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Elgin: An American History - Table of Contents


James Talcott Gifford (1800-1850), founder of Elgin, was a man of many talents. Farmer, surveyor, justice of the peace and postmaster, he also manufactured plows and reapers with improvements of his own design and experimented with making sugar from beets. His opposition to slavery may have arisen during a period of residence in South Carolina while a young man.
Then move your fam'ly westward,
Good health you will enjoy,
And rise to wealth and honor In the state of El-a-noy!1
Folk song
Chapter 1. Country Town in the West

In the spring of 1832 Black Hawk invaded Illinois with a band of hostile Sauk and Fox Indians. The previous summer they had been driven from their corn fields and burial grounds near the mouth of the Rock River by white squatters and threats of military action by the state and national governments. They were forced across the Mississippi, and Black Hawk had signed an agreement not to return without United States permission. But it was too late to plant any crop, and that winter the Indians had suffered for want of food. Now some five hundred armed braves and their families were moving up the Rock.

The scattered whites were frightened, and the Governor called out volunteers to pursue Black Hawk. Poorly disciplined, the militia were routed at what is now Stillman Valley in Ogle County. For a time northwestern Illinois was kept in terror by Indian raids. Regular troops under General Winfield Scott were sent to help the bungling militia. They were delayed at Detroit and Chicago by a cholera epidemic, and by the time part of this force crossed the Fox River at a shallows about one mile below the village limits of what is now South Elgin, Black Hawk had been chased into the wilderness of Wisconsin. The soldiers from the East saw no warfare, but they did see northern Illinois, and they returned home to spread the word of its attractions.

1. Pioneers

Between the small lake port of Chicago and the lead mines at Galena near the Mississippi beckoned a fertile, well-watered region. The Black Hawk War had focused national attention on the area. Soldiers and militia acted as its explorers, newspapers printed their descriptions of the land of opportunity they had seen, and within two years seekers of permanent farm homes and town sites began to appear up and down the Fox River. The track from Chicago to the river made by the heavy supply wagons of Scott's troops was followed by many of these newcomers and became known as the Army Trail. A highway leading into the Fox Valley still carries this name.

The pioneers entering the Fox Valley came mainly from upstate New York and New England, where the stony, thin soil could not match the yields of farms opening in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana. Although their large families were crowding small holdings, these settlers were not impoverished, having both the means to pull stakes and the ambition to better their condition. They arrived by way of Erie Canal boats, lake schooners, and rough wagon roads. Awaiting them was astonishingly black soil with groves of trees for fuel, buildings and fencing, a land sparsely populated by Indians.

The nomadic Potawatomis roaming the valley had pushed other tribes out of northeastern Illinois in the 18th Century. Allied with the British in the War of 1812, they were responsible for the Fort Dearborn massacre. By the 1820s, however, they had become increasingly dependent upon white manufactured goods, including liquor. They had refused to join Black Hawk in his foray, and in 1833, pressured by the U.S. government and half-breed traders, had ceded their remaining Illinois lands in a treaty signed in Chicago. Before the U.S. Senate finally ratified the treaty in May of 1835, the first white penetration had begun.

Young Hezekiah Gifford of Oneida County, New York, lured by tales of the rich soil in Illinois, reached the banks of the Fox River by way of the Army Trail in the spring of 1834. Delighted with the country, he returned to New York, married, and induced an older brother, James, to sell his property in Yates County and accompany him to Illinois the next spring. Hezekiah aimed to establish a farm, and James sought a location for a town.

The Giffords left central New York about the first of February 1835 with a span of horses and a wagon load of provisions and tools. Many other families were then on the road West. Most of them traveled on Sunday, but the brothers put up their team and rested on the Sabbath. They reached Chicago, then a village of little more than 3,(W, early in March. Leaving their wagon behind, they started on horseback northward along an Indian trail to the Milwaukee River in Wisconsin. The choice water power was already claimed, and they sent their horses with a fellow traveler back to Chicago and struck west on foot until they reached the Fox River. Following the river southward into Illinois, they reached what is now Elgin, thirty-eight miles west of Chicago, on April 3rd. James shrewdly had calculated the importance of a good river crossing site on a direct line between Chicago and Galena.

The brothers spent the night at the William Welch farm in the Little Woods area of St. Charles Township. The next day they returned and staked claims on the east side of the Fox. On the 6th Welch sent his sons with three yoke of oxen and a plow to break the land, sow grain, and make a fence to establish the claims. The Giffords returned to Chicago for their horses and wagon and procured additional supplies. From Chicago on April 11th James Gifford wrote to his wife, Laura:

Hezekiah and myself have located on the river, have a tolerable supply of timber, some good springs of water, and plenty of good prairie ... We have selected land lying in considerable swells, such as would be called in this country broken, as I would like to see something like hills. I have on my claim the best place for water power which I have found on the river from its source to some distance below this ... The Fox is the finest stream I ever saw, it has uniformly in this State a limestone bottom, its current uniform and gentle, its waters pure, and is abundantly supplied with fine Fish. We have selected for sites to build upon, an elevation of from thirty to forty feet above the river and from thirty to forty rods from it, a grove lying between.2
Devoutly religious, Gifford had selected the name for his new town before leaving New York. During the 16th century Calvinist reformers restricted church songs to what was contained in Scripture. A variety of metrical versions of the Psalms were set to music. The Scottish Psalter of 1615 introduced a new feature, common tunes which were not attached to any particular Psalm. Some of them were given names of cities and towns of Scotland. The Scotch tunes were taken up by the English psalteries. Gifford's Puritan ancestors had sung these hymn tunes for generations. He had helped to establish the town of Dundee, New York, which he named after one of' these tunes, and he now chose "Elgin," for his Illinois settlement. "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."3

