West Chicago: the 1890’s

“Not many people living today can fully or faintly recall the years of 1890 to 1900.” (Scobey 93) The 1890s, also known as the Gay 90s were a time of many changes in the city of West Chicago, IL. The 1890s brought many good things, some bad things, and an interesting bicycle fad.

To begin with, there were many changes in the railroads. Railroads had some history before the 1890s. The Eastern U.S. had the first railroads of the U.S., but they were horse-powered. Later on, still in the 1800s, a man by the name of John Stevens got a charter from the state of New Jersey to build a steam-powered railroad through the state. He couldn’t raise enough money for his project, but he still desired to build a steam-powered railroad. In about 1825, he built a circular track and a small steam powered car near his estate; the car ran successfully around the track later that year. In 1830, the first passenger train services started and went from Baltimore to Ellicot’s Mills, now called Ellicot City. By 1835, there were more than 200 railroad charters in 11 states, and there were more than 1000 miles of opened track. (World Book 115)

Then came the 1890s, with some major locomotive design changes and some railroad organizational change. In 1893, tracks to the West Coast were completed. Because of a depression, many train lines went bankrupt in 1893, many people were laid off and there were lots of wage cuts. (Tod 17)

In fact, the depression also greatly affected the railroad in West Chicago. The North Western Road gave extended holidays. Whole trains were run by conductors, and displaced brakemen worked only as they were needed or took permanent layoffs. (Scobey 93, 96, 99)

Later on in 1893, the ARU (American Railway Union) formed. The president of the union was Eugene Debs. In the spring of 1894, the ARU called a strike to protest the wage cuts. They tied up 4,000 miles of GN service and won the strike in one week.

A short time later, in June of 1894, George Pullman cut the pay of the workers at his railroad car plant in Pullman, IL, but he didn’t lower the rent that workers paid for their homes. (Davidson 555) One hundred twenty five thousand (125,000) employees walked out, led by the ARU. A federal judge in Chicago ordered the strike to be ended, so federal troops were sent in to end both the strike and the ARU. (Tod 18) Leaders of the strike were jailed because they had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act. The Sherman Antitrust Act had been enacted to keep trusts from limiting free trade, but, instead, the court decided that the workers on strike were limiting free trade. (Davidson 555)

Previously, in 1893, the Railway Safety Appliance Act was passed. It required all trains to have automatic couplers and air brakes. This law decreased the accident rate by about 60%. In the 1890s the number of railroad employees grew by only 33% during the 1890s, compared to 80% during the 1880s. “In 1890 the 4-4-0 and 4-6-0 engines used in passenger services weighed perhaps 50 tons with tenders. A typical 2-8-0 freight engine might weigh 75 tons. By 1900, a typical road engine weighed 60 to 100 tons. This trend was to continue until clearance restrictions and the limitations of track capacity ended the race with locomotives over 100 feet long and weighing as much as 400 tons.” (Scobey 18)

Naturally, the railroads in West Chicago and near-by areas changed during this decade. In the spring of 1890, the EJ & E Railroad, also known as the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern or the “J”, opened a street to their station and the town made a sidewalk from the station to Arbor Av. On the EJ & E railroad, people could go to Joliet daily on passenger trains. In the fall of 1893, the Burlington Road put a new station in West Chicago. People could now watch trains at three different local stations. People could also ride on three different train lines. (Scobey 93, 96, 99)

Later on, from 1894 to 1899, there were more railroad happenings. On July 14, 1895, the Albert Keep Lodge #364 of Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen gave a free excursion for railroad employees. The excursion went to Devil’s Lake, WI and many railroad workers attended. (Scobey 93, 96, 99)

Also, in August of 1895, the North Western Road was selling low priced excursion tickets. Included in the tickets was daily service from McHenry, IL to Fox Lake, IL on steam engine trains. People camped out to get tickets, just like people camp out to get playoff tickets for their favorite sports teams. (Scobey 99, 103-104)

In addition to those excursions, there were quite a few other excursions in 1899. The first was from West Chicago to Clinton, Iowa. The cost was only $1.50 for the round trip excursion. Another went to Devil’s Lake, WI. That also cost $1.50. Next, there was a trip from West Chicago to White Fish Bay, WI. That also cost $1.50, and there were stops along the way. (Scobey 99, 103-104)

Besides interest in the railroad outings, there was considerable attention directed towards the Bolles Opera House. Charles E. Bolles built it in 1894. The bricks for the building came from Turner Brick, a local brick company owned and operated by Charles E. Bolles. The architect was Frank D. Thompson of River Forest, Illinois, and the blueprints he made are in the West Chicago City Museum today. The Opera House was dedicated on November 27, 1894, and that night’s entertainment, a concert by the Chicago Rival Company, was the first entertainment there. (Archives)

