban horse owners. They were among a large number of Chicagoland farm families who raised horses (as well as hay and oats) needed in the city, particularly for the extensive horsecar system. Returning to Roosevelt Road, north on Winfield Road is the next stop on the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad from Wheaton. The Hedges Station (W10) (now moved south of the railroad on the east side of Winfield Road) is the oldest extant rail station in Illinois. The Winfield Historical Society is working to preserve this structure, which served this small rural community from 1849 into the twentieth century, when suburbanization overtook older patterns. Farmers such as the Kline family would have brought their hay, dairy, and fresh produce to this station for shipment into Chicago.

Continuing north along Main Street, turn west on Geneva Road into West Chicago. In a town originally named Turner, the railroad built yards and a repair shop here in the mid-nineteenth century. They also hoped to attract factories to this town, which developed in a pattern quite distinct from its agricultural and commuter neighbors. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, the railroad sold off its landholdings, turning industrial land into parkland. The Turner Town Hall (W11) stands as a reminder of West Chicago’s nineteenth-century roots.

Return to Geneva Road and travel west until the road merges with Roosevelt Road (SR 38). Continue west on Roosevelt Road through Geneva and over the Fox River. The westernmost site is the Garfield Farm (W12), north of Route 38 between Geneva and Elburn in LaFox. The Garfield family owned this farm from 1841 until 1977. In the early years, the Garfield home served as a tavern, providing accommodations to travelers, as well as meeting space for area farmers. The two-story structure was built with brick made by the Garfield family on-site. Today, the Campton Historic Agricultural Lands, a not-for-profit that controls the land on which the farm sits, is actively seeking to preserve the surrounding farmland in the face of suburban encroachment.

Returning east on Roosevelt Road (SR 38), travel south on Broadway (SR 31) into Aurora. Aurora was founded in the 1830s along the Fox River. The arrival of the railroad in 1855 led to the construction of the Aurora Roundhouse (W13) on Broadway north of New York Avenue. The complex currently includes the Aurora Transportation Center and the adjacent Walter Payton Restaurant. The massive limestone structure accommodated forty stalls for building and repairing locomotives. Aurora supported many more industries and attracted workers, managers, and factory owners to its thriving economy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

West out from Chicago, nineteenth-century structures show the multiple kinds of settlements which emerged both before and after the arrival of the railroad. Instead of an undifferentiated rural landscape before the hypersuburbanization of the close of the last century, this tour has shown the very clear development paths which were laid in the nineteenth century.

Book details:

Ann Durkin Keating
Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age
©2005, 296 pages, 132 halftones, 23 maps. 8½ x 9¼
Cloth $65.00 ISBN: 0-226-42879-6
Paper $25.00 ISBN: 0-226-42882-6

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Chicagoland: City and Suburbs in the Railroad Age.

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