Kane County History: An Elgin History Museum Photo is Worth a Thousand … Clues?

Kane County History: An Elgin History Museum Photo is Worth a Thousand … Clues?

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written and researched by Museum Educator Rebecca Miller and Museum Researcher David Siegenthaler. Image are from the collection of the Elgin History Museum.

Photos we take today are digitally stamped with the date. What a time saver! An important piece of information is saved for the ages.

This wasn’t always the case, of course. But an eagle-eyed fan of history can still look for clues in an old photo and figure out when the image was captured.

Chicago Street

This photo is of Chicago Street, looking east. The bridge is about a half block behind the photographer, John Manley Adams.

Notice the wooden sidewalks and unpaved street. Elgin’s first sidewalks were rough wooden planks; they were replaced with concrete beginning in 1881, but the process was slow.

In 1900, Chicago Street was paved with bricks and the city began asphalt street paving in 1903; starting with Grove Avenue. Since the sidewalk here is wooden and the street is unpaved, we can narrow down the date of this photo to sometime before 1900 but a good student of history can go further.

Notice the light-colored flag pole on the right side of the photo, just past the open topped farm wagon. It rises above all the nearby rooftops and was known as the “Liberty Pole”.

While an electric arc light tower was installed in Fountain Square in 1883, we know this is a flag pole; the electric arc light tower was distinctly shaped with lattice work that would be visible from this view.

When it was installed, the Fountain Square electric arc light tower was put on the same spot as this flag pole. With this information, we know that the photo was taken prior to 1883 when the flagpole was replaced with the electric arc tower.

We could stop here and say this photo was taken prior to 1883, but there is another clue hidden on the horizon.

Notice the two church steeples on either side of Chicago Street, far in the distance. The church on the left is at 270 E. Chicago Street and was a Baptist Church. That church was built in 1870 and still stands today, though it lost its steeple in the 1920 tornado.

With this info we know the photo was taken after 1870, giving us a date for the photo of 1870-1883.

We are not done yet! The biggest clue is the church steeple on the other side of the street. These two churches were not directly across the street from each other; the picture’s perspective just forms this illusion.

The church steeple on the right was a couple of blocks closer to the photographer and was located at 225-229 E. Chicago Street.

Notice that the church on the right is under construction; the scaffolding can be seen alongside  the steeple. This church, the First Presbyterian Church, was built beginning in 1871 and was completed by July 1872.

Only five months after its completion, the church caught fire for unknown reasons. On Dec. 5, 1872 the entire church burned down. After having spent a great deal of their funds on the original church, the congregation could only afford to build a smaller church around the corner on the adjoining lot at 10 Villa Court.

The new First Presbyterian Church was completed in 1873, but it did not have the grand steeple of its predecessor. The shape of the 1873 church is still evident today, as 10 Villa Court now serves as the home of Elgin’s Knights of Columbus Council Hall.

With an eagle eye and these clues we can say, with certainty, when photographer John Manley Adams captured this image. The photo was taken in the brief window of time between the construction of the First Presbyterian Church in July 1872 and the fire that destroyed it on Dec. 5, 1872.

West Side of The Fox River, Looking East

This photo was taken from the west side of the Fox River, looking east.

Our clues in dating this photo begin with the bridge shown, the Chicago Street bridge. This alone does not tell us much, however, since we have had a bridge at Chicago Street since 1837.

The original Chicago Street bridge was built by town founder James T. Gifford. It was replaced several times due to normal wear and tear and damage in Spring flooding.

Between 1866 and 1881 the bridge at Chicago Street was built in the “Truesdell Style”. The Truesdell years are a story of their own; suffice it to say that the Truesdell style bridge(s) had a habit of collapsing.

The Truesdell bridge(s) featured arched stone footings rising out of the river, topped with ornate iron scrollwork railings. They may not have been reliable or safe, but they were beautiful. The bridge shown is clearly not a Truesdell bridge.

Ultimately, the Truesdell years came to a close in 1881, when the Spring flood washed out the last version of the Truesdell bridge at Chicago Street.

Following this flood, the Chicago Street bridge was rebuilt by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul & Pacific Railway. The railway put up a simple wooden bridge to serve the community in the immediate aftermath of the flood. It would not be replaced with an attractive bridge until 1900.

With this evidence we can say that this photo was taken between 1881 and 1900.

Our next clue comes from the large factory shown along the river on the left side of the photo. This building was built as a woolen mill in the 1840s but in 1882 the David C. Cook Publishing Company moved in; notice their name on the side of the building.

The D.C. Cook company moved to Grove Avenue in 1901 and the company’s former building became the YMCA. With these clues, we can say this image was taken between 1882 and 1901.

Another clue comes from something NOT shown in this photo. In 1889 David C. Cook built a three-story brick building next to the factory in the photo. It was known as the “Marguerite Block” and was named for his wife. That building, when viewed from the perspective of this photo, would have been directly in front of the Cook building.

With this information, we know this photo was taken between 1882 and 1888.

National Street Bridge

This photo shows the National Street bridge, looking east. It is marked “Noon hour lunch break at (the Elgin National) watch factory.”

The first clue for dating this photo is seen in the distance across the bridge. Two electric street cars are shown midway up National Street. Electric street car service began in 1890. With this info we can say the photo was taken after 1890.

Elgin would see its first locally owned automobile in 1902 and within 10 years cars were a common sight and fewer horse-drawn buggies were seen on our streets. But, certainly, the change did not happen overnight.

Our next clue is seen on the far right of the photo; it is the Elgin National Watch Company’s clock tower. This clocktower was replaced in 1904; allowing us to date this photo to a period between 1890 and 1904.

Our final clue is the bridge itself. The National Street bridge, originally built in 1870, was an iron latticework structure with criss-crossing support beams across the top above the roadway.

That bridge was replaced in 1902 with an open topped structure that did not require that form of reinforcement, the bridge seen here. Thus we have narrowed the date of this photo to be from 1902 to 1904.

Posters of these images are available for sale in the museum gift shop for $5. Imagine the fun you could have walking your friends through the clues in this photo.

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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