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Elgin: Days Gone By - Table of Contents

Chapter 1


Elgin's History on Signs

A brief history of Elgin can be written using some of the city's street signs. James Talcott GIFFORD, who arrived with a brother in 1835, was the town's founder. Platting his settlement on the east side of the Fox River, he was responsible for some of our first street names.

DIVISION Street marks the dividing line between his claim and that of Phinehas Kimball to the north. Gifford assumed that the main business thoroughfare would be up the hill from the river and out of reach of the spring floods. He made it the CENTER of his plat. Simon Newton DEXTER of New York bought part of Gifford's claim in 1838.

The KIMBALL families of New Hampshire settled on the west side of the river. Joseph Kimball brought with him graftings from apple trees which his son, Samuel JEWETT Kimball, developed into a large ORCHARD.

The arrival of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad in 1850 encouraged William C. Kimball, Sam's brother, to erect a resort hotel, called the WAVERLY, on the southwest comer of State Street and West Highland Avenue. The rail link to Chicago was a factor in the location of a distillery along the west bank of the Fox above the dam. One of the proprietors was Benjamin Franklin LAWRENCE.

Elgin enlistments suffered heavy casualties on the battlefield of SHILOH during the Civil War. Not long after the conflict ended, Gail BORDEN started up a factory to condense the milk supplied by the many dairy farms in the vicinity. Among these were the farms of Cyrus LARKIN and John McLEAN, as well as the TODD FARM.

The watch industry was once the city's largest. Craftsmen arrived from the East to begin operations in 1864. The firm was originally called the NATIONAL Watch Company. The first president was Benjamin W. RAYMOND, and one of the Chicago Capitalists who kept the firm going in the early years was Martin RYERSON. George HUNTER, the production superintendent, 1872-1903, lived on WATCH Street, as did other company executives. Joseph HECKER was the director of the famed Elgin National Watch Factory Military Band.

An industrialized Elgin produced more than watches. William Grote, a real estate sub-divider, attracted several manufacturers from Chicago. The largest was the Illinois Watch Case Company. The general manager was Thomas W. DUNCAN, who later ran off with the wife of the firm's president. George W. LUDLOW and George R. KEEP opened a shoe factory in the northeastendin 1891. Mrs. Ludlow's name before marriage was HARTWELL. R. S. DICKIE, Milton V. KIRK, H. E. HOUSTON, and Philip D. ARMOUR established a plant on Bluff City Boulevard to print can labels in 1892.

The Elgin Road Races were first held in 1910. The first winner was Ralph MULFORD, and GRANDSTAND Place is a reminder of the thousands of spectators who came to this city to watch the grueling tests of men and machines. For more than fifty years, until they ended in 1979, Carl Parlasca produced and directed the Song of HIAWATHA Pageants.

In the southeast end are ELGIN Street and ILLINOIS Avenue. Now what could have prompted those names?

Other Elgins

The oldest of all the communities named Elgin lies along the River Lossie in northern Scotland. The site of a thirteenth century cathedral, now in ruins, it was chartered as a royal burgh in 1234. Elgin, pronounced with a hard "g," as in "begin," now provides educational, administrative, and marketing services for a wide area. Leading industries include whisky distilling, woolen manufacture, and the production of fish nets. Current population is about 20,000.

The ancient Scots came from Ireland, bringing with them their Gaelic language. It is possible that the name Elgin is a combination of Elg or Eilg, the poetic name for Ireland, and in, meaning little-Little Ireland. Another suggestion, less probable, is Helgy, one of the Norsemen who raided the British Isles.

Elgin, Scotland, whatever the source of its name, was not the immediate origin for the name of Elgin, Illinois, which was inspired by a hymn tune. Seventeenth century Protestant church music set metrical versions of the Psalms to tunes which were not attached to any particular psalm. All psalms of eight syllables in the first line and six in the next could be sung to these so-called common tunes, some of which were named after cities and towns in Scotland, including Elgin. James T. Gifford, the devoutly religious founder of Elgin, Illinois, was a Congregationalist whose Puritan ancestors had sung common tunes for generations. When be came West in 1835 to establish his new settlement on the Fox River, he chose his favorite hymn tune for its name. "I had been a great admirer of that tune from boyhood," he explained, "and the name Elgin had ever fallen upon my ear with musical effect."

Elgin, Illinois, now has more residents than the combined population of all the many other Elgins in the world. There are a dozen incorporated cities and villages named Elgin in the United States as well as a few post offices and crossroads. Several other Elgins which once existed have disappeared.