In Chicago the Giffords met Joseph Kimball of Plymouth, New Hampshire, who had reconnoitered the Fox Valley the previous year. On this second trip West he left his home on February 24th and arrived in the Chicago area about April 1st. Along the way he had stopped at Washington, D.C., where he called on President Jackson and Vice President Van Buren in the company of his state's senators. Kimball was looking for a mill site, and the Giffords invited him to join them on the Fox River. Together with a brother, Jonathan, and a son, Samuel J., he laid a claim on the west side. Beginning about the first of May they built a house, made a garden, and planted corn. Their cabin was erected near the southwest comer of South and Vine Streets. Orchard Street derives its name from the fruit trees Joseph started with the graftings he had brought with him from the East.

In a letter to his oldest son, William C., on July 4, 1835, Joseph Kimball recorded an arrangement with the town's founder and noted his interest in a Chicago-Galena road:

James T. Gifford, Esq., from New York, near Utica, has a location on the east side of the river. He and we have agreed to build a dam together, he having the privilege of improving equal share of the water. Mr. Gifford is to build a flour mill and we are to build a sawmill ...
We think that Chicago will be one of the most important places in all the western country ... We have taken considerable pains to ascertain what chance there is for making a road in direct line from Chicago to Galena, and find that we are on the direct route between these two important places...4
Mary Jane Gifford, Hezekiah's bride, was the first white woman to arrive in Elgin. She came in June with Asa Gifford, her brother-in-law. Hezekiah's claim joined his brother's to the south, and his cabin was located on the east side of St. Charles Street, just south of the Yarwood intersection. Mrs. Gifford was an object of curiosity to roving Indians. On one occasion a delegation of braves entered the cabin and attempted to help themselves to flour without permission. She pushed one of them. This set up a roar of laughter, but they departed and later returned with Hezekiah, who gave them all the flour he could spare.

Samuel Jewett Kimball (1809-1866), "proprietor" of the west side, cooperated with James T. Gifford on early projects benefitting the community. The city's second mayor, Kimball considered it one of his duties to watch with the sick while the patient's family had some needed sleep.

James Gifford returned to New York for his wife, Laura and their five children, two spinster sisters, Harriet and Experience, and the family of Philo Hatch, who had married Laura's sister. They floated down the Erie Canal to Buffalo, and then embarked on a lake schooner. When they reached Elgin on September 12th, the youngest member of the family, Sarah, was lifted from the wagon and set down on her unsteady baby feet. They immediately collapsed, plunking her on the ground, and she was promptly declared Elgin's first real settler. Their cabin, about the middle of what is now Prairie Street between Chapel and Villa, was enclosed but not chinked up, and no floors were laid, so they moved into Hezekiah's. James Gifford's cabin served as a church on the following Sunday. The founder addressed the Throne of Grace, Harriet read a sermon, and Hezekiah led the singing.

While returning East for his family, Joseph Kimball was stricken with cholera and died in Ohio, but he had prepared the way for a swarm of relatives. Besides Jonathan, another brother, Phineas, came to the new settlement. He arrived with his wife and daughter in June and settled on the east side, north of James Gifford's claim. His cabin was located on the northeast comer of what is now the Kimball and Douglas intersection. Their distant kin, Samuel (Squire) Kimball came in the fall of 1836, preceded and followed by several of his sixteen children.

Two sons of Joseph Kimball were to become town leaders. Samuel Jewett Kimball returned to New Hampshire to marry, then arrived with his bride in the spring of 1836. William Currier Kimball moved in from Canada late in 1837. The first marriage, first death, and first locally elected officials were in the Kimball families, and their willingness to co-operate on many undertakings with the Giffords promised well for the future of the town.

Within a year most of the land along the river had been claimed by hewing bark from trees or by plowing furrows in the prairie. The claims were sometimes disputed. After Henry Sherman staked out land to the west of Elgin in 1838, he put up a small shanty and returned to New York for his family. In his absence the cabin was broken up by the Kimballs, but Sherman later went to court and held the claim. "The Kimball boys wanted the earth," he recalled. "I wanted only a slice of it."5

The Potawatornis, awaiting their treaty payments prior to their removal across the Mississippi, bartered fish and venison for the pioneers' flour and tobacco. They were inoffensive, but the whites regarded them as dirty, lazy vagabonds. The leader of one band, Waubansee, had a settlement in the Big Woods, south of Batavia and east of the Fox; another, Nickoway, was camped in Dundee. There were no Indians in Elgin when the Giffords and Kimballs arrived, but burial mounds covered about fifteen to twenty acres between what is now Highland Avenue and Wing Street.

Their continued presence in the valley made the whites nervous, and a false report of an Indian uprising in 1836 brought all of six men to an emergency meeting in Elgin. The last major group of area Potawatorriis assembled at the Des Plaines River for departure in 1838. The enterprising, acquisitive emigrants, to whom they had become a nuisance, were not sorry to see them go. The only reminders of the Indians' sojourn in the valley were a few narrow trails and low burial mounds soon leveled by the plow.

