Kane County History: Batavia Powered The Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railway

Kane County History: Batavia Powered The Aurora, Elgin & Chicago Railway

(CREDIT: Batavia Depot Museum)

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s post was submitted by Batavia Depot Museum Executive Director Jennifer Putzier.

Building a passenger-friendly electric railway that connected the Fox Valley towns to Chicago had been a dream throughout the 1890s.

There were steam engines that could get passengers to Chicago, but freight trains often slowed the lines. Trolley lines went north / south, but there was no good “one seat” option for commuters.

(CREDIT: Batavia Depot Museum)

A passenger-only electric line would be fast, clean and efficient. In 1901, the Aurora, Elgin and Chicago Railway company, later renamed the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad, made this dream a reality.

Building a new electric line was quite the undertaking. Beyond the miles of track, a powerhouse needed to be built.

At the turn of the 20th century, the amount of electricity needed to run could not be bought — there wasn’t enough commercial power available. Though the new railroad’s original headquarters were in Wheaton, Thomas Snow convinced the line that Batavia was the best place to build the powerhouse.

As reported in the Batavia Herald on April 3, 1901: “Mr. L. J. Wolf, Vice-Pres. of the new Electric Railways, running to Chicago … closed the deal that means much for Batavia, the purchase of a tract of about 26 acres of land south of Batavia upon which will be erected an immense power house to drive the many electric cars up and down the new lines.”

The powerhouse insured that Batavia would have a station on the new AE&C line, as well as bolstering the popularity of the town for commuters and businesses alike.

With that deal, Batavia became the heart of the Great Third Rail, as the AE&C was nicknamed. The new plant was well underway by December of that year, with the steel frame and 240 foot smoke stack in place. The first test of the power house was on May 17, 1902, and on Aug. 25, 1902, the first regular service of the new line commenced!

The plant was steam powered, with more than 500 coal-powered boilers using millions of gallons of water a day from the Fox River to create electricity. In 1909, the powerhouse was enlarged, adding a second smokestack and the ability to not only power 175 miles of the Aurora, Elgin and Chicago track, but several smaller railroads and surrounding communities as well.

At the time, the railroad used 25-cycle power (or 25 Hz) and distributed 26,400 V throughout the system.

The Batavia Branch of the Aurora, Elgin and Chicago wasn’t heavily used by commuters, but it was very convenient for railway workers to get to and from the power plant. In 1903, Glenwood Park (operated by the AE&C) opened immediately south of the plant, using some of the original 26 acres purchased as a picnic grove. It was a pleasant excursion from Chicago; companies would plan employee outings which would bring thousands of visitors to enjoy the Fox River, dance hall, merry-go-round and restaurant.

Remaining profitable for the new railroad was difficult. In 1918, they raised fares and took out loans to shore up the company. Declining sales resulted in stagnant wages, which caused the workers to strike. The AE&C was forced into involuntary bankruptcy Aug. 9, 1919.

The struggling AE&C was bought by the Chicago, Aurora and Elgin Railroad Company in 1922.

Things were changing at the Batavia Powerhouse, as well. By the early 1920s, the demand for power was outstripping production. Consumer demand was too great, and they wanted a 60-cycle power rather than the 25-cycle the plant was producing. (The 25-cycle was often used for railroads, but 60-cycle reduces flicker in lights!)

The retail electric business was turned over to utility companies, and in return, these utility companies supplied power to the railroad.

By the end of the 1920s, the power plant was no longer generating raw power. In the 1940s, the whole rail line modernized to 60-cycle power. The Powerhouse was closed, stripped of all its equipment, and abandoned.

In 1965, eight years after the last passenger train ran and four years after the line was formally abandoned, the old Powerhouse was razed — much to the disappointment of the adventurous boys in town who would climb that 240-foot smokestack on a dare.

(CREDIT: Batavia Depot Museum)

About the Batavia Depot Museum

The Batavia Depot Museum opened in 1975 as a partnership between the Batavia Park District and the Batavia Historical Society. The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad Depot was the first of its kind built in 1854, and is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

Inside, the city’s past comes alive through exhibits detailing the history of rail transportation, manufacture of windmills, agriculture, banking, commerce and a brief stay by Mary Todd Lincoln at Bellevue Place. Open seasonally, from March through November. Hours are 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Read The Kane County History Series!