The frequent occurrence of Elgin on maps of this country is due in part to the relative fame of this city ("Known the World Over"was once a slogan of our Chamber of Commerce) and to its being suitable as a "railroad name." Its brevity and familiarity to trainmen who used the Elgin watch may have led to its adoption for a new station as lines were extended. Among these railroad towns are Elgin, Minnesota, founded after a branch reached the place in 1878, and Elgin, Kansas, which became a major shipping point for cattle after the tracks arrived in 1885.

The village of Elgin, Ohio, was platted and a post office established when the Chicago and Altantic railroad opened a depot in 1883. Population peaked during an oil boom about the turn of the century when there were three hotels, three saloons, and a dance hall.

Located high in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon is an Elgin that serves fruit growers and lumbermen. It became a shipping and distributing point for an extensive territory with the coming of the railroad. This community was named after the melancholy song, "Lost on the Lady Elgin", about the wreck of a vessel on Lake Michigan.

The steamer, Lady Elgin, was rammed during the stormy night of September 8, 1860, by the schooner Augusta about ten miles off Winnetka. The Lady Elgin, with about 350 passengers on board, was returning to Milwaukee from an excursion trip to Chicago. The collision tore the steamer's hull open below the water line, and the ship sank within a half hour. A total of 155 passengers and crewmen were saved, while 297 lives were lost. Nearly 200 residents of Milwaukee's Irish Third Ward perished in the disaster. The song, by Henry Clay Work, was popular during the Civil War years. Here's a sample of the lyrics:

Lost on the Lady Elgin
Sleeping to wake no more
Numbered with those three hundred
Who failed to reach the shore.
The name of Elgin, Nebraska, was a second choice. The first selection, Eggleston, didn't meet with post office approval. A postmaster in a neighboring community was consulted. Running his finger down the list of post offices in the official guide, he lighted upon Elgin, Illinois, for his suggestion. The village, organized in 1887, is known as the Vetch Capital of the Nation.

Elgin, North Dakota, is a Russian-German town. Its original name, Shanley, was discarded when the Northern Pacific came through because of its similarity to another station on the line, Stanley. A new name was being discussed by a group waiting for a train one day when one of their number, looking at his watch, suggested Elgin. Like Elgin, Illinois, the North Dakota town has been ravaged by a tornado. In 1978 a twister killed five and caused heavy damage.

The Elgin in Pennsylvania was incorporated in 1876 and was possibly the name of an early resident. The former CeeGee, Oklahoma, had its name changed to Elgin in 1902. It was proposed by a citizen who had been visiting the Watch City in Illinois.

Blaney, South Carolina, changed its name to Elgin in 1962 when the Elgin National Watch Company announced the opening of an assembly plant in the village. Watch making operations ended five years later, but Blaney is still Elgin.

"Capital of Iowa's Little Switzerland," Elgin, Iowa, was laid out in 1851-1852 by M. V. Burdick, a surveyor who asked permission to name the new town after his former home in Elgin, Illinois. Located in the billy northeastern section of the state, Elgin is nestled in the valley of the Turkey River. Many of the residents are descendants of German-speaking Swiss settlers. An annual event is Sweet Corn Day.

The only Elgin in the United States to be pronounced with the hard "g" is located in Texas. It was founded in 1873 along a railroad connecting Houston and Austin and was named after Robert Morris Elgin. Of Scottish descent, he was the rail line's land commissioner. This Elgin's largest industry is brick making, and the surrounding area produces watermelons, cantalopes, sweet potatoes, and cotton. Elgin High School's athletic teams are known as the Wildcats.

One of the least pretentious of the American Elgins is the Arizona entry. About the time this hamlet and the surrounding area served as the setting for the John Wayne film, Red River, it consisted of a few adobe houses and a combined filling station, general store, and post office.

Elgins can also be found in Canada, where a Lord Elgin once served as Governor General, New Zealand, Jamaica, Australia, and the Union of South Africa, but of course there's no place like home.

Population of Incorporated Elgins in the United States.


Street Names

Of the ten most common street names in the United States Park, Washington, Maple, Oak, Lincoln, Walnut, Elm, Jefferson, Highland, and Madison-Elgin has all but the last. If that name were proposed for a new roadway, it might be rejected because we have an Addison. The similarity in the two names could be confusing in an emergency call.

Some of our street names are obviously directional references, such as the road east to CHICAGO, south to ST. CHARLES, and north to DUNDEE. The name of the road west to GALENA was later changed to West Highland. NORTH and SOUTH Streets once defined the town's residential limits. Part of the dividing line between two counties runs down the middle of COOKANE Avenue.

