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Elgin: Days Gone By - Table of Contents

Chapter 12


The Opera House

'Willie!" cries Lady Isabel to the son she had abandoned eight years before. "Don't you know me, Willie? I am your mother!" And Willie, struggling to sit up gasps, "Mama," and promptly dies.
This was a dramatic scene in East Lynne, one of the melodramas that thrilled Elgin audiences at the Opera House long before the advent of movies and television.

The DuBois Opera House on Grove Avenue opened on November 1, 1870, with dramatic and musical entertainment provided by local talent. Built of Joliet stone and Milwaukee brick, it was designed by the noted Chicago architect, John E. Van Osdell. The auditorium, or public hall, was on the third floor and seated up to 1,200 on hard-backed chairs. Three stores were on the street level. Offices and a large dining room occupied the second floor.

The Opera House was destroyed in a spectacular fire in 1886, but a new building opened the next year. Lavishly decorated, it had a spacious foyer, upholstered chairs, box seats, a gallery, and a balcony. In front of the big stage was a pit with room for an orchestra of 20 pieces. A Roman scene painted on the drop curtain replaced advertisements and business cards. The opening night featured William J. "Billy" Florence in The Almighty Dollar, a production in which he was to perform more than 2,500 times over a long career.

Traveling stock companies came to town during the fall and winter seasons to present dramatic standards, such as The Octoroon, Rip Van Winkle, and Ten Nights in a Bar-Room. Judging from the scripts, they were mediocre fare, but the same could be said of much of our television.

Opening Night at the Opera House, 1870.

Not all the bookings were appreciated. A performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1882 was described by the Daily News as " a bald-headed farce." The reviewer suggested "the participants should rejoice and be glad that a good-tempered and forgiving audience allowed them to go back to Chicago without coffin accompaniment." On one occasion, the reaction was more threatening. In 1887 a show charging 50 and 75 cents for tickets-a big sum in those days-opened almost an hour late and then put on a disappointing performance. After the curtain fell, a crowd of men and boys gathered in the front of the theater demanding refunds. Police had to guard the exits of members of the company.

There were limits to what was allowed. Fred W. Jencks, manager of the Opera House during its beydey, cancelled a booking of Black Crook, Jr., a burlesque troupe, after receiving word from Joliet and Aurora that the show was "indecent, immoral and obscene, and not fit to be presented on any stage."
Some of the leading figures of the American theater appeared at the Opera House. They included E. S. Willard, Julia Marlowe, E. H. Sothern, Minnie Maddern Fiske, Lotta Crabtree, Edwin Booth, and Otis Skinner. Little known now, they were the matinee idols of their time.

More than plays occupied the stage. There were minstrel shows, marathon walkers, magicians, and mind readers. Music lovers enjoyed concerts by the famed bands of Patrick Gilmore and John Phillip Sousa and the Chicago Symphony under Theodore Thomas. Now and then there was an opera.

The Opera House was a town hall for political and religious meetings. Elgin bad an opportunity to hear such nationally known lecturers as the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, Robert G. Ingersoll, Eugene V. Debs, Susan B. Anthony, Samuel Gompers, Frances E. Willard, and Clarence Darrow, among others.

About the time the Opera House was remodeled into the Grand Theater in 1910, vaudeville was replacing the old road shows. The Marx Brothers, played here several times beginning about 1915. In one skit, Groucho was the stern teacher and Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, and Gummo were the students. In 1917, Al Jolson starred in the New York Winter Garden production of Robinson Crusoe, Jr. Ticket prices for this attraction ranged up to a steep $2.50.

The Grand was destroyed by the Palm Sunday tornado of 1920. Rebuilt as the Rialto, its vaudeville offerings were over-shadowed by motion pictures but listen carefully the next time you walk down South Grove Avenue. Perhaps you can hear:

"And now that I have written the message, who will take it?"
"I will!" cries a voice from rear stage.
"And who are you?"
"Hawkshaw, the detective!"
The Old Creamery

Buildings with long lives, like the humans who create them, change as the years go by. This is the biography of an Elgin building that lasted the Biblical threescore and ten years. It once stood near the southeast corner of Dexter and Brook streets, where the Civic Center is now located.

It was erected and occupied in 1893 by the Elgin Butter Company. The imposing three-story and basement plant cost an estimated $100,000 and was described by the Daily Courier as a "model of its kind." It replaced the obsolete little creamery, the first in the city, which had opened on a west side hill in 1870. William H. Hintze was the firm's president and principal owner.

