Steel Men and Wooden Ladders
In 1831, the first road in Cook County, crossing the "dismal Nine-mile Swamp," went west on Madison St. to Western Avenue, called Whiskey Point at that time, and then headed southwest along the Barry Point Trail to Laughton's Tavern (Riverside) where it crossed the DesPlaines River and went southwest to Walker's Grove, which is now Plainfield. Portions of it still exist as Fifth Avenue in Chicago, Riverside Drive and Longcommon Road in Berwyn and Riverside, Barry Point Road in Lyons (now abandoned), and Plainfield Road from Ogden Ave. to Plainfield.[i] The road, such as it was, was hardly more than a wide path, dirt compacted by hooves of animals with a surface which turned to mud at even the suggestion of rain and otherwise was nothing more than a dust cloud. The transportation of the time was wagon, buggy or horseback, all with a maximum sustained speed of six miles-per-hour, and a limit on how long a horse could travel, the average a maximum of 30 miles in one day, provided the roads were dry and in good condition. As horses gave way to horsepower the control over the use of roads began to become an issue for the village. There were no state roads or state motor vehicle code, leaving the regulation of automobiles to each jurisdiction. This made driving a difficult -to say the least – affair as the laws changed from one jurisdiction to another.
It was not until 1849 that the railroad became an option, but while rail travel was safer and quicker, it was more restrictive in terms of destinations as one could only go where the rails took them. The first rail line in the 1830’s was the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad followed by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q). While the railroad provided an option for travel, unless one’s destination was a stop on the line transport to your final destination still had to be arranged.
On a map of Cook County from 1870, the CB&Q is clearly shown as it passes west out of the city. After leaving Chicago it stopped at stations in Hawthorne, Riverside, West Lyons and Hinsdale before continuing on to Aurora. There was no Berwyn, Brookfield, La Grange or Western Springs; if a passenger wanted to stop somewhere along the line other than the station they would make arrangements with the conductor or engineer. Getting picked up was a similar operation. The would be passenger would stand along the rail line and wave a red flag or lantern, signaling the train to stop.
Because of these limitations, travel in those days was mainly done out of necessity, the idea of traveling for pleasure would have been thought crazy – why would one subject themselves to the rigors of traveling by wagon or horseback merely for the purpose of simply going someplace for no reason other than to visit? Chicago, itself, was young and trying to establish and define itself, but was already noisy, crowded, dirty and highly segregated by class, race, religion, and ethnicity. The new middle class was becoming more affluent, but still could not reach the level of the Armours, Swifts, Fields, or Adlers. The Chicago fire of 1871 was the last straw for many, and they began to seek refuge from the city in the suburbs. Among those who decided it was time to move out was Franklin D. Cossitt. Cossitt purchased a 600-acre plot of land in the area which is now bounded by Ogden Avenue, Bluff Avenue, Waiola Avenue, and 47th Street. He began to develop the land in 1873 when he planted trees, laid out the streets, and began to build homes of a quality and price which would attract those with the means to afford them. He also insisted that the new village, La Grange instead of West Lyons, by totally dry. The key to the new community would
5th Avenue Station c.1890
be its location along the CB&Q providing for easy transport to and from the city. Unlike present times when the stations are supported by the railroad, it was Cossitt who financed the building of the first CB&Q train station at Fifth Avenue (now La Grange Road).
The streets of the La Grange were broad and tree lined, making carriage travel more pleasurable for the residents and which drew people from the crowded streets of the city. The village had several stables, numerous blacksmith shops, and all of the amenities needed for the traveler of the late nineteenth century. But, as an affluent community, change was to come quickly in the early twentieth century, and life in the village would never be the same. The development of the “motor car” was the first major change to confront the villagers, and once the Wright Brothers had made the “aeroplane” a commercial success, the village, like the entire country, was swept with flying fever, and the thought of air travel supplanted the automobile, at least for a while. One of the lesser known facts about the La Grange area is the presence of what was once the second largest airport in the state. With three runways and over 100 aircraft, it was considered so successful and necessary for commerce that the village even considered incorporating it into the village’s boundary and taking ownership of it as a municipal airport.
This book is a chronicle of those changes and how the village dealt with the age of the automobile, airplane, and the streamliner. The source material is primarily from the village’s records, including the detailed minutes of the village board. Adding to this is the microfilm records of the early La Grange newspaper, The Citizen, starting in 1906. The newspaper records provide not only a great amount of detail as to the intrusion of the automobile into the people’s lives, but also showcases the advertisements for the many auto manufacturers of the time. While this record focuses on La Grange, Illinois, is a reflection of the issues, changes, and lives in many similar communities throughout the United States.
[i] Source: Nature Bulletin No. 738 January 11, 1964, Forest Preserve District of Cook County
A future project...