Strenuous efforts were necessary to provide subsistence and to expand the facilities for raising a surplus with which to pay for the land when it was placed on sale by the government. "Money is very scarce at this time ... every man that has money is using it for speculation," wrote Samuel Jewett Kimball in a letter of June 4,1836. "It is almost impossible to have a dollar..."6

Large sloughs of stagnant water had to be drained. Breaking the prairie soil required a strong team of eight or ten oxen, but they could not be procured fast enough to keep pace with the emigration. The gummy black earth also required a suitable plow. "We were troubled to find a plow that would scour and do a good work," remembered one of the settlers. "They would all bank up with dirt on the mould board."7  George Renwick, a blacksmith who arrived in the spring of 1838, solved the problem by copying a plow brought into the area from Virginia that could throw the furrow. He was soon crowded with orders.

The hand-made farm implements were heavy, rough and dull. The main crop was wheat. Sowing was done by hand scattering. The grain was cut with a cradle, then raked and bound by hand. With the gathering of the first crops, James Gifford devised a mill by hollowing out a large stump and fitting into it an immense stone which was raised or lowered by means similar to those used in raising water out of wells.

The log houses, usually about fourteen by sixteen feet in dimension, had a low loft for beds reached by a ladder or steep stairway. The cabin was sometimes whitewashed to improve its appearance. After the saw mills were started, a lean-to was added as a kitchen or bedroom and wood siding was nailed to the exterior walls. The settler's wife made her own soap and candles and washed with hard water softened by ashes. There were no screens or netting to keep out insects, in greater abundance than now. All the slaughtering, dressing and preserving of pork and beef was done on the farm. Fruit, except for wild specimens in season, was scarce until the orchards began to yield. Bread, pancakes, salt pork, and potatoes was the monotonous diet, supplemented by game or fish.

Deer appeared almost at the cabin doors. At night prairie fires occasionally lit up the heavens, and wolves howled in the distance. Despite their hardships and sense of isolation, this first wave of pioneers had taken possession of good earth at an advantageous location.

2. A Permanent Settlement

The Giffords and Kimballs were not the earliest white settlers in the vicinity. Situated on a claim about three miles east of the Fox, along Poplar Creek in Hanover Township, James Hanks had written his parents in the East as early as October 1834 that "They are running a straight road from Chicago to Galena."8  In the same month the Giffords arrived, the Newman and Russell families were raising a cabin in Dundee. There were several families beside the Welches living in the St. Charles area, where the old Army Trail provided access from Chicago. What made Elgin grow was the enterprise of the man who came to found a town. James T. Gifford not only boarded newcomers, donated lots for schools and churches, and aided prospective settlers to find desirable claims, he persevered in establishing a main highway and dreamed of an eventual railroad.

If Elgin was to become a major passage way for emigrants and trade between Chicago and Galena, it was necessary to divert traffic from the Army Trail. A road to Elgin was staked out to Meacham's Grove (now Bloomingdale), where a road led to Chicago, in the fall or winter of 1835, but the blazing was not a sufficient guide. The Fourth of July, 1836, was celebrated by arranging to have settlers of the Grove and of Elgin turn out en masse, hitching teams to plows, large felled trees, and wagons, and with these trampling a road halfway from each settlement. At the meeting place the toilers observed the occasion with com bread, salt pork, and coffee. The result was a rough but permanent road linking Elgin with Chicago.

The Giffords, James and Hezekiah, and Sam Kimball continued this highway westward to Belvidere. The commissioners appointed to establish a state road accepted this route from Chicago, now generally traced by Highway 20. To further accommodate travelers pouring through Elgin on their way West, James Gifford early in 1836 persuaded brother Hezekiah to erect a log tavern on the southwest comer of Chicago and Villa Streets. He astonished his guests by keeping no whiskey. The next year the founder donated a lot on the northeast comer of Chicago and Center Streets to William Shaw, the first resident carpenter, on condition that he would build an inn, and he soon commenced the erection of the "Elgin House."

James Gifford journeyed to Washington, D.C., and spent several weeks there inducing the Post Office Department to establish a mail route through Elgin. He was finally commissioned a postmaster on July 19, 1837, and the post office was located in his cabin. Before the year was out, the government had adopted the route between Elgin and Belvedere as a post road, and Frink & Walker's four-horse stage coaches were running through town, horns blowing the announcement of their arrival. A ford at the foot of Highland Avenue was a safe crossing on the river and was of material assistance in getting the line approved.

Two store buildings appeared on the east side in 1836. One of them, for Storrs & Bean, was the town's first framed structure. Unlike Hezekiah's inn, it offered rum for sale. It was located on the northwest corner of Chicago and Center. When William C. Kimball arrived, he took over one of these stores and later erected his own place on the northwest comer of what is now the North State-Kimball Street intersection. In 1838-39 a dam was built across the Fox to provide power for the Kimball saw mill on the west side and within easy access to the timber which then covered much of the river banks. James Gifford erected a small grist mill at the head of the east side race about the same time.

Two physicians arrived in 1838. One of them, Dr. Joseph Tefft, became a permanent resident. He built and occupied the first frame dwelling. It was located on the northeast corner of Chicago and Spring Streets. His practice extended from the south tine of the township northward for a distance of twenty miles or more, and a similar distance east and west. The doctor's calls were made on an old gray horse which became familiar to the early settlers.

The river was wider and more shallow than it is today, and under normal weather conditions it was a simple matter to wade across. The first bridge, a rambling wooden structure, was erected in 1837-38. The west end reached what are now the Milwaukee Road tracks, and the eastern end came almost to what is now Fountain Square.