Fortunately, the Opera House had many uses. The 1st floor had stores, the second floor had meeting halls and offices and the third floor had an auditorium and a stage. The community’s 1st moving picture theatre, called the “Imp” was located in the Opera House. (Archives)

Sadly, the Opera House was used only for about 100 years. The West Chicago City club met there, and the Billikens met there. In 1920, people wanted the Opera House to be used as a community center, but it wasn’t. In 1938, the building went up for sale, and the idea of the Opera House being used for a community center was brought up again. It wasn’t used as a community center, but the Alpha Lambda Sigma began renting it. The Alpha Lambda Sigma was a social fraternity organized by Hank Richards for dances. (Archives)

Later on, in 1941, Lindsay Light and Chemical Company bought the Opera House. They used it for storage, and then it merged with American Potash in 1958. They converted the third floor into labs and they put gridwork façade on the building in the 1960s. In 1967, Kerr-McGee Chemical Corporation bought Lindsay Light. Bob Westrom bought the lab from Kerr-McGee in 1977. Some of the radiation left in the building from Lindsay Light was cleaned up in the early 1980s. OSHA ordered the Microfilm Service Bureau out of the building in 1994. The building was torn down in 1997 because of the radioactive materials in it. (Archives)

Not long after the Opera House was built, a meeting was held about starting a Library/Reading Room organization. Charles E. Bolles said on that late October day in 1894, that he would let people use his Opera House two nights a week. He said that he would fix up two rooms for library reading uses, which could be used for free for two years. (Scobey 86-87)

Later, on January 14, 1895, a meeting was held and a permanent library organization was formed. The library rooms were formally opened on June 1st, 1895. The hours for using the library were Sunday from 2 P.M. to 5 P.M. and Monday-Saturday from 9 A.M. to 9 P.M. By January of the next year, there were 235 library members. (Scobey 86-87)

Before all this, in 1892, there was an “unusual and outstanding” Labor Day Celebration, which was a “blooming success”. The celebration was two years before Grover Cleveland made Labor Day an official holiday. There was a great trade procession (similar to a parade) that was organized by merchants and tradesmen. There was no one to direct the people, but everyone made a perfect parade line. The parade was so good that larger towns would have envied it. Bands from Wheaton and Batavia were in the parade. Some floats of West Chicago companies had full lines of merchandise on them. (Scobey 58)

The parade was just one example of an interest in industry during the 1890s within West Chicago. In May of 1890, many people were attracted to West Chicago for building businesses. Citizens held a meeting in May of 1890, and formed a committee to help in organizing the setting up of factories. (Scobey 77)

As time went on, Charles E. Bolles bought a farm in West Chicago. He made residential and manufacturing lots out of it. Many industries wanted to, and planned to, start up there, but they never did. A little later, the Harvey Manufacturing Company bought the Reese Farm and wanted to build a wire rail farm. (Scobey 77)

Furthermore, many Chicago manufacturers were looking for new places to relocate their businesses, since they didn’t like the fact that the railroad tracks had to be elevated in Chicago. They found that West Chicago was a good place for manufacturing because of the railroads there, but very few companies actually moved in. One of the companies that didn’t move in liked the town and what it had to offer, but couldn’t get enough houses for its workers and a good location within the town. (Scobey 77)

Later, in March of 1894, a canning factory was urged, but there wasn’t enough money for it by the time it was needed. A Kankakee company raised $100,000 and donated land so a canning factory could be opened in West Chicago. The canning factory opened, and it was named the Bradley Manufacturing Company. (Scobey 77)

As it has been noted, the 1890s had a major bike fad. Back then, a day’s pay was about $1.50, and bikes cost around $100. Many kids didn’t get bicycles because a lot of families couldn’t afford a bicycle for each person in the family. Cycling became so popular that Rand McNally & Co. made maps of the area that showed areas suitable for cycling and driving. (Scobey 77)

During this time, ball bearing wheels were invented. They worked well on bicycles, so they were tested on train wheels. Tandem bicycles (bikes that two people can ride) came out around spring of 1895. (Scobey 105)

During the fad, there were lots of bicycle races. The first major one, in August of 1892, was 15 miles long. Earl Hamilton, a West Chicago man, won second place.

