Kane County History: What’s in a Name? Elgin's Story Is Written in Street Signs

Kane County History: What’s in a Name? Elgin’s Story Is Written in Street Signs

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by E.C. “Mike” Alft and re-presented by Elgin History Museum Educator Rebecca Miller.

A brief history of Elgin can be written using some of the city’s street signs. James Talcott GIFFORD, who arrived with a brother in 1835, was the town’s founder. Platting his settlement on the east side of the Fox River, he was responsible for some of our first street names.

DIVISION Street marks the dividing line between his claim and that of Phinehas Kimball to the north. Gifford assumed that the main business thoroughfare would be up the hill from the river and out of reach of the spring floods. He made it the CENTER of his plat. Simon Newton DEXTER of New York bought part of Gifford’s claim in 1838.

The KIMBALL families of New Hampshire settled on the west side of the river. Joseph Kimball bought with him grafting from apple trees, which his son, Samuel JEWETT Kimball, developed into a large ORCHARD.

The arrival of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad in 1850 encouraged William C. Kimball, Sam’s brother, to erect a resort hotel, called the WAVERLY, on the southwest corner of State and West Highland Avenue. The rail link to Chicago was a factor in the location of a distillery along the West Bank of the Fox above the dam. One of the proprietors was Benjamin Franklin LAWRENCE.

Elgin enlistments suffered heavy casualties on the battlefield of SHILOH during the Civil War. Not long after the conflict ended, Gail BORDEN started a factory to condense milk supplied by the many dairy farms in the vicinity. Among these were the farms of Cyrus LARKIN and John McLEAN, as well as the TODD FARM.

The watch industry was once the city’s largest. Craftsmen arrived from the East to begin operations in 1864. The firm was originally called the NATIONAL Watch Company. The first president was Benjamin W. RAYMOND, and one of the Chicago capitalists who kept the firm going in the early years was Martin RYERSON. George HUNTER, the production superintendent, 1872-1903, lived on WATCH Street, as did other company executives. Joseph HECKER was the director of the famed Elgin National Watch Factory Military Band.

Douglas and Highland

An industrialized Elgin produced more than watches. William Grote, a real estate subdivider, attracted several manufacturers from Chicago. The largest was the Illinois Watch Case Company.

The general manager was Thomas W. DUNCAN, who later ran off with the wife of the firm’s president. George W. LUDLOW and George R. KEEP opened a shoe factory in the northeast end in 1891. Mrs Ludlow’s name before marriage was HARTWELL.  R.S. DICKIE, Milton V. KIRK, E.E. HOUSTON and Philip D. ARMOUR established a plant on Bluff City Boulevard to print can labels in 1892.

The Elgin Road Races were first held in 1910. The first winner was Ralph MULFORD and GRANDSTAND Place is a reminder of the thousands of spectators who came to this city to watch the grueling tests of men and machines. For more than 50 years, until they ended in 1979, Carl Parlasca produced and directed the Song of HIAWATHA pageants.

In the southeast end are ELGIN Street and ILLINOIS Avenue. Now what could have prompted those names?

Elgin is named after the hymn, Elgin, in the Presbyterian hymnal. It was town founder James Gifford’s favorite song. The song title is named after Elgin (pronounced El-Gin with a hard g), Scotland, the capital of Moray, located in northeastern Scotland on the River Lossie just east of Inverness. Named after Helgyn, the Norse general who founded Elgin in the 10th century. Or another story is that Elg or Eilg is a poetic name for Ireland and in meaning little Ireland.

Elgin was one of the first Scots burghs created in the 12th century by King David I. Receiving a royal charter later, Elgin became the cathedral seat of the bishoprig of Moray. The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity was built in the 1300s. Elgin’s ruined castle was the reputed scene of the murder of King Duncan by Macbeth.

Maybe You’ve Heard of The Elgin Marbles

The Elgin Marbles are named after the sixth earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, the British ambassador to Constantinople. In 1806, he received permission from the sultan to remove statuary from the Parthenon. The Turks ruled Greece at that time, and the Parthenon was being mistreated.

The Turks were using it for ammunition storage, tourists were picking up anything they could find and taking it with them, and the local Greeks were grinding down some of the sculptures to make mortar. Lord Elgin removed part of the Parthenon frieze of sculptures and spent a total of ten years and a fortune taking back to Britain a whole collection of Parthenon artwork.

Back in Britain, Lord Elgin stored the sculptures in a coal shed on his property for years, until the British Government reluctantly bought them for the British Museum.  Lord Elgin developed a disease (possibly syphillis) that ate away his nose and part of his face. He brought his wife to trial for adultery during a divorce and was brutally, publicly humiliated before he died impoverished in the 1840s.

His son, the next Lord Elgin, became famous for his governorship of Canada. Lord Elgin is also the name of a famous line of Elgin watches. The Sears Gallery on the Elgin Academy campus is decorated with a reproduction of the Elgin Marbles.

How About The Shipwreck of The Lady Elgin?

The Lady Elgin was a steamer that was wrecked on Lake Michigan off of Winnetka in 1860. The Union Guards were a group of militia in Milwaukee, WI.

The state was very anti-slavery and state’s rights at this time, and the state government was seriously considering secession if the federal government did not end slavery. In this political climate, the militias were surveyed to determine which would support the state and which the federal government.

The Union Guards, an Irish Catholic group, said that although they were opposed to slavery they would support their country. The state quickly revoked the militia’s commission and disarmed the Union Guards. They refused to disband and were determined to raise money to re-arm their unit.

The Union Guard decided to commission an excursion to Chicago to raise money and lift their spirits. They booked passage for their company and guests on the Lady Elgin to a democratic party rally in Chicago where they would go on parade and hear a speech by Illinois congressman and presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglas.

On their return to Milwaukee, Sept. 8, 1860, the Lady Elgin ran into bad weather, which the ship was handling. About 2:30 a.m., an out-of-control schooner, the Augusta, rammed the Lady Elgin eventually causing it to break apart and sink. 380 of the approximately 500 people on the boat died in the wreck, making it the worst accident in the Great Lakes until the Eastland in 1915.

Dead bodies washed up on shore through December that year and the incident served to further increase the tensions between Democrats and Republicans over the slavery and state’s rights issues. Most of the Union Guards were members of St. John Cathedral in Milwaukee and they continue to hold a memorial service for the Lady Elgin victims every Sept. 8.

The Lady Elgin was also a line of Elgin Watches.

About The Elgin History Museum

The Elgin History Museum is housed in an 1856 landmark building known as Old Main that was once part of the Elgin Academy campus. The Elgin Area Historical Society, which was founded in 1961, is a thriving organization that operates within the museum. The society has a board of directors with a mission that is driven to preserve and educate the community about Elgin history.

The Elgin History Museum is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Two floors of Elgin history exhibits pull you back in time to remember how the community developed from 1835 to today.

For more information, visit elginhistory.org.

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