Vitally needed capital was provided by Benjamin W. Raymond, a Chicago merchant. In partnership with his brother-in-law, S. Newton Dexter, of New York, he purchased part of James Gifford's claim in 1838. The following year Raymond and Dexter opened a large store on the southwest comer of DuPage and Villa Streets. The local investments of Benjamin Raymond, who was elected Mayor of Chicago in 1839, would prove to be a significant factor in the development of Elgin. Dr. Anson Root purchased another portion of the founder's claim in 1840. He was the father-in-law of Abel D. Gifford, who had followed his brothers to Elgin in 1837 and claimed two hundred and eighty acres for a farm southeast of town in Cook County.

These sales of rights to land still owned by the government enabled James Gifford about 1839-40 to build his second home. A substantial two-story structure located on the southwest comer of Prairie and Villa, it was built of brick burned in a kiln he had established at the lower end of Spring Street.

At the time of its settlement the Elgin area was part of LaSalle County and under the jurisdiction of the laws of Illinois, but no officials were present to interpret and enforce them. Kane County was organized by an act of the state legislature on January 16, 1836. There were probably less than two hundred legal voters in residence at that time. The new county was originally thirty-six miles square and included all of DeKalb County, detached in 1837, and the northern tier of townships in Kendall County. The first election of county officers was held June 4, 1836. They included a sheriff, coroner, recorder, surveyor, and three county commissioners. The commissioners appointed a clerk and divided the county into precincts for the election of justices of the peace and constables. These officers maintained order and settled land claim arguments and other disputes.

The first election in Lake Precinct, which then included both Dundee and Elgin, took place on July 1, 1836 for the purpose of selecting a constable and justice of the peace. At the Presidential election in 1836, Lake Precinct cast thirty-four votes for the Democratic electors and only eight for the Wliigs.

Benjamin W. Raymond (1801-1883) never lived in Elgin, but his friendly influence and monied connections helped the city grow. A merchant-capitalist, twice elected mayor of Chicago, he was a director of the Galena & Chicago Union railroad, a trustee of Elgin Academy, and first president of the Elgin National Watch Company. The first Elgin watch movement and Raymond Street bear his name.

While the pioneers were busy mastering the environment and providing for rudimentary government, they were also concerned about their souls. It would be difficult to over-estimate the prevailing influence of religion on the residents of early Elgin. The language, imagery, and teachings of the Bible colored their speech and guided their rules of moral conduct. Prayer meetings and revivals were frequent and well attended, and their religious views shaped their social attitudes.

An itinerant minister, the Rev. Nathaniel C. Clark, organized the Congregational Church on May 12, 1836. Services were first held in the James Gifford cabin. After the Baptists organized on July 14, 1838 in Hezekiah's cabin, a small frame chapel was raised near the northeast comer of DuPage and Geneva Streets. The little building had a small tower from which hung the town's first bell. It was jointly occupied by both church groups. The Methodists organized an Elgin area circuit in 1838 and also worshipped in the Union Chapel for a time until they erected their own building in 1840.

Harriet Gifford gathered a few children for instruction in her brother James's cabin, and after the erection of the Union Chapel taught a subscription school there. She charged five cents a day per child. Another school was later opened by Adin Mann in the Methodist Church.

Transferring to the raw, new West the patterns of life they had known in the East, within three years of their arrival the pioneering families had established the rudiments of civilization.

3. Village and Township

By the end of 1843 Elgin's population had grown to more than 400. Among this number were an abundance of Giffords and Kimballs and their relations. All together, six brothers and sisters of James T. Gifford and five brothers and sisters of his wife, Laura Raymond, came to the town or its vicinity, joined by twenty adult children of four Kimball families.

Elgin's hills were a contrast to the level plain surrounding Chicago. The landscape was covered by scattered trees and bushes, with here and there a path between distant neighbors. The Chicago Street hill was far more steep than it is now. From the end of the bridge eastward the street has been raised about eight feet and the slope correspondingly reduced. To the north and northeast was a great water-soaked bog. There were several deep depressions; in some of these water remained throughout the year. One of these crossed Chicago Street, just east of Geneva, and passed around it northward as far as an extended line of what is now Highland Avenue.

The flats along the river were low and swampy and often submerged. It was originally assumed they would be occupied by the river's seasonal flows, but the commercial section began moving toward the river about 1840 with the erection of Benjamin Raymond's new store on the southeast comer of Chicago and Spring.

The community now boasted of a flouring mill, three saw mills, a shingle mill, the beginnings of a woolen mill, a small plow factory, and a foundry-all powered by the dam. Augustus Adams, apparently with the financial assistance of Benjamin Raymond, operated the furnace. It was said to be the first west of Chicago. The woolen mill was erected in 1843-44 by Raymond and Dexter along the east bank of the river just north of the bridge. The mill was the town's largest building, eighty by thirty-four feet in dimension and eventually five stories high. There were three public houses, six stores, four blacksmith shops, and two wagon shops. Among the skilled artisans were three tailors, four shoe makers, two cabinet makers, and a harness maker.

Chicago was beginning to provide a reliable cash market for the surplus wheat at thirty to fifty cents a bushel. The yield varied from twenty to forty bushels to the acre. In the fall after threshing was being completed, the road to the east was filled with loaded wagons. Forty bushels was a fair load for a team of horses, and the trip from the Fox River required about three days. The wagons usually carried return loads of lumber, household goods of newcomers, materials for the shops, and goods for the merchants.

