HISTORY OF WEST CHICAGO
West Chicago is the first Illinois community created by the coming of the railroads. A few settlers owned property in the area of present day West Chicago as early as the late 1830s. A town did not form until 1849 when the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad (predecessor of the Chicago & North Western, now the Union Pacific) reached here, coming west from Chicago.
That same year the St. Charles Branch Railroad connected St. Charles with the Galena & Chicago Union (G&CU) here. This formed the first railroad junction in Illinois, and gave West Chicago its first name, Junction.
By late 1850 three railroads met here. Because of the number of trains passing through town, water and fuel facilities for locomotives were built here, as well as an early restaurant and hotel for travelers (the Ripley Hotel still stands at 200 Main Street and is home to an artist cooperative). Eventually two mainlines of the G&CU met at Junction, and the railroad built a roundhouse and a mill for repairing rails. As a result, a number of new employees and their families located in the community.
John B. Turner, president of the G&CU and a resident of Chicago, owned several acres of land in what is the center of town. As more people settled in Junction, Turner recognized the chance to make a profit by platting his land and selling off lots. He therefore recorded the community’s first plat in 1855 under the name of the Town of Junction.
The community continued its growth, and in 1857 Dr. Joseph McConnell and his wife Mary platted a second portion of town, those lands lying just north of John B. Turner’s plat. They recorded their plat as the Town of Turner in honor of the railroad president. There now existed a Town of Turner and a Town of Junction, and as a result the community took on the informal name of Turner Junction.
By the late 1860s, the Chicago & North Western (as the former G&CU was now known) built a brick passenger depot and a larger roundhouse. This depot still stands, however the roundhouse burned down in 1953.
The community had taken on a substantial and permanent character, and the residents incorporated as the Village of Turner in 1873. Lucius B. Church served as the first village president of a town of 850 people.
During these early decades, Turner was chiefly a one-industry town. According to census data, nearly 40% of the men employed in non-agricultural occupations worked for the C&NW.
In 1888 a new railroad, the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern built a freight line through town. It offered free factory sites for any industry willing to locate along its right-of-way.
As part of the effort to attract industry, the community changed its name in 1896 to the Village of West Chicago. Area businessmen, particularly Charles Bolles, reasoned that the new name sounded more cosmopolitan, and would help locate the town for prospective factory owners. It was also at this time that the Village built a water works, thereby decreasing the threat of fire.
Several manufacturing plants such as the Turner Brick Company, Stimmel & Hook Pump Works and Roach & Brandt Millwork opened in West Chicago despite a depression in the 1890s. As industry located in town and new jobs became available, the population increased. By 1900 it reached 1,877, while in 1910 2,378 people lived in town.
In 1906, the village reincorporated itself as the City of West Chicago, with banker Grant A. Dayton serving as first mayor.
By 1909 yet another railroad built tracks to West Chicago. The Aurora, Elgin & Chicago (later called the CA&E), an electric interurban, promoted commuter subdivisions along its route, hoping to generate passenger traffic. High Lake was one such streetcar suburb promoted by this line.
In 1912 the C&NW built a new passenger depot (now the Wayne & Helen Fox Community Center) and an underpass, as well as the Wilson Street bridge over its mainline. It moved its 1869 depot across Washington Street, converting it to a freight depot.
The multiple railroads also meant that a lot of migrant labor was brought in to the City. Recent immigrants to the United States were a large portion of this labor force. Box car camps were set up west of town and by the mid-1920s, Mexican immigrants began to dominate the railroad worker population and over the next few decades slowly moved from the company housing to their own homes in town.
In 1923-1925 Mayor Edward J. McCabe embarked on a major street improvement program, building nine miles of concrete streets and installing an ornamental street lighting system. Starting in 1930 the City renamed several streets and instituted a new numbering system for building addresses.
In the 1930s, the town’s growth slowed dramatically and population actually decreased. The CA&E abandoned their West Chicago branch in 1937.
World War II brought new economic vitality. The population grew 17% during the 1940s to a 1950 total of 3,973; a whopping 80% during the 1950s to a 1960 figure of 6,839; and another 47% during the 1960s to 10,100 in 1970. Part of this growth reflected annexations of existing developments, but much of it resulted from new building, including the construction of a number of apartment complexes. By 1980 the population reached 12,500.
Significant changes in the face and structure of West Chicago occurred throughout the post-war period. The newly formed Rotary Club of West Chicago built an outdoor pool in the city-owned Reed-Keppler Park. The West Chicago Railroad and Historical Society was formed in the 1960s and was later absorbed by the new West Chicago Historical Society in 1975. In 1954, the West Chicago Public Library built its first permanent home with tax monies.
The City also saw the construction of a Campbell’s Soup mushroom factory farm following WWII. Prince Crossing Farm opened in 1947, originally with a Puerto Rican workforce that was quickly replaced by Mexican laborers. With a population of around 200, including workers and their families, Campbell’s ran a company town on the site until 1981, the last existing company town in Illinois. Many Latino families who came to work at Campbell’s and lived on the farm, eventually moved into town. This and the railroad box car camps started a large chain migration pathway to West Chicago, as the community became an initial home base for many migrants, with a majority of them coming from the Mexican state of Michoacán.
While civic groups remained active in community efforts during the 1970s and 1980s, governmental bodies assumed more of a leadership role. In 1972, the Park District was formed.
City government outgrew the 1884 Turner Town Hall building (current home of the West Chicago City Museum). In 1975, under Mayor Richard Truitt, the City bought and renovated a former Jewel Food store and moved its offices and council chambers there. In 1976 the City created the West Chicago Historical Commission and the West Chicago Historical Museum in the Turner Town Hall.
The West Chicago Prairie was established in 1979 when the City and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County purchased land on the west side of town, part of which had been the former C&NW Stockyards. The Prairie has over 300 acres with 500 native plant species.
Starting in 1974, the West Chicago Railroad Days Committee sponsored an annual summer festival. In 1975 the West Chicago Historical Society was formed. Initially intended as a volunteer arm of the West Chicago City Museum, it added its own museum facility in 1979 when Miss Celia Kruse willed the Society her 1916 family home.
In 1981 the new West Chicago Community Center, Inc., a not-for-profit group acquired the 1912 C&NW depot for use as a community center. It was dedicated in 1983, after many cash and volunteer labor contributions. It is now the Wayne & Helen Fox Community Center.
The 1990s brought many improvements to the City. In 1995 Main Street underwent construction, with brick sidewalks, historic lighting and a fountain plaza some of the changes made; part of the renovations were done for the filming of “Reach the Rock,” a John Hughes film. The Turner Junction Historic District was formed in the downtown area. The same year the Park District built the Prairie Oaks Family Aquatic Center at Reed-Keppler Park. A nine-mile addition to the Illinois Prairie Path, the Geneva Spur, connected West Chicago to this bike path. The population of West Chicago grew, thanks in part to some of these improvement from 14,796 in 1990, to 23,469 in 2000.
As of 2010, the population was 27,086 residents, with over half being of Latino descent. The community is still connected to its railroad roots, with much industry still located along its lines.
*Photos courtesy of the West Chicago City Museum.