Because of the weight, the butter making apparatus was located in the basement, while the upper floors were used for storage. Farmers delivered milk in eight gallon cans which were emptied into large receiving tanks. The cans were immediately washed and scalded with steam and returned to the dairyman. A huge separator could skim five tons of milk per hour. From the separator the cream flowed over a cooler into large vats. When sufficiently ripened, the cream was poured into large square churns and made into butter. The finished product was then shipped in everything from half-pound packages to the standard 60-pound tub. Side tracks of the east side North Western entered the cold storage rooms, and the refrigerator cars were loaded without a change in temperature.

After Hintze died in 1900, the Elgin Butter Company was purchased by a Chicago-based firm whose creameries supplied more than 8,000 retailers. The business declined when the price of fluid milk rose in the Chicago area. This placed northern Illinois butter producers at a competitive disadvantage with those in Wisconsin.
The building was sold to the newly organized Elgin National Brewing Company which began production in 1906. Its Elgin Club Export brand was available at bars, and its table beer sold for 50 cents a case.

In Fall and in Winter,
In Spring and in Summer
When you want a Drink,
National Beer is a Hummer.
Despite or because of jingles such as these, National Brewery never prospered. Although its output reached 13,000 barrels annually, it was bankrupt even before the township became dry territory in the spring of 1914. Beer shipments were halted late that year.

Creditors sold the building to the Kampmeyer brothers in 1920. One brother, A.J., ran a used furniture store on the premises. For several years, the second floor was occupied by the Williams Manufacturing Company, makers of chiropractic tables, and the third floor by the Empire Milking Machine Company.

During World War II, a portion of the structure was divided into apartments. Due to the severe housing shortage, this conversion continued after the war until there were more than 40 apartments on the second and third floors.

The former creamery and brewery deteriorated into a slum tenement. The apartments, some windowless, flanked dark and dingy hallways. The thinly partitioned rooms were lighted by bulbs dropped from the ceilings. Tenants shared common bathrooms. The place smelled. Its condition bolstered the city's application for federal urban renewal funds.

When the property was purchased by the city for the Civic Center development in 1964, the apartment manager publicly thanked police and other government employees "for their ability to handle difficult situations." In 1965, the building was razed. There were few mourners.

Grand Hotels

After the arrival of the railroad, William C. Kimball built a four-story brick hotel in 1852-1853 at the southwest corner of Broadway (now North State Street) and Galena (now West Highland Avenue). The Waverly House had a large dining room, a fire-resistant cobblestone stable, and a veranda that overlooked an ample lawn. Steps in the rear led to the "high" North Western tracks. Trains allowed passengers to stop for refreshments. Chicagoans were attracted by the Waverly's pure spring water and the fresh country air, and local residents considered it an ideal place for banquets and dances.

A grand ball at the Waverly in 1858 celebrated the victory of the local militia, the Washington Continental Artillery, in a competitive drill with a Chicago company at what is now Gifford Park. The Continentals were drilled by Elmer Ellsworth, a friend of Lincoln's, who later became a Civil War hero. Among the Elgin contingent marching in the February cold were John S. Wilcox and William F. Lynch, both of whom were later to be breveted brigadiers for war service. A silk flag with 31 stars was presented to the victorious Continentals.

Kimball lost control of the Waverly during the Panic of'57. Title, after some delay, passed into the bands of non-residents, and the building fell into disrepair. The Waverly enjoyed a renaissance with the coming of the watch factory and the consequent increase in the business trade. In 1865 the parlors, chambers, and dining room were newly furnished, and the kitchen was equipped to supply hot water for the bathrooms. "No town in the West, the size of Elgin can boast of so fine a public house as our Waverly," enthused the Weekly Gazette, which announced a grand opening gala. A special train brought guests from Chicago.

By the early '80s the old hotel had again become rather seedy, and it was acquired by the city in 1884 for use as a court and lock up. Where chamber and kitchen maids once scurried and scoured, lawyers' arguments now mingled with the shouts of the incarcerated. The hotel, turned calaboose, was converted to industrial use in 1888, producing in succession condensed milk, bottled milk, and malted milk. When a new plant for the latter was erected on the old hotel's lawn in 1911-1912, the once admired Waverly, largely vacated, was condemned as unsafe and razed in 1917. All that remains is the cobblestone stable.