The availability of cash coincided opportunely with the opening of land sales by the government in 1842 and 1843. The minimum price was $1.25 per acre, and a purchase was exempt from taxes for a period of five years. Large tracts were entered by James Gifford on the east side and William C. Kimball on the west side in trust for others. Bonds were given for deeds in payment of the sums advanced and such interest as was agreed upon. Phineas J. Kimball once owned much of the land between what are now Division Street and Jefferson Avenue, Dundee Avenue and the river. Division Street was so named because it was dividing line between his property and Gifford's.

Gifford's east side claim comprised about 383 acres. Once his title was confirmed, on August 3, 1842 he filed a twenty-one block plat bounded on the west by the river, on the north by Division Street, on the east by Chapel Street, and on the south by Prairie Street. The streets were sixty-six feet wide except for Center, conceived as the business district, which was ninety-nine feet wide. A burial ground was located on the northeast comer of Division and Chapel. Later, in 1845, he recorded a second plat of nine blocks lying east and south of the first, and a new cemetery was located along what is now Charming Street.

In 1845 the ague, which spread in many new settlements, became epidemic. The sickness was so prevalent that the town resembled a hospital. It was said that one man, whose wife had died that summer, had difficulty finding sufficent help to bury her. The town was shunned by strangers, and many panic stricken residents fled the area.

James T. Gifford left for Wisconsin, probably after the epidemic had subsided. He apparently yearned to start town building all over again, this time along the Lake Michigan shore north of Milwaukee. With the help of two brothers and several Elgin neighbors, he laid out streets (one of them named Elgin) and platted lots for a lake port he called Ulao. Around Ulao was densely forested interior. Gifford and his Wisconsin associates constructed chutes by which timber for fueling could be slid from the top of a bluff to the decks of lake steamers moored at the pier. Ulao thrived for a few years but eventually was eclipsed by Port Washington, a rival located a few miles to the north.

Back in Elgin, pious citizens were now erecting more substantial churches. The chapel was enlarged by an addition in the winter of 1842-43. The Congregationalists sold their interest in the building to the Baptists and commenced a Brick Church on what is now the Villa-Fulton parking lot. The basement portion was occupied until the completed building was dedicated in 1847. The Baptists in 1849 erected a new Stone Church near the intersection of DuPage and Geneva Streets.

Increasing enrollments compelled the erection of a larger school, Old Brick, which opened in 1848 on the northeast comer of Chapel and DuPage Streets. Like its predecessors, it was at first a subscription school where students were expected to pay tuition.

More impressive dwellings of wood siding and brick had now replaced most of the log cabins. Several leading citizens preferred homes of cobblestone. The Stone Church of the Baptists was also built of this material. This type of construction originated around Rochester, New York, after the completion of the Erie Canal. Unemployed masons used stones found in abundance in the fields and along the lake shores. Although walls of small stones laid in horizontal rows have been erected for centuries, the New York craftsmen embellished the mortar joints. Each stone was highlighted instead of being buried in the rubblestone wall. In sunlight the rounded stones had a shaded area and cast a shadow. Patterns of light and shade changed during the day.

It was natural that emigrants from upstate New York would employ this innovation, and the Elgin area had one of the largest concentrations of these buildings outside of the region of their origin. Charles H. Pendleton, a local mason, is known to have erected some of them in the late forties and early fifties. The oldest home in Elgin still existing is a cobblestone on the northwest comer of West Chicago and Crystal Streets. It was erected by William C. and Samuel J. Kimball for their mother, Nancy Currier Kimball. All the floor beams are of oak from a forest which once grew in the area.

A meeting was held in the Brick Church on August 8, 1846 to consider incorporating Elgin into what would now be considered a village. The vote was 13 to 0 in favor of becoming a "town." A board of five trustees was elected. Philo Sylla, who made fanning mills and threshing machines, was chosen President, and Rudolpbus W. Padelford, Clerk. The limits of the corporation were confined to a square mile centering on the hay scales in Market (now Fountain) Square.

The earliest settlers of Illinois had come from Southern states where the county was the all important unit of local government. After the northern part of the state was occupied by emigrants from New England and New York, where local government was organized around the township, the Constitution of 1848 gave counties the choice of this form. On November 6, 1849 the question of township organization was submitted to the voters of Kane County and adopted by an overwhelming margin of 1,786 to 34. The first meeting of the County Board of Supervisors, one elected from each of the townships, was held on June 4, 1850. J.W. Brewster was Elgin's first supervisor.

The township took over the maintenance of rural roads, the election of justices of the peace and constables, and the assessment of property for taxation purposes. The boundary lines of Elgin Township were the same as those of the Congressional survey (Township 41 north of the base line, 8 east of the third principal meridian). The same area had been used as a voting precinct since 1840. The qualified voters at an annual town meeting levied taxes, appropriated money for poor relief and roads, and decided on such matters as fence rules and the control of straying livestock. Formed after Kane County and the village government had assumed some of the most vital services, Elgin Township never developed widespread voter interest, but it was useful to the outlying farmers.

4. Railroads

Hauling wheat to Chicago by wagon was exhausting. When softened by rain, the road quickly changed to a thick paste into which deep, uneven ruts were easily pressed. Prying wagons out of the mud and ruts was a back-aching chore for man and beast. "Broken wagons and dead horses were common spectacles along the road," recalled William G. Hubbard, a merchant.9  After the ruts hardened in the sun, the track roughened. One farmer, living west of Elgin started for Chicago with a load of barley, spent five days on the road, got mired in sloughs three times, each time carried the bags of grain out of the wagon on his back, then dragged the horses and wagon out to firm ground, loaded up again, and finally reached his destination, where he sold his barley for twenty-five cents a bushel. On the return trip he stopped over night twenty miles from home and didn't have enough money left to pay his hotel bill.

