Kane County History: A Bird’s Eye View of 19th Century Geneva

Kane County History: A Bird’s Eye View of 19th Century Geneva

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was submitted by Terry Emma, executive director of the Geneva History Museum.

1869 Bird’s Eye View of Geneva map drawn by Albert Ruger. (ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF GENEVA HISTORY MUSEUM)

There’s something rather majestic about seeing your community from high above. Your eyes cannot help but trace the familiar streets and admire well-known structures and landmarks from a unique perspective.

Genevans were treated to this in 1869 with the creation of Bird’s Eye View of Geneva, expertly rendered by renowned city view artist Albert Ruger. The beauty and accuracy of the work has left generations of admirers wondering just how Ruger was able to capture such an image of Geneva from over 1,000 feet in the air in the days before manned flight.

On the bottom border of the 1869 Bird’s Eye View of Geneva map, Ruger also included four larger details of buildings. One was the Kane County Courthouse built in 1856 and destroyed by fire in 1890.

The truth is, he never left the ground throughout the image’s creation.

Like other city view artists, the Prussian-born Ruger made a painstaking study of the town by walking the streets, taking notes and drawing sketches of building exteriors. Based on that information, the artist used his imagination as he first drew the network of Geneva roads that framed every city block.

Referring to his sketches, Ruger then redrew every building as accurately as possible. Finally, he added life to his work by adding the hustle and bustle of tiny people on the go, horses and carriages in the street, boats in the Fox River, and an east-bound train headed for Chicago.

It is estimated that his iconic work was completed in under a week.

Photograph of the 1856 Kane County Courthouse, circa 1889.

Ruger was also deliberate in his vantage point. He chose to view Geneva from the southeast, thereby capturing the beauty of the River, the economic importance of the railroad, and the breathtaking expanses of open land that surrounded the town.

In short, Ruger’s work was an advertisement of the seemingly limitless potential of Geneva and the Fox River Valley.

Ruger was frequently requested by towns throughout the Midwest to make a bird’s eye view of their own communities. In 1869 alone, the year that he drew Geneva, Ruger would go on to create a total of 62 city views, including one of Batavia.

Throughout his 25-year career, Ruger would draw more than 250 aerial images.

Still Inspiring Today

Detail of an east bound train from the 1869 Bird’s Eye View of Geneva map drawn by Ruger.

It goes without saying that contemporary mapmakers possess many more advantages than Ruger and his 19th-century imagination. Still, the ingenuity and artistry of Ruger continues to impress and inspire engineers and surveyors today.

Geneva’s very own Rempe-Sharpe & Associates, Inc. is no exception to that rule. Beginning in 1918 as the Wells Engineering Company, Rempe-Sharpe has developed into an award-winning engineering firm, recently receiving a National Award for Engineering Excellence by the American Public Works Association.

As a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Bird’s Eye View of Geneva, Jim Bibby of Rempe-Sharpe will present “The Art of Mapmaking” at noon Tuesday, March 12.

During the Brown Bag Program, Bibby will discuss the evolution of early mapmaking. This is a program that map enthusiasts will not want to miss!

Admission for this program is $5/person or $3/Museum member and includes entry to exhibition galleries. Please register at www.GenevaHistoryMuseum.org or call 630-232-4951.

Read The Kane County History Series!