The Waverly was succeeded as Elgin's finest hotel by the Kelley. More than just a place to stay, it was an Elgin institution with a national reputation. In the days before paved highways signaled its decline, the Kelley enjoyed heavy patronage from traveling salesmen, colorful theatrical companies who appeared next door at the Opera House, and outstanding figures of the automobile industry during the Elgin Road Races.

Erected in 1887-1888 by Captain Leverett M. Kelley, a Civil War veteran, the hotel was a three-story brick veneer structure fronting 44 feet on Grove Avenue opposite the old Post Office and extending 180 feet toward the river. The lower floor was initially occupied by stores, while the 30 rooms on the upper stories were fitted out in elegant style with steam heat in every room. By 1896, when rates ranged from $2.00 to $2.50 per day, there was a barber shop, public bath rooms, and a saloon. Twenty-four rooms were added in 1916 by an extension south into an adjoining building. Management was usually in the hands of lessees.
A canopy extending out over the Grove Avenue sidewalk was used as a balcony and served as a reviewing stand for the parades which passed through the business district. It was especially popular on watch factory pay days and Saturday shopping nights when the streets were jammed. The canopy was torn down in 1949.

Frank Lasher, who purchased the building from Kelley in 1901, was the owner during its greatest days. His saloon on the first floor off the lobby, opened in 1889, was the finest in Elgin. Swinging doors opened on a massive, dignified bar and a large artistic painting. Minors, women, and men showing the least sign of intoxication were never tolerated. In the evening a buzzer announced the next act of vaudeville at the Opera House and started a procession of between-the-act visitors into the theater lobby.

The Kelley was host to many celebrities, but its saloon drove at least one away. Carry Nation, the dry crusader, came to town in 1909, arrived to register at the Kelley, took one look at Lasher's, and demanded more fitting quarters. The bar escaped her axe.

In 1906 the McGill brothers, Frank and Lynde, opened a dining room to the accompaniment of an orchestra and carnation souvenirs. Refurbished in the'20s, the Kelley Hotel Restaurant was the largest in Elgin. It had its own bakery, employed more than fifty, and seated 325. Open 24 hours a day, the counter, cafeteria, and dining room-a "three-way service" started in 1922-were all served from the same kitchen.

After Elgin Township went dry in 1914, Lasher installed a billiard room and opened four bowling alleys in the basement. No other recreation parlor then had more than three lanes. The ice cream parlor of Tom C. Paulos took the place vacated by the saloon.

The opening of the new Fox Hotel on Douglas Avenue in 1925 ended the Kelley's reign as Elgin's prestige hostelry. An eight lane competing bowling alley opened down the street the same year. The restaurant closed its doors in 1937. After remodeling in the early'50s the hotel contained 72 rooms, 30 of them with bath, and six apartment units. The lobby was moved to the second floor. The building was vacated in 1971, after it failed to meet safety and fire code standards, and razed the following year.

Captain Kelley, who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, lies buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and the hotel which bore his name is no more. Gone, too, are the sample men standing out front to admire the pretty watch factory girls going home in the evening, the big road show trunks moving in and out of the lobby, the splendid new cars pulling up at the entrance on road race days, and the newsmen swapping stories and sipping coffee at the restaurant after putting their papers to bed. The motels along the major highways are models of efficiency, but will they create memories like the Kelley?

Private Schools

When William A. Drew opened Elgin's first business college in 1885, only a small minority of students continued beyond the eighth grade in the public schools. Even if they went on, the high school and Elgin Academy had few vocational offerings. Expanding businesses required employees with office skills. The privately owned business college filled this need, providing, in the words of one of Drew's promotions, "The practical training impossible of attainment in schools of the ordinary character."

Drew's successful venture spawned a rival. Walter H. Callow, one of his teachers, opened the Elgin Business College in 1893. The curriculum included bookkeeping, shorthand, arithmetic, typing, commercial law, correspondence, penmanship, business forms, spelling, and business practice.

With the decline of Drew's health, Frank W. Ellis, another of his faculty members, opened a school on Douglas Avenue in 1900. His school started up in two small rooms with 18 students. Later it was located in the Town Block (now the Union National Bank site), and in 1915 it occupied the second floor of a new building at the northeast corner of Spring and Division.

The Ellis Business College merged with Callow's school in 1905, the same year the Metropolitan Business College of Chicago opened a local branch. The two schools vied with each other for students, advertising the number and variety of their machines, the best shorthand method-Gregg's or Pitman's, the availability of night classes, and the successful placement of graduates.