Plank roads, financed by tolls, were a failure, and for years farmers dreamed of a railroad to speed their crops to market. The first railroad west of Chicago, the Galena & Chicago Union, was chartered as early as 1836, but the enterprise collapsed. In 1846 the G&CU was revived at a convention in Rockford, and the next year subscription books were opened. Among the members of the Board of Directors elected in 1848 was Benjamin W. Raymond, and the Elgin in which he had a substantial investment was located on a direct line between the Lake and the railroad's goal on the Mississippi. Raymond interested local men of means in the project. An Elgin resident who was selling the stock met with little enthusiasm. Some who subscribed said they never expected to get their money back, others jeered and called him a fool and said the road would never maintain a peddler and his pack. Many shares were bought on installment. An old justice of the peace docket of the early fifties showed suits to enforce their stock liabilities against nearly thirty Elgin residents.

Joseph Tefft (1812-1888), pioneer physician, led in the development Of Elgin's dairy industry. He was the city's first mayor, serving five terms; first president of the Elgin Board of Trade; and first president of the re-activated board of trustees of Elgin Academy.

Construction contracts were let on March 1, 1848. By the end of November the first engine to pull a train west out of Chicago, the Pioneer, was running daily on ten miles of flimsy and unreliable strap-rail purchased second-hand from railroads in New York. These strap-rails were nothing more than flat-iron bars laid atop oak stringers. They sometimes curled at the ends when trains passed over, piercing the undersides of cars and injuring passengers. The Pioneer was a wood burner with six wheels, two of them drivers. It weighed about ten tons and had a top speed of about twenty-five miles per hour. Built in 1836, it had been purchased third hand. By the time the G&CU approached the Fox River, however, the company had acquired two new fifteenton eight-wheelers.

Pushing on without federal or state aid, the road first reached the Fox by a branch line to St. Charles extending from Turner Junction (now West Chicago) in December 1849. The main line was completed to Elgin on January 20, 1850-42.44 track miles from the north branch of the Chicago River. Another branch line arrived at Aurora down river in October 1850.

James T. Gifford, who had returned to live in Elgin, in 1849 started the building of his third and final local residence, a large cobblestone still standing on Prairie Street. At the grand banquet given in celebration of the road's arrival, he burst into rhyme:

Then welcome the steam horse with sinews so strong,
The fruits of our soil he will now move along...10
His vision of the value of Elgin's location fulfilled in great part by his own labors, the founder died of Asiatic cholera the following August.

In 1850 the G&CU had four passenger cars, two carrying sixty passengers each, and the other two forty each. Each train had two cars, and it was common for freight cars to be added. How fast were these early trains? An 1851 time table shows passenger trains leaving Elgin for Chicago daily at 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Two trains arrived from Chicago at 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. The run took three hours, and the fare was $1.25. By 1856 the scheduled time on a fast express between the two terminals had been reduced to two hours and nine minutes. Better track was one of the reasons for the improved time. The first solid iron T-rails laid west of the Great Lakes were put down at Fox River Switch below Elgin in June, 1851. They were an experiment to determine procedure for changing rails on the rest of the route the next year.

During the time required for the G&CU to accumulate sufficient capital to cross the Fox and continue toward Belvedere and Freeport, Elgin was the western terminus of American railroad linkage to the East. Ralph Waldo Emerson, traveling across Illinois in the spring of 1850, rode the stage from Galena to Elgin, where he transferred to what he called the two parallel bars to Chicago. While in town the famed essayist spent $1.00. Incoming settlers on their way West left the trains on the platform on the east side of Spring Street between Chicago and DuPage. There they were met by a swarm of teamsters and hotel runners eager to accomodate the travelers who, like Emerson, would spend a little money.

Irish muscle laid the tracks of the G&CU. At the height of construction in 1850 they comprised nearly half the foreign born in the township and more than a tenth of its total population. Their contributions made possible the erection of a cobblestone Catholic church in 1851-55 on a lot pledged by the town founder.

Elgin hotels did a great business. The City Hotel was built by William Shaw in 1851 on the northwest comer of the Chicago-Spring intersection, across the way from the train platform. When the railroad crossed the river south of town, William C. Kimball in 1852-53 erected the Waverly House on the southwest comer of Highland and State. The Waverly was for many years the scene of Elgin balls and dinners and functioned as a luxury resort for wealthy Chicagoans. Local pride referred to it as the finest hotel between Chicago and the Mississippi. Its rear portion extended to the tracks, and some trains stopped back of the Waverly to allow passengers twenty minutes for refreshments.

Hotels were not the only sign of prosperity brought by the railroads. The line provided a stimulus for the developing farm implement business along River Street, attracted a large distillery on the west bank of the river north of the dam, and led to the building of new mills along the east side race. Out of town trade brought a need of facilities for the transfer of money. Demarcus Clark operated a bank in connection with his store, and in 1852 Morris Clinton Town obtained the first charter for a bank in Kane County. Orlando Davidson, James T. Gifford's son-in-law, opened a private banking office in 1855.

The railroad carried to Elgin noted lecturers sponsored by the Young Men's Association for the purpose of maintaining a circulating library. Horace Mann in 1854 and James Russell Lowell, Bayard Taylor, and Horace Greeley in 1855 were among the more celebrated of these visiting speakers. The Rev. John Pierpont, grandfather of financier J. P. Morgan, gave an oration on "The Golden Calf," wherein he deplored materialism and the love of wealth. At the close of the lecture it was discovered that the admissions were not sufficient to cover the speaker's fee. Pierpont thereupon insisted that the members of the Association make up the difference out of their own pockets.