The second major race was in West Chicago on the Fourth of July in 1895. It started at Washington and Fremont, went west on Washington to Town Rd., continued south on Town Rd. to Roosevelt, went east on Roosevelt, to Joliet, north on Joliet, then over the old railroad viaduct and back to the town hall, now the West Chicago City Museum. Ray Bradley, one of the 16 starters and finishers, got first place.

Another recorded major bicycle race was a bicycle relay race from New York City, New York to San Francisco, California. It was in September of 1896, and two men from West Chicago rode from West Chicago to Lombard. They received silver medals for riding. (Scobey 105)

Because of cycling’s popularity, “bicycling made news in August”. People rode bicycles to West Chicago to see the remains of a big fire on August 4th, 1894. In the summer of 1895, cycling became even more popular. Bikes at the Norris Store cost only $50. The busiest places in town became bicycle repair shops. Chester Hodge, a West Chicago man invented a better bicycle. It was exhibited at the Norris Store, and it was entered in the Chicago Cycle Show. The show was in January of 1896, and the man demonstrating the cycle was mentioned as the “lightweight champion of DuPage County.” (Scobey 105)

By 1896, however, many bicycle manufacturers closed because of overproduction and price-cutting. “At the end of the decade, the future of the bicycle became an editorial subject, and it was claimed that as a fad it had already become a thing of the past, and that utility has taken the place of enthusiasm and the wheel has ceased to be a craze.” (Scobey 105)

To make things worse, West Chicago had many fires, accidents and tragedies during the 1890s decade. The first was on August 4th, 1894. The damage was estimated at $7,000, but the insurance paid for half of it. (Scobey 67) Three frame buildings were burned down. One was a two-story boarding house, another was a shoe store/residence built like the boarding house, and the third was a one-story building with a barber shop. The three buildings that burned down were between Town Hall and another building, both of which “acted as firewalls” because they were tall, brick buildings. (Scobey 42)

Furthermore, three days later, on August 7th, 1894, another fire occurred, but this time at the first EJ & E station. The city was in the middle of a drought, so the whole station burned down and the fire spread to the grass. Hundreds of feet of fences were burned, and more than 100 men were used to put out the fire. (Scobey 67) A spark from a passing train supposedly started the fire. The spark “lodged under the floor of the $1500 frame station.” (Scobey 42)

In effect, in both of these blazes, railroad men worked as firemen. Because of the two blazes, the town, a few months later, banned wood buildings from being built on the town’s main streets. (Scobey 67)

Another fire occurred three months later, at about 11 P.M. on October 5, 1897, at a local rolling mill. The fire crew was at the scene in about two minutes. “The inside of the building was pretty badly cleaned out as it was, the belts and considerable machinery being ruined. The blaze was stubborn, but at last it was completely drowned out by the floods from the hose.” (Scobey 26)

Without doubt, about a month later a very bad explosion happened at the rolling mill in a boiler. Needless to say, the boiler obviously had lots of damage. The boiler had an 80 horsepower motor, which had been used for many years. One week before the explosion, the boiler had gotten a nine-inch crack, but it had been repaired. The explosion was on November 17, 1899, at about 10:20 P.M. The shock of the explosion was felt a mile away. William Perham, a fireman, was killed in the explosion, and his BODY was found 50 feet away from the building. Eilliam Ehredt, foreman, had one broken leg, the other crushed, and both arms broken. He went though amputation and he was expected to die, but he lived for 50 more years; his death was unrelated to his injuries. At the time of the explosion, there were only a few employees, so there weren’t many people who could have gotten hurt. (Scobey 26)

As a result of the explosion, the railroad was censured for using a defective boiler. The railroad’s rolling mill was one story high and covered an area 40 feet by 120 feet. It was where rails that were worn on the ends were repaired. (Scobey 26)

In conclusion, the 1890s, also known as the Gay 90s, were a time of many changes in the city of West Chicago, Illinois. Through the 1890s things like the bicycle fad happened, other good things happened, but some bad things also happened. Even though “not many living today can full or faintly recall the years of 1890 to 1900,” there is still information about the 1890s decade; it just has to be uncovered. (Scobey 93)


  • Archives, West Chicago City Museum.
  • Davidson, James West and Michael B. Stoff. The American Nation. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1995.
  • “Railroad.” The World Book Encyclopedia. 1998 ed. Vol. 16.
  • Scobey, Frank F. A Random Review of West Chicago History: A Selected Collection of Articles About an Old Railroad Town’s Past. West Chicago: Unknown Publisher, 1976.
  • Scobey, Frank F. West Chicago Centennial of Incorporation. West Chicago: Unknown Publisher, 1973.
  • Tod, Robert M. A Celebration of Steam: A Retrospective View. New York: Gallery Books, 1987.