They also had competition from Elgin Academy, which experienced a declining number of students with the expansion of the public high school. The Academy offered diplomas for short courses in business and shorthand, from 1895 to 1913. Elgin High School gave two-year commercial diplomas from 1913 through 1927.

Although Frank Ellis sold out in 1919, the school he established continued under a succession of owners. In 1925 Ellis Business College absorbed its rival, the Metropolitan, and preempted the private instruction field. The growth of Elgin Community College, which opened in 1949, steadily reduced Ellis enrollment, and the school finally closed its doors in 1968.

Elgin no longer has private business colleges, but in days gone by they trained thousands of stenographers, secretaries, accountants, and other white collar workers to staff our local offices. Many Ellis alumni are still at their desks.

There was once a school in Elgin that attracted students from all over the country. More than 5,000 came to learn how to repair watches and clocks in a building that still stands on South Grove Avenue. The Elgin Watchmakers College was established by the Elgin National Watch Company in 1920. It was administered as a separate institution, but students bad the advantage of the factory's technical facilities.

Each student had his own bench, lathe, and tools. The college provided watch-timing and cleaning equipment, an assortment of clocks and watches for practice work, and the parts and materials for repairing them. In addition to repairing, the curriculum included machine engraving, stone setting, ring sizing, and retail sales. Graduates were prepared to take examinations set up by the Horological Institute for states that required them. More students from the Elgin Watchmakers College passed these tests than did those from any other school.

During the Second World War, a streamlined course prepared soldiers to make watch repairs in the field. They were billeted at the Fox Hotel (later renamed the Douglas). For many Of them, Elgin hospitality and the large number of female war workers at local plants made their stay a memorable part of their Army service.

The school's director for 32 years was William H. Samelius. After his retirement in 1953, he was succeeded by Raymond R. Soucie. Capacity enrollment was about 175, but the number of students declined with the increasing popularity of throw-away pin ]ever watches. When the school closed in 1960, enrollment was down to 44. The building was razed in 1992.

Cook's Whistle

Factory hands once were called to their jobs by bells or whistles. They were familiar sounds even in industrial cities such as Elgin, where residents surely knew what time it was. The bell installed in the new watch factory in 1905, for example, struck 78 blows at 6:00 a.m. as a kind of alarm clock, 37 at 6:50 a.m., and one at 7:00 a.m., starting time.

The whistle at the Borden plant once was used for another purpose besides summoning employees. "To avoid confusion when a fire alarm is received," it was announced in 1889, "the condensing factory whistle will blow. All firemen are then to assemble in Fountain Square for directions as to where to go."

One of the more remarkable and enduring of Elgin's steam powered whistles was installed in 1901 at the David C. Cook Publishing Company's new plant in the north end. It was ten inches in diameter and could be heard for miles. Three distinct notes were keyed together, and they were sounded in unison at 7:30 a.m., noon ' 1:00 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. One employee knew how to express his admiration of the new building; it was, he said, "the most up-to-date workshop that ever blew a whistle."

Although its throat was softened in th e 1920s, the whistle at Cook still could be heard a long distance. Farmers at the eastern edge of the city used it to time the start of field work in the morning and their chores in the evening. "There must be a wind from the north. I can hear Cook's whistle," was a familiar comment among downtown shoppers.

As the years went by, the sounds of the whistle-so regular that watches and clocks were set by them-became part of the pattern of Elgin life. They wakened children for school, alerted dogs to greet their homeward-bound masters, and accompanied the V-J Day celebration.Then in 1947, a few neighbors complained that the whistle was a disturbance, and the firm decided that, since it was no longer needed, the whistle would give its last toot. The announcement was greeted with an immediate and unexpected outcry. Company officials and the Daily Courier-News were deluged with requests by mail, telephone, and in person to "keep the whistle blowing." A blind woman said it helped her keep track of the time, and a deaf man affirmed that it did not make any difference to him. Scores of residents claimed that they relied upon it to call the youngsters home to dinner.

Others protested that motorcycles and automobile horns were a far greater nuisance. Workers at the dress factory on Congdon Avenue signed a petition citing its convenience for them, and another petition contained the names of 215 Cook employees and 109 of their neighbors.