Of the sixteen Kane County townships, Elgin now led the 1850 census with 2,359 inhabitants. St. Charles had 2,132 and Aurora 1,895. The growth in population and ready access to newsprint made local newspapers feasible, if not always profitable. Eliphalet Owen in 1850 commenced publication of the weekly Gazette. At the close of the first volume, the printing office went into other hands which published the Fox River Courier. This was followed by the Illinois Palladium. In 1855 Owen resumed issuing the Gazette.

After the G&CU had crossed the Fox, the company built a depot on South Crystal Street near West Chicago Street. The first passenger train reached Huntley's Station in September 1851 and entered Freeport, where a connection with the Illinois Central provided access to the Mississippi, in August 1853.

The local boom was deflated after the rails were extended westward, but in 1852 the Fox River Valley Rail Road was projected from Elgin toward Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, to reach the pine lumber region. Benjamin W. Raymond was elected president of this line, and M. C. Town and A. J. Waldron of Elgin were chosen treasurer and secretary respectively. Problems in obtaining capital and iron impeded construction. The track wasn't completed to Dundee until December, 1854. The Chicago & North Western refused to allow the Fox line to cross its tracks at what is now Crystal Lake. Since the grades were not the same, the Fox construction gang began digging their way under the North Western right-of-way, but the latter's crews filled up the excavation as soon as the cut was made. Finally one Sunday they dug their way through and erected a pile bridge for the C&NW tracks, a fait accompli which was accepted.

The Fox River Valley tracks reached Richmond, on the Wisconsin border, in November 1855. Trains did not run to Lake Geneva until 1859, when the G&CU acquired the Wisconsin Central road running south from Lake Geneva, and extended the tracks. Anticipating a great business on this northern road, the Kimball House was opened by Phineas Kimball, Jr. in 1856 on the northeast corner of Douglas and North Streets, across the way from the eventual depot.

James T. Gifford's Stone Cottage, 363-365 Prairie Street, looked like this about 1870. It was then occupied by his daughter and son-in-law. Behind the home are the servants' quarters and carriage house. On its broad lawn or on the veranda or in its spacious rooms were held some of early Elgin's most memorable social events.

The Galena and Chicago Union, which had absorbed the Fox River Valley road, was in turn consolidated with the Chicago & North Western in 1864. After the merger, the C&NW tracks on the west side became known locally as the "high North Western," while those on the east side were called the "low North Western."

If the railroad ended Elgin's isolation, it also tied the community to the fortunes of the national economy. The financial crisis of '57 brought Elgin to a virtual stand-still. Property values depreciated to low figures; the implement shops were paralyzed; and stores were vacant. M. C. Town's bank collapsed. Creditors took over the assets of Demarcus Clark, including his new home. The reaper manufacturing partnership of Philo Sylla and Augustus Adams failed. William C. Kimball and Phineas Kimball lost control of their hostelries. It was Elgin's first experience with a general business depression, but there would be worse to come.

5. A City Government

Prior to 1872, Illinois cities were chartered by special acts of the state legislature. In 1854, when population was variously estimated between 1,500 and 2,000, a meeting of Elgin citizens voted by a margin of two to one for incorporation. Legislation approved by the Governor on February 28th provided the city charter. It was approved by the local voters-236 in favor, 72 opposed. The election of city officials was held on May 1st. They included a Mayor, pioneer physician Joseph Tefft, and six alderman, two chosen from each of three wards. Two of the wards were located on the east side of the river, and one on the west side. In 1859 a fourth ward was added to the east side.

The mayor and one alderman from each ward were chosen annually. In addition, the voters elected a city treasurer, a city assessor, a city marshal, and a street commissioner. All these officials except the aldermen served one year terms. The area comprised within the new corporate limits was exactly four square miles, measuring one mile north, east, south and west from the center of Market Square. The limit on the east was later extended to the Cook County line.

Although the municipality's area was quadrupled and the number of elected officials more than doubled, the major change was the new city's assumption of the responsibility for education. Until the state legislature authorized a tax levy for free public schools in 1851, they had been supported by rates. At a meeting in the Old Brick the next year, Elgin residents voted the tax. The charter of 1854 transferred support of the schools from the township to the City Council, which divided Elgin into three attendance areas, one on the east side and two on the west side. Management devolved upon a superintendent and three trustees. In 1855 new brick buildings were constructed in the southwest and northwest districts. A New Brick school was opened in 1857 at Kimball and Spring Streets. "High school" students continued their studies in this building.

One of the purposes of obtaining a city charter was to control the sale of intoxicating beverages. A prohibitory law was passed by the Council in June 1854, and was enforced while Tefft was mayor. The year after the doctor left office, saloons began to appear again, and in May 1858 a license ordinance was passed. Liquor was to be a volatile issue in local politics for more than a century.

The Elgin City Court of Common Pleas, a general trial court with jurisdiction over most cases arising within the city limits, was created by the General Assembly in 1857. Two years later it was combined with the Aurora City Court, and the two benches shared one judge. The City Court was part of the state judicial system. The judge and clerk were elected by the eligible voters of the city, the municipality providing court facilities and paying the clerk's salary.