At least three names have, or had, a geographic derivation. MOUNTAIN has a steep slope on the west side, and there was once a SPRING near North Street. RIVER Street, which once paralleled the Fox on the east side, is now North Grove Avenue. LAKE Street, however, preserves the name of William Lake, a pioneer resident whose cement house still stands on the corner of Lake and Michigan.WASHINGTON, JEFFERSON, LINCOLN, CLEVELAND, and HARRISON were presidents, but Adams Street was not named after either John or his son. It honors August ADAMS, an early state senator. There was GRANT Street, but it became River Bluff Road.

Vincent S. LOVELL purchased a large claim in the northeast end. His sons, Edward C. and Vincent Smith Lovell were partners in a real estate business. Both became mayors of Elgin. Edward was joined in matrimony to Carrie WATRES, and his brother named ADDISON Street after a friend, Addison A. Keyes.

If you're a Chicago Cubs fan, you'll recognize the names of Whitey LOCKMAN, Ernie BANKS, Rick MONDAY, Dave KINGMAN, and Bobby MURCER. Among the mayors of Elgin whose names adorn street signs were Joseph TEFFT, George S. BOWEN, Arwin E. PRICE, Augustine H. HUBBARD, Walter E. MILLER, and Clyde SHALES.

Many streets were named by subdivision developers for themselves, their children and other relatives, and their friends. For example, the City Council approved an addition platted by Silvanus WILCOX in 1890. His mother was the former Salley SHULER, and be married Jane MALLERY. Other subdividers were Thomas McBRIDE, James BARRETT, Bernard HEALY, Finla L. McCLURE, Abel WALKER, Henry SHERMAN, and George L. CONGDON. Seth MOSELEY was a surveyor and Alfred LAVOIE a realtor.

HENDEE family names were used for several streets on the west side. The family claimed descent from Captain Miles STANDISH, who came over on the Mayflower. Mary WASHBURN Hendee had been engaged to Griswold Lord before his death. She then married Joshua Palmer MORGAN. Her sister, Marcy BILLINGS Hendee married Samuel N. Brown. (Samuel lost out in this name perpetuation game. There is no Brown Street.)

The practice of using first names began early. Mary Ann Kimball was the first settler to die in Elgin. One of James T. Gifford's sons was FULTON. JAY, MAY, and STELLA were the children ofOrlando and Caroline (Gifford) Davidson and Gifford's grandchildren.

One of the plat makers remembered his homeland. John Webb, an early dial maker at the watch factory, was born in England and learned his trade there. WARWICK is the county in which English watch manufacturing was once centered, and RUGBY is the British version of football.

The signs for HIGH Street, EASY Street, and SEXAUER (pronounced "Sex Hour") are frequently stolen. There were so many thefts of LOVERS LANE that the name had to be changed to Fox Lane. What? No Main Street? We did have a MAIN Street, but it became a part of State Street long ago.

School Names

Fashions in Elgin school names have varied over the years. The first public school building was at DuPage and Chapel Streets. Built of brick, it became known as Old Brick when a New Brick school opened on Kimball Street.

Other early schools were identified for a time by their ward, such as the Third Ward and Fifth Ward Schools The Colored School, abandoned when enrollments were integrated, was the only school named after the students who attended.

Some schools were associated (at least in the public mind) With their area. One was the Watch Factory School, which overlooked the main plant of the Elgin National Watch Company from about 1870-83. It lost that name when it was moved down to Bent Street. The Old Church or Stone Church School on Geneva Street referred to its original use as the Baptist Church.

Buildings opened during the 1880's were designated by street. Examples were the National Street, Locust Street, Prospect Street, Oak Street, May Street, and Hill Street Schools.

Streets went out of favor during the nineties, when the names of Franklin, Washington, and Columbia were selected for new buildings. In 1898, National Street School became Lincoln School, May Street became Garfield, Hill Street became Sheridan, and Mill Street (also known as the Slop Hill School) became Grant. Prospect School, now the oldest in continuous use, was changed to McKinley after President McKinley's assassination in 1901.

The name of a local person was first adopted in 1899 when the Abby C. Wing School opened. Wing was an early academy and public school teacher who had recently died in a fire. Locust Street School was renamed George P. Lord School in 1905 to honor the local philanthropist.

In 1913, Oak Street School became Lowrie School, after A.H , Lowrie, a former school board president and senior publisber of the Elgin Daily News. Other.school board presidents remembered in school names are Dr. Edward H. Abbott and Vincent Coleman. Harriet Gifford, T.A. Larsen, Emmie U. Ellis, and Myrtle Huff were Elgin teachers so honored.