Responding to this overwhelming support, David C. Cook 111, president of the firm, agreed to let the whistle continue its daily tooting. It was not until 1956, when the firm's high pressure steam system was discarded, that the "friendly whistle" finally was silenced. With its passing one of Elgin's traditions, came to an end.

The Airport

Elgin's first airport was laid out in 1926 on part of the Hoornbeek farm along the west side of McLean Boulevard. The east-west runway was roughly the northern boundary of the Town and Country shopping center on the site today, while the north-south runway extended to what is now the Larkin High School campus. A wooden hangar and a repair building burned down in 1930, destroying two planes. By then, interest had shifted to another site.

In July, 1929, Elgin Airways, Incorporated, obtained a lease on a section of the former Todd farm, then owned by Mrs. Earle R. Kelley. The land, most of it lying in Dundee Township, was level and free of obstructions. It required little grading, and after the weeds were cut and rocks removed, planes soon were able to use the new field.

Learning of a proposed air mail service running from Chicago to Madison via Rockford and Janesville, the Association of Commerce raised about $16,000 for the improvement of theKelley property and took over Elgin Airways' lease. Since the mail plane would have to land after dark several months of the year, it was necessary to install boundary and landing lights.

This first airplane made in Elgin, a maroon and cream biplane, was given its maiden flight on November 28, 1928. It was the only one completed by the Ta Ho Ma Aircraft and Motor Company before the firm went bankrupt. The plane was assembled in the old Elgin Silver Plate factory at Melrose and Carr Streets. There was room for two passengers in addition to the pilot.

B.S. Pearsall, a margarine manufacturer, paid for a revolving beacon required by the Post Office Department. It was erected on a rise of land along Highway 20 west of the city and became a familiar landmark until 1952, when it was dismantled and reassembled at the airport. The light was the origin of the Beacon Hill designation still applied to the area.

The Elgin National Watch Company, then producing tachometers and the Avigo magnetic compass, was a major contributor to the project. Victor Showalter, engineer for the firm's instrument division, was responsible for much of the planning necessary for government approval. He also was an active member of the Elgin Avigo Flying Club, a group of local enthusiasts.

Among the reasons for the Association of Commerce's investment was Elgin's location in the metropolitan area outside the smoke and haze of the central city. Not only would an Elgin airport offer safe landing conditions, but passengers had fast access to Chicago's Loop on the third rail interurban. A local airport would be good for business.

Mail and passenger operations provided by Northwest Airways started March 8, 1930. More than 7,000 pieces of mail to be postmarked on the first day of service were received from every state and from several foreign countries. The service was prompt and regular, with few cancellations due to inclement weather. The plane from Chicago arrived in the morning, and the plane from Madison landed early in the evening. About four pounds of mail was carried from Elgin each day.

The airport was formally dedicated with a big celebration on June 10, 1930. Among the 77 planes on hand were 30 flown in by the U.S. Army Air Corps and six by the Navy. H. H. (Hap) Arnold who would become commander of the Army Air Force in the Second World War, led the flight of Army planes from Wright Field at Dayton, Ohio. A crowd of thousands witnessed demonstrations of aerial maneuvering and a parachute jump. Rides in oil company aircraft were available for the daring.

Among the planes on display were Curtisses, Stinson Detroiters, Douglasses, Heath Parasols, Gypsy Moths, Monocoupes, Fokkers, Wacos, and Boeings. Calling attention to the rapid growth of aviation, the main speaker, Rear Admiral Walter E. Crosley, prophesied: "Those cities that are as farseeing as Elgin, who have airports now, are on the ground floor and will profit in the future."

After air mail postage rates were increased, the number of letters declined with the deepening Depression. On May 31, 1933, service on the Elgin route was discontinued. This blow was followed by a tornado in July that roared through the north end of Elgin. The walls of one hangar were blown away as though made of paper. Parts of the roof caved in and crushed two planes. Doors were blown out of another hangar, and one wing of the gasoline station-a structure built to resemble an airplanewas damaged.

The Elgin Airport Company, which had been organized as an adjunct to the Association of Commerce, turned over its lease to the city of Elgin to establish eligibility for federal aid. The application was not acted upon. A drive by business leaders for private funds failed, the Elgin Airport Company suspended its activities, and the Kelley family closed the field.

Aviators then shifted back to the pastures, flying out of a small field east of Trout Park and using part of the Burnidge farm west of the intersection of McLean Boulevard and the South Street Road. These fields were used by barnstorm ers who carried passengers on brief flights over the city. A "big" Curtiss Condor with a 90-foot wing span landed at Trout Park in 1935 and at the Burnidge Field in 1939.