The court was the impetus for Elgin's first city hall. Previously the Council had met above a grocery and saloon. In 1859 the city entered into an agreement with Edwin F. Reeves, a masonry contractor, to rent a building to be constructed by him on a lot on the south side of Chicago Street between Spring and Center. Popularly known as the City Courthouse, it contained a basement calaboose. The first floor was fitted out as a court and council chamber, with platform, railing, jury box and witness seats. The second floor contained three rooms. In the same year the Council adopted an official city seal which depicts a seated female figure with a Liberty cap, a horn of plenty, a sheaf of wheat, and the Latin motto, "Urbs Fluminis"-city by the river.

Public schools did not pre-empt private education. The Elgin Seminary was established in the spring of 1851 by the Misses Emily and Ellen Lord. It was designed for young ladies, although several young men were admitted. At first classes were held in the Congregational Church, and a house on DuPage Street boarded the students. In 1852 the Elgin House on the northeast corner of Chicago and Center was purchased and fitted up for instructional use. The school was continued until the summer of 1856. Myra Colby Bradwell, the first woman to pass the Illinois bar examination-and then be denied admission because of her sex-taught at the Seminary before her marriage.

Meanwhile steps were taken to open Elgin Academy. This school had been chartered by the state legislature in 1839, but there were no funds available to begin instruction. In 1848 the Free Will Baptists laid the foundation for a college, but were not able to continue. Their property was purchased in 1855 by a reactivated Academy Board of Trustees headed by Dr. Tefft. On December 1, 1856 an imposing three-story brick and stone building in the Greek Revival style was opened for students under the direction of Robert Blenkiron, a graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge. The Academy was unique among private schools of its time because it welcomed students of all religious denominations and required no profession of religious faith by staff or pupils. Enrollment fluctuated with the need for the student's services on the farms. At night the scholars studied by candles or fluid lamps. Water was drawn from a deep well outside, and heat was supplied by stoves connected to four chimneys.

6. Elgin Milk

Early in the '50s the yield of wheat, the main source of cash for Elgin area farmers, began to decline, and crop failures became frequent. The gentle cow came to the rescue. The growing urban giant, Chicago, required an ever increasing supply of fresh milk, and the Galena & Chicago Union-built with the expectation of hauling wheat-now provided the means of transportation. On February 12, 1852 Phineas H. Smith, who farmed Dr. Joseph Tefft's land in Hanover Township, part of which is now Lord's Park, shipped the first can of milk to a hotel in Chicago. Other hotels and vendors soon made contracts with Elgin farmers, and in a short time many a milkman's wagon in Chicago was labeled "Elgin Dairy." They received their cans each day from the incoming morning train, attracting the attention of travelers who spread the reputation of Elgin as a dairy center.

A new era for agriculture in the Valley opened as farmers quickly switched from growing wheat to raising dairy cattle. Hay, clover and timothy grew with rare luxuriance in the pastures around Elgin. The yield of oats and corn was excellent, and the manure from cows enriched the soil. Another advantage was an abundance of pure running water in the brooks and streams entering the Fox.

In the spring of 1858 "Long John" Wentworth's Chicago Democrat charged that the "Elgin Dairies" were selling "swill milk" from cows fed on distillery slops and refuse. Some of the Chicago vendors were undoubtedly obtaining their supply from this source and misrepresenting it under the now respected Elgin label. Denials rose from Elgin farmers as prices plummeted, and the Chicago Press and Tribune sent out an investigator. The visitor was given a tour of Elgin dairy farms, including that of Abel D. Gifford southeast of town. He claimed to have the largest number of cows of all those who sent milk into the Elgin depot. The Trib's man was impressed with what he saw, and when he returned to Chicago declared that the milk coming from the farms of Elgin was free from all impurities and poisonous ingredients.

On Sam Kimball's west side farm, within the area roughly bounded by what are now South, Vine, Van, and Crescent Streets, there were three gushing springs. The water flowing from them converged to form a creek which ran down the hill, crossed Chicago Street, and then entered the river. With the development of dairying, Kimball built a milk house and piped the spring water into vats where cans could be set to cool the milk. Neighboring farmers adopted the idea and had spring water piped to their vats. The springs were all on high ground so that the water flowed by gravity. Before long, spring water was also piped into homes in the vicinity to provide running water, and as service expanded, main trunk lines of wooden pipe were laid. B. W. Raymond paid ten dollars one year for the water brought to a house he owned.

Farmer Kimball went deeply into debt buying cows, and when he couldn't meet his payments, creditors had his cattle auctioned off at a public sale. When the proceedings were over, he learned to his surprise that the buyers had banded together to bid on his cattle and were giving them back to him. Mixed with the business enterprise of early Elgin was the warmth of friendship.

In November 1858, twenty-three different Elgin area farmers shipped 21,845 gallons of milk to Chicago, netting $2,184.50. In 1859 local dairymen sent a total of 227,047 gallons of milk. Several little industries sprang up in Elgin to supply the farmers with dairy equipment. David F. Barclay, said to have made the Milk can used by Phineas Smith in the first Chicago shipment, opened a shop for the manufacture of dairy supplies, and other hardware stores employed tinsmiths to make milk cans, strainers, pails, ladles and coolers, and other utensils.

James T. Gifford's log cabin, above, was used as his settlement's first church, first school, and first post office.

Copyright Notice

I    Country Town in the West
II   The Dividing Line
III  Watches, Milk and Butter
IV   The Expanding City
V    Boom and Panic
VI   The Good Years
VII  Whirling Twenties
VIII Depression and War
IX   Civic Pride
X    Modern Elgin

Special Update
End Notes

© 2001 by E. C. Alft and ElginHistory.com. All Rights Reservered.