New parks, creative restaurateur make Algonquin a river destination
With some smart financial planning and the hard work of a local restaurateur, Algonquin has made Fox River a hub for playing, eating and quiet solitude.
One local leader even likens one of the efforts to a Norman Rockwell painting.
On the village's end, two of the main contributions came in the form of two lush parks. Much of the funding came more than two decades ago when developers were scrambling to build homes and businesses in the village.
The so-called "impact fees" imposed on developers were combined with state grants to build Cornish Park and to make significant improvements to Riverfront Park. Both parks are within walking distance of each other.
Also, Ed Wolowiec, the 83-year-old owner of Port Edward, has done everything possible to make his riverfront restaurant a part of the ambience. He introduced outdoor seating and built docks that allow his customers to pull up in their boats and enjoy a meal, even with their dogs in tow. The seemingly endless series of improvements have come since Wolowiec bought it in 1964.
The result is a thriving riverfront that draws boaters, families, foodies and gardening types.
"Both parks have served to open up public access to the river," said Ben Mason, a senior village planner, "and we're looking to build on that."
From the Victorian era until about the 1920s, Algonquin was a weekend getaway that attracted thousands people from Chicago. During the week, the village's population was 600 people, but on the summer weekends between 3,000 and 5,000 vacationers added to the population.
"Algonquin was a 45-minute ride by train to Chicago, so in the summer in the Victorian era you didn't have air conditioning and it was a great leisurely escape from the heat and the foul air that the city had to offer," said Jeff Jolitz, chairman of the Algonquin Historic Commission.
"It was pretty much like a Lake Geneva kind of atmosphere."
Fishing, boating and swimming were huge. Back then, boat tours took people on visits to the lotus flower beds in Grass Lake and Fox Lake, which are part of the Chain O' Lakes.
The well-heeled also built houses along the river in Algonquin so they could live there all summer, or stayed in luxury hotels nearby, Jolitz said. There were also hotels that catered to people of more modest means, Jolitz said.
But by the 1920s, the increased popularity of the automobile had changed all of that.
"When you have a car," Jolitz said, "you don't have to go where the train goes."
Gas station to park
Cornish Park is now a popular site for fishing, families, and has served as the backdrop in many prom, wedding and quinceañera photographs thanks to its picturesque views of the river.
It was built on the site of an abandoned gas station.
The park is the village's biggest river-related undertaking to date, and has since become a major showstopper in Algonquin, officials said.
"That took a lot of work, a lot of planning," said Trustee Robert Smith, who has been on the board for 20 years.
The park, on the west bank of the Fox River south of Algonquin Road, was named for Dr. Andrew Cornish, one of the village's earliest settlers, who arrived in 1835, according to a historic marker in the park.
Cornish also ran a ferryboat operation near the park's site, which helped promote Algonquin's early growth and development.
In the late 1990s, village officials wanted to turn the gas station into a 2.43-acre park. But more than three years were spent cleaning up the site to comply with environmental standards, according to Steve Ludwig, the village's parks and forestry superintendent.
In the meantime, the village secured a nearby gravel lot for the park that was once the original site of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church, Ludwig said. The church was built in 1915 and later demolished once parishioners relocated to a new church and school on the east side of the Fox River.
Officials wanted a focal point in the park, so they hired a company to design and build a clock tower inspired by the tower at historic village hall. The older tower, which the fire department used to sound the fire alarm back in the day, is an Algonquin identifier and figures prominently in the village's seal and its website. Officials wanted to recreate that hometown feeling for Cornish Park.
"We wanted it to be a welcome center," Ludwig said. "It says, 'This is Algonquin.'"
A playground, a walking path, a gazebo, picnicking and fishing areas also were added.
It cost $1.6 million to develop the park, which opened in 2006. And $400,000 of that was covered by a state grant. The village paid the balance off with the developers' fees they've been charging since the 1980s.
The end result turned an eyesore into one of the village's most popular and most-used used facilities, drawing people to the river and the downtown.
"We created something that people want to come to -- it reminds me of a Norman Rockwell painting," Ludwig said. "That was really what we were shooting for."
Meanwhile, Riverfront Park, on the west bank of the river north of Algonquin Road, was completed in 2001. Before that, it wasn't much: A gazebo, a crumbling shoreline, a gravel parking lot, a boat launch for emergency use only and a large concrete pad firefighters stood on during their annual water fights.
"It was mostly private property through there -- there weren't any places for people to really use it that much," Smith said. "It wasn't set up like it is now."
Village officials made numerous improvements -- they increased river access for fishing, built two basketball courts in place of the concrete pad, remade the gazebo, stabilized the shoreline and added a memorial dedicated to fallen firefighters that features a piece from the World Trade Center. The village's fire station used to be just across from the park.
Riverfront Park has gotten plenty of use through the years. The Algonquin Garden Club maintains a pair of flower beds at the park. It's the site of Algonquin's Art on the Fox festival, and the gazebo in the 1.5-acre park plays host to the village's summer concert series. On those nights, the river is filled with people in boats listening to the live show.
"It's almost like a mini-Ravinia," Ludwig said.
Grants and money from developers paid the cost of the $650,000 park.
A nautical theme
When Wolowiec, a world traveler, boater and former bandleader, bought Port Edward in 1964, it was known as the Anchor Lounge, a tavern/restaurant that attracted locals and the boating community.
"It was just a little joint at that time," he said.
The original bar still remains and Wolowiec embarked on an expansion and renovation project in 1975. He also built a sea wall, filled in the parking lot and expanded the docks for his diners. And he filled the restaurant with objects he obtained during his world travels, including a windmill, a boat, harpoons and a jawbone from a sperm whale.
The focus of the eatery changed from pizza and burgers to seafood; foodies have been thankful ever since, as "Check, Please" and "Chicago's Best" have given the restaurant rave reviews on television.
The eatery seats 420 diners and recently added 25 outdoor tables dockside along the Fox River. In doing so, Wolowiec capitalized on the beauty and serenity of Fox River. Boating access to the river ends right at his restaurant, forcing boaters to turn around and go back the way they came.
"It's a very important part of the business, as far as the boat traffic is concerned," Wolowiec said of the outdoor seating.
Algonquin leaders say Wolowiec's contributions have only enhanced what the village has already done.
"If anything, Port Ed works as a partner as far as utilizing the river and downtown," Smith said.
Algonquin does not intend to stop there. The village is joining with Carpentersville, Kane County Forest Preserve District and the McHenry County Conservation District in applying to be included in a study on how to enhance recreational opportunities along the Fox River.
Officials are looking to find new and creative ways to use the river, but the main goal is to draw people to the nearby downtown.
"People want to be near our water -- for some reason, we are attracted to water and fire," Ludwig said. "So why not give them a nice place to do it?"