During the Second World War, the government leased the Kelley grounds as an auxiliary training field for fledgling pilots from the Navy's Glenview base.

After the war, in 1946, the Elgin Airport Corporation, led by George Edgcumbe, asked the state of Illinois for permission to re-activate the field. Approval was granted despite vigorous objections from neighboring property owners, who feared the noise of low-flying planes and possible hazards. An office and reception center was erected, and a Quonset hut served as a repair shop. A helicopter air mail shuttle between Elgin, Chicago, and nine other cities started in 1949 and continued for several years.

When Commonwealth Edison took steps to bisect the Elmhurst airport with a high power line, Edgeumbe transferred his facilities to Elgin in 1956-57. Landing lights were installed and several "T" hangars arose. The airport was mainly used by recreational flyers of single and twin-engine planes. The field's longest runway, 2,800 feet, couldn't handle any small jets. More than 80,000 operations were handled in a peak year. Revenue to operate the airport was derived from charter flights, instruction, and the sale and delivery of Piper Cub planes.

Edgeumbe didn't own the 186-acre field, and the value of the land escalated when the tollway opened. The airport was forced to close on November 1, 1983, after it was decided to develop a shopping center and business park on the site.

Horse Cars

"Elgin is fast assuming metropolitan ways," reported the Daily News on August 21, 1878. "Now she is to have a street railway. The rails have arrived and work will soon commence." Civic pride swelled with the thought that Elgin would enjoy this innovation before Aurora or Rockford.

Bruce C. Payne, who had been the operator of a livery stable, began running this horse car line the following November. Originally, the cars ran only on South Grove Avenue between the watch factory and Fountain Square. The horses were unhitched from the front end of the car at the terminus and transferred to the other end, which then became the front of the car. Tickets for this short ride were seven for a quarter.

In 1880, the tracks were advanced up Douglas Avenue to the Chicago & North Western-Railroad right of way, and the following year to Franklin Street. Subsequently they were continued north- ward to catch fares from the shoe factory workers on Slade Avenue. In 1886, the line was extended from Douglas along North Streetto Dundee Avenue and up Dundee to Seneca Street. A car barn was erected at Douglas and Plum.

When the brakes balked, the car banged against a horse's legs. If this occurred too often the horse would retaliate by kicking against the dashboard. The power source was sometimes unpredictable.

"The street car horses. . started in front of the National house and went down the street like a woman trying to get a glimpse of the latest style bonnet," read a Daily News account in 1889. "The car ran off the track at a turn at Grove Avenue."

Payne's horse cars were a disappointment. Citizens protested the obstruction to traffic, occasional abuse of the animals, and the slow ride. The city council, which had granted the franchise, received numerous complaints about poor track maintenance. At one time, the bottom of the inside of the rails was in places three to four inches above the street due to holes and depressions. This made crossing by carriages and wagons dangerous.

The Elgin City Railway Company, bought the franchise and began running electric cars in 1890. If the reported purchase price of $50,000 is correct, Payne made far more by the sale than he ever did carrying fares. The end of the horse car line was not regretted. One citizen expressed satisfaction that the new electrics had "relegated to obscurity and oblivion the animated hat racks used by Bruce Payne, to snail a few rickety cars over a small section of alleged street car track."

Sic transit gloria mundi.

The Arc Light Towers

For 30 years and more they rose up over the buildings and trees of Elgin like gigantic oil derricks. At night they supported balls of intense bright light. They were the city's electric arc towers, once considered the most efficient form of street lighting. They provided a brighter illumination over a wider area than the flickering gas lamps they were designed to replace, and they were expected to save the labor costs of lighting and extinguishing the wicks. A local firm, the Elgin Tubular Iron Tower Company was organized in 1881 by George S. Bowen to build towers of gas pipe. Several cities bought the Elgin product.

The construction superintendent was young Edward J. O'Beirne, who was troubled by the inability to repaint the inner surfaces of the pipe once the tower was formed. Eventually the towers would be weakened by rust.

In 1883 O'Beirne organized a new firm to build the towers of solid wrought angle iron; an idea he had conceived and patented. The same year Bowen sold Elgin Tubular to a Detroit competitor and incorporated the Elgin Electric Light Company to provide the arc system.

