Kane County History: Aurora's Melting Pot 'Yearning To Breathe Free'

Kane County History: Aurora’s Melting Pot ‘Yearning To Breathe Free’

Chicago, Burlington and Quincy rail yards in Aurora – 1880s. (CREDIT: All photos courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.)

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society.

Factory workers, Frazier Brothers Carriage Factory 1890.

By the time the famous words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” were cast in bronze and affixed to the Statue of Liberty (1903), Aurora had been welcoming the “tempest-tost” for well over half a century.

Aurora was first settled by pioneers from New England, arriving in 1834 hard on the heels of the Native Americans who were leaving Illinois under government pressure. The new arrivals were Yankees, being second, third and fourth generation Americans, and they were seeking land and opportunity.

It wasn’t long before the little town of Aurora attracted a myriad of settlers, some of whom saw a good bet in the surrounding rich prairie and fine woods, not to mention the river that flowed ever southward to the Gulf of Mexico.

Other newcomers liked the job opportunities that went with the newly-arrived railroad industry that required blacksmithing, metal manufacturing, carpentry, wheel-making, upholstering, and so on.

And all those new people coming to make a living here needed goods and services, which attracted even more pioneers ready to feed, clothe, house, educate and church them.

Which in turn created a hospitable environment for entrepreneurs dreaming of building the factories that could produce the ever-growing array of goods for which our bumptious young country was clamoring.

First To Arrive


Luxemburger (sic) Hall social club 1921.

The first to arrive were the Irish, French Canadians, Germans and Luxembourgers.

The rail yard on the river bank at the bottom of the valley was a smoky, sprawling assemblage of stone buildings where locomotives and carriage cars were built and repaired by sturdy men most likely to be found in stained work clothes with the occasional bowler hat as a fashion accent.

It was a short climb to the highlands above the river. “Pigeon Hill” was where they built modest homes, opened grocery stores and taverns and social clubs, and founded churches where, on Sundays, they could be comforted and encouraged by prayers in their native languages.

At the close of the Civil War, newly-freed African Americans from the South arrived to join the handful of free blacks already living in Aurora. They settled in the southern section of the city along the east bank of the river and worked primarily as laborers and servants.

Beginning around 1900, waves of Eastern European Jews, Romanians, Italians, Greeks, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans arrived, some bringing with them various skills as peddlers, artisans and farmers, but others bringing simply abundant optimism that they could learn new skills to make a new life in the land of opportunity.

Pigeon Hill — An Immigrant Gateway

Pigeon Hill, still presiding over the shops of the town’s largest employer, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad, became the immigrant gateway to the city.

St. Michael’s Romanian Catholic Church on Pigeon Hill (w Viola Moldovan, church volunteer).

The neighborhood was a multilingual one, and more than a few Aurorans today tell stories of how their forebears were helped to adjust to American life through the practically wordless kindnesses of neighbors with whom they shared no language.

With 50 or more children living on a single block, cultural integration for the future was assured. The predominant nationalities of these old neighborhoods changed and changed again as immigration patterns varied, and inevitably many younger people moved on, building newer neighborhoods with mixed heritage or leaving Aurora entirely.

The newest wave of immigration, seen in Aurora from about 2000 onward, has been from the Indian subcontinent. Well-prepared through education and language for success, they have primarily made their homes in the far eastern neighborhoods.

And yet the old neighborhoods near the river still see the kind of immigration that flourished a century and a half ago.

Today, refugees from small South Asian and African countries come to Aurora with the same hopes and fears as thousands of others before them.

Emma Lazarus’ poem at the Statue of Liberty, a paean to hope and possibility, is not just for New York and her harbor, and not just about the past.

Aurora Recognizes Diversity

Aurora’s ethnic diversity will be recognized this spring and summer by the Aurora Historical Society.

Today (April 27, 2018), the society will hold its spring fundraiser from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at One East Benton, the former public library.

Titled “History On A Fork: Aurora’s Culinary Heritage,” it will be an evening of sampling foods that might have been made in the immigrant kitchens of Aurora over the years. There will be live music and an open bar. Tickets are $50 per person ($45 for AHS members).

Reservations are necessary and may be made online at http://www.aurorahistory.net or by calling 630-906-0650. All proceeds benefit the Aurora Historical Society.

New Exhibit

Beginning May 4, the Historical Society will open a new exhibit, “Ethnicity and Diversity in Aurora, 1834-Present” which will chronicle the stories of the various groups which built Aurora.

There will be a ribbon cutting at 4 p.m. and a reception following until 9 p.m. The exhibit will remain on display through Aug. 4 at the Pierce Art and History Center, 20 E. Downer, 60505.

Admission is free, hours are noon to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.


By Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

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