How the railroad age shaped the suburbs we know today

You can't tell the history of suburban Chicago over the last 150 years without talking the railroads.

The first railroad, the Galena & Chicago Union, rolled into the region in 1848. Along that Galena line arose the very first railroad communities.

By 1860, there were more than a dozen lines, fanning out like spokes from Chicago, said Ann Keating, professor of history at North Central College in Naperville.

"That really defines the regional suburban development from the mid-19th century, all the way into really the 1920s, when you get the Model T and trucks starting to come in, and so the story changes there," Keating said.

But there are other key chapters to the suburban story.

The Daily Herald traces its roots to the first edition of the weekly Cook County Herald in 1872. Then and now, the places we think of as suburban Chicago are not a monolith, but a varied collection of towns with distinctive identities.

"It's not just cornfields turned into residential subdivisions, and that's a critical point," Keating said. "Because 150 years ago, the … Herald was not just a paper for farmers. It was a paper for all kinds of people who lived out in the suburbs."

Keating sees distinctions in the early suburbs, but their birth and development are tied to the rail network.

"The railroad really affects the stories in the Chicago region more than they do in most any other urban areas in the United States because there are more railroads coming in and out of Chicago," Keating said, "and it's a national transportation hub."

The origins of the suburbs

By 1830 - nearly two decades before the arrival of the railroad - there were more than 1,500 Potawatomi and at least 26 villages in northeastern Illinois, according to a recent Elmhurst History Museum exhibit.

The Potawatomi were quickly dispossessed of their land in what is now Illinois through treaties with the U.S. government over a period of about 40 years, museum curator Daniel Bartlett said during a tour of the exhibit, "People of the Prairie: 12,000 Years in DuPage County."

The forced removal of the Potawatomi opened up their land to large numbers of Euro-American settlers. In the modern-day DuPage area, the vast majority were settlers and immigrants trying to establish commercial farms, Bartlett said.

As the railroad headed westward, brothers Warren and Jesse Wheaton, settlers from New England, offered land to Galena & Chicago Union executive William Ogden, carving out a more southerly train passage.

Settlements formed along the Fox River even before the railroad gained steam.

"Most of them are going to be places that will use water power initially and then steam power for factories," Keating said.

Cities such as Elgin forged their industrial character with growing manufacturing enterprises. Elgin National Watch Co. was founded in 1864. Then, Gail Borden, who developed a process to condense milk, built a plant in Elgin.

German immigrants helped create farming centers in the Arlington Heights and Palatine area.

"They're one of the groups that's quite successful in launching successful farm operations and then businesses related to farming," Keating said.

In between rail lines, farms covered almost all of the usable land in DuPage and Cook counties by 1872, she said. Dairy and produce farmers brought their goods to rail stops for market in Chicago.

"Lisle, Illinois, is almost entirely a milk stop," Keating said. "The train is important in that way, but it's not going to develop as a real suburban place. It's really a farm community well into the 20th century."

Chicago's population, meanwhile, surged from nearly 300,000 people in 1870 to half a million a decade later.

"Chicago is going to grow because the stockyards are growing, because the steel industry is growing. That's creating the rails that you need for the railroad lines," Keating said. "Big companies like Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward are emerging in Chicago during the 1870s because there's all these good railroad lines."

The rise of suburbia

A new mode of transportation - the automobile - ushered in another gradual but seismic shift in the region. Development and jobs were no longer linked to the rail lines, but to good roads.

Major thoroughfares - Ogden Avenue, Butterfield Road, Busse Road - are all old highways that were improved in the 1920s and 1930s for car traffic.

"That's going to take decades to develop, and World War II is when you start to see that change pretty substantially," Keating said.

On the homebuilding front, the federal government encouraged postwar residential construction with VA-backed loans. Black veterans were denied the same benefits.

"It's impossible for them to get these loans that are fueling the growth of the suburbs during these years. After 1950, it's really development that's going to be very segregated," Keating said. "The city itself, Chicago had been very segregated before, so this is not a new phenomenon, but it reifies that, and racial segregation becomes a very potent part of the Western suburban landscape as a result of that."

The interstate system dramatically changed the equation of where companies wanted to locate and people wanted to live.

"We think about that 19th-century landscape. There's all these farms in between these railroad lines," Keating said. "And in the 20th century, you start to see those farms being taken over by suburban development, whether it's industrial or residential or commercial."

Take Naperville, an old railroad town home to a college and a lot of industry. The Kroehler Manufacturing Co. furniture factory remained the city's largest employer for decades.

"Naperville will start to grow not simply as a railroad town, but also as a town with easy access to the interstate system to Chicago, to growing commercial districts like Oak Brook," Keating said.

O'Hare International Airport took off in the '60s when it claimed the "world's busiest airport" crown. Woodfield, the king of suburban malls, opened on former prairie land in Schaumburg in 1971.

Suburban sprawl covers the region far more clearly, to the point where few farms are left.

"One hundred years ago, a suburb would have stood out in our region because it was almost always going to be along a rail line," Keating said. "And now it's just almost contiguous development out from State and Madison from downtown Chicago all the way out to the Fox River."

A Chicago, Aurora and Elgin electric interurban train arrives at the Wheaton station during 1928. Wheaton's railroad history stretches back to the 1850s. Chicago Historical Society photo
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