After the down river city of Aurora erected arc towers and began calling itself the "City of Lights," Elgin's City Council moved to follow its lead. The city contracted with Bowen's firm to supply twenty-nine lamps of 2,000 candle power each to be mounted on seven O'Beirne towers. One of the towers, 150 feet high, was erected on Fountain Square. The others, 125 feet high, were scattered around the city. For comparison, the present day Tower Building is about 185 feet in height and the clock tower of the watch factory was 144 feet high.

The Elgin Electric Light Company which owned the towers, lamps and generating plant, was paid $6,800 annually by the city to operate and maintain the system. The towers were embedded in quarry stone and mortar foundations. They were surmounted by a platform and railing, and in the center of the platform was an eight-foot mast from which the lamps were suspended. Each day in all kinds of weather, caretakers had to climb the towers to adjust the carbon elements or replace the fifty-pound lamps.

Elgin first basked in the radiance of electricity the night of November 24, 1883. A Daily News reporter became lyrical in describing the halo which "stole across the black river and made silvery pathways; the very air seemed warmed by the gentle influence; and when one stood where he could see all the towers at a distance, the lights appeared merged into one large ball on each structure, and to stand like sentinels at convenient intervals, watching over the destinies of a busy city."

The achievement of Bowen and O'Beirne received widespread praise, but there were some critics. Frank Crosby, who raised fancy poultry, claimed that his Plymouth Rocks-under the delusion that morning had come-began laying too soon. Others were convinced that the generator affected the timing of watches.Two additional towers were erected later, making a total of nine-six on the east side and three on the west side. The city purchased the system from Bowen in 1889.

As Elgin expanded in area, the newer incandescent lights were put up at street intersections because residents objected to building towers near their homes. Painting to prevent rust was neglected, and burnt-out lamps were not replaced. The Fountain Square tower was taken down in 1903, and the removal of others followed. By 1913 there were only four towers still standing, and 435 street intersection lights had been installed.

During a severe storm on July 8,1913, the tower on the southeast corner of the Academy campus collapsed and fell across Park Street when hit by a falling oak tree. This alarmed those living near the three remaining towers, and the decision was made to abandon what little was left of the aging system. The last of the towers, located at Locust and Mosely, was brought crashing to the ground by the Palm Sunday tornado of 1920.

The Gas Works

For more than 40 years, Elgin's gas supply was manufactured from coal in a plant along the west bank of the Fox River. The gas works released oils and coal tars into the river, contributing to its pollution. The refuse at times spread over the entire width of the stream and accumulated in its bed.

The plant was located north of the end of Standish Street between what are now the North Western and Soo line tracks. Construction by the Elgin Gas and Light Company began in 1871. The first street lamp was lit a year later, and by 1875 five miles of main had been laid, illuminating most of the downtown stores. The original structures consisted of a retort building, where the gas was generated by heating the coal in the absence of air, and a gas holder. This so-called gasometer, 50 feet in diameter, rested in a cistern 50 feet deep. It rose and fell according to the supply of gas held within it. Coke was a byproduct.

The firm went into receivership in 1877, and its assets were purchased by the Elgin Gas, Light, and Coke Company in 1880. In 1889, American Gas Company of Philadelphia acquired the plant, and it was operated under the name of the Elgin American Gas Company. The works were remodeled and enlarged, giving it a capacity of three million feet per month. Twenty miles of main distributed the gas throughout the city and a beginning was made in the use of gas for cooking as well as for lighting. More than 2,000 tons of coal were used annually.

Elgin American, Joliet Gas Company, and LaGrange Gas Company were merged into Aurora's Western United Gas & Electric Company in 1905. Western United achieved economies of scale by erecting a huge Koppers by-product coke oven plant near Joliet n 1912. The local gas works was shut down in 1915, and gas was pumped from Joliet through an eight-inch main. It was stored in a huge tank, 156 feet in diameter, completed at the south end of the city in 1913.

A natural gas pipeline brought gas from fields in Oklahoma and Texas to Western United in 1931, and Elgin was supplied with a mixture of natural and manufactured gas. Only natural gas has been used since 1949. The gas storage tank was dismantled in 1959.

Many of Elgin's older residents will remember paying both their gas and electric bills at Western United's district office on South Grove Avenue. Western United, which became one of the Commonwealth Edison companies, evolved into Public Service Company of Northern Illinois. The Northern Illinois Gas Company was formed in 1954, when the gas and electric operations were separated.


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