Lords Park, Illinois Park, and Century Oaks schools are so named because of their location. In 1967 students were allowed to name their new school. They chose Hillcrest over other candidates-High Point, Towercrest, Knollwood, and Hawthorne.

Highland is a reversion to the street name. Kimball Junior High School refers to the original settlement on the west side by the Kimball family of New Hampshire.

Twenty years ago, when the city's second high school was nearing completion, the name Elgin West was suggested. Elgin High School would then become Elgin East. Another proposal, tentatively adopted by the school board, changed the older school to Central.

This brought about the biggest school name controversy in local history. Students and alumni protested, arguing that tradition must be preserved. The board reconsidered and Elgin High remained Elgin High. Larkin High School was named after Cyrus H. Larkin, an early pioneer who once farmed the land on which the school's 43 acre campus is located.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but school names are something special---even if they aren't permanent.

Vanished Names

Once familiar places in Elgin have disappeared and the names of others have been replaced by new ones, reminders that change is a constant. If a reference is made today to Sunset Park or Cobbler's Crossing, many would know their general location. But where was Lord's Pasture? This was an unimproved plot of about 25 acres, owned by George P. Lord, north of Orange Street and south of Walnut Avenue, between Perry and Billings. The land remained vacant long after houses were built in the area. It was finally sub-divided in 1909.

Lord's Pasture was part of the Dutch Flats area, a table land west of South State Street, between South and Orange Streets. It was given this name because it was occupied chiefly by German immigrants. The former Oak Street School, now Lowrie, was often referred to as the Dutch Flats school.

Colby's Grove, a site east of the Elgin Academy, was a favored place for holding picnics and Fourth of July celebrations. It was sold in lots in 1873. Park Street derives its name from this grove, not Lords Park. Bent's Grove, just south of the watch factory, and Joslyn's Grove at the corner of Brook and Ann Streets, were other picnic grounds.

The Golden Stairway was erected about 1923 over the Milwaukee tracks at National Street crossing. The steps and elevated walk eliminated delays encountered by pedestrians while freight trains blocked the street. When the steam locomotives began taking on water at Spaulding, the problem was eased. The Stairway was torn down in 1935 after the walkway had become a convenient perch for small boys to cast stones upon the trains passing below.

The first railroad to arrive in Elgin was the Galena & Chicago Union. It crossed the river in 1851 and ran along the west side bluffs headed toward Freeport. The Fox River Valley Railroad began on the east side of Elgin in 1854 and followed the river to Dundee and points north. When both lines were merged into the Chicago & North Western in 1864, the west side tracks were referred to as the "high" North Western and the east side tracks as the "low" North Western. The distinction was necessary because each line had its own depot, neither one now existing.

Although no Elgin institution has changed names as often as Liz and Zsa Zsa have changed husbands, some have come close. The Northern Illinois Hospital and Asylum for the Insane opened in 1872. Its title was changed to the Illinois Northern Hospital for the Insane three years later. It became the Elgin State Hospital in 1910 and the Elgin Mental Health Center in 1975. This state institution should not be confused with the Fox Valley Mental Health Center, which became the Ecker Center for Mental Health in 1983.

The Chicago & Pacific railroad entered Elgin in 1873. It was later purchased by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific, a line which was first commonly known as the St. Paul or Milwaukee and then by the Milwaukee Road. Today the tracks are part of the Soo Line system, but commuters ride on Metra trains.

In 1932 students entered what was then called Abbott School on the west side. When the tenth-grade students were sent to Elgin High School in 1939, it became Abbott Junior High. Since 1984 it has been Abbott Middle School.

The Elgin Loan and Homestead Association, founded in 1883, became the Home Savings and Loan Association in 1962 and the Home Federal Savings in 1969. The Elgin Federal Savings and Loan Association is now the Elgin Federal Financial Center. The Commercial Club evolved into the Elgin Association of Commerce and then into the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce.

Churches have not been immune to the name-changing virus. The German Evangelical Association, for example, became the First Evangelical United Brethren, and is now Faith United Methodist. Swedish Evangelical Lutheran became the Bethlehem Evangelical Lutheran, and Zion Methodist evolved into Wesley Methodist.

Changing the names of streets is relatively infrequent because it often requires the inconveniences of a new mailing address, but old timers can recall when part of River Bluff was Alexander, East Highland was Milwaukee, and West Chicago was Bridge. The streets called Lemonade, Pearl, and Broadway are still around but have different designations.

Life isn't static, and each generation has a different perspective. Some day people will ask where Sunset Park or Cobbler's Crossing was located.


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