Kane County History: The Definitive Story of The City of Lights (Part 2)

Kane County History: The Definitive Story of The City of Lights (Part 2)

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article is Part 2 of the story of how Aurora became known as the City of Lights, written by John Jaros, executive director of the Aurora Historical Society. Click this link to read Part 1: The Quest to Light Aurora’s Streets. All photos are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.

Aurora, the City of Lights, looking north on Broadway in 1909.

It was the first decade of the 1900s, the dawn of a new century – one that held great promise, and one in which it seemed that all things might be possible.  The Aurora of this decade was, according to its boosters, a most modern and progressive city.

And few could argue that point.  Aurora, with its population of more than 25,000, was the largest city in the Fox River Valley, and growing.

Broadway, from Main to Galena, circa 1910, showing decorative street lights along with arc lamp over the intersection.

The city, a major manufacturing center, also had a prosperous downtown district — a mix of commerce, banking, and entertainment. The city was a railroad hub, and the home of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad’s car shops on north Broadway, a complex that employed more than 2,000 men.

Aurora was also on the cutting edge of technology.

  • Aurora had gotten telephone service back in 1881, just five years after the invention was patented.
  • Aurora opened a municipal water works in 1885 and by the 1908 there were over 58 miles of water mains and more than 50 miles of sewers.
  • Aurora’s streetcar system was electrified in 1891, and by the early 1900s, electric streetcars served all quarters of the city, while electric interurban lines connected Aurora with Chicago and other cities in the Fox Valley and suburbs.
  • It was the dawn of the automobile age, and there were enough automobiles in town that Aurora began licensing them in 1906, a year before the state of Illinois did.
  • Aurora had miles of paved streets and claimed to be “among the first to do away with the insubstantial plank sidewalks,” replacing them with cement walks.

And, of course, Aurora had become a pioneer in electric street lighting in 1881 when it lighted its streets with powerful electric arc lamps mounted on several 150-foot towers.

By the early 1900s, most of the towers were gone, but there were more lights at lower levels.

In late 1906, Aurora undertook a $30,000 total upgrade of the system – with a new generating plant, miles of new wiring, and over 400 new, improved longer-burning “closed” arc lamps.   These lamps hung on wires strung across streets, primarily over the intersections.

West Side Merchants Take Action for Improvement

The west side of River Street between Downer and Galena, decorated for new light celebration, Nov 21 1908. Sanders Drug Store is on the corner.

Since the 1850s, the district had two distinct sectors – Broadway on the east side of the Fox River, and River Street on the west side. Broadway was higher-end, and had banks, furniture stores, and clothing stores of all kinds.  River Street had traditionally catered more to farmers, and had banks, hardware stores, groceries, and dry goods.

Both streets also had restaurants and saloons.

New decorative lights on River Street in 1908.

By the early 1900s, Broadway was clearly the favored sibling, and River Street, if not in decline, was stagnating. It needed a boost. It was August 1908 when the River Street merchants got together to discuss plans for improvement. They soon formed the West Side Improvement Association.

Their plan was a bold and ambitious one. They would install decorative street lighting up and down River Street and the corollary cross-streets, and the business owners would pay for the work themselves. The new decorative lights would be their gift to the city.

These lights would not be arc lights as in the past, but the new “tungsten” lights. These were incandescent bulbs, but with a tungsten, instead of carbon, filament.

The new tungsten filament bulbs originated in Europe in 1904 and were perfected in the U.S. in by General Electric in 1906.  These burned brighter and longer than Edison’s older carbon filament bulbs and soon became the industry standard — a standard that would last nearly a century.

River Street looking north from Downer in 1909.

The decorative iron light poles were about 14 feet high, most having three lights – a central light with a 60-watt bulb and two 100-watt lights extending from two downward-curving arms — one over the sidewalk, and one over the street.

Street corners would get a five-light fixture, with a 60-watt central light and four 100-watt lights hanging down on the arms. The bulbs were covered by round glass globes – a 12-inch diameter globe on top, 10-inch globes on the side lights.  The base of the poles were black, the upper part copper colored.

The lights would run along River Street from Walnut (New York) on the north to Holbrook (Benton) on the south, and along portions of the cross streets.  The light poles were spaced at 50-foot intervals up and down both sides of the street.

To accommodate the poles, wiring, and conduit, two feet of new cement curbing was laid in along the street, with the poles placed on the extra width of walk.

It turned out that not only were the merchants funding and supervising the work, they physically assisted in much of it. The Beacon related that many of the storekeepers actually “got out with cement mixers and pipe layers and electricians and did manual labor, as well as solicited and collected subscriptions and let contracts.”

Grocer John Loser was a leader among downtown merchants.

Druggist Tom Sanders, whose store was on the northwest corner of River and Downer (where the Old Second Bank is today) reported, “I’ve never felt better in my life. My muscles are like a workingman’s, and I can go home at night and sleep like a boiler-maker.”

Grocer John Loser, in business for 35 years, was one of the west side’s elder statesmen. He was the strongest proponent of the project and “his enthusiasm never failed.”

Acting as unofficial foreman, he closely monitored the progress and “was never off the job.” He credited Tom Sanders with the original idea, but Sanders “disclaims the honor and insists that all are equally worthy of credit for the improvement.”

The popular and well-known Sanders later would be elected mayor of Aurora, serving a pair of two-year terms, from 1911 to 1914.

After weeks of planning and toil, and a cost reported at $8,000, all was ready. With all the stores decked out in bunting, and in the midst of great fanfare and with two bands playing, the lights were turned on at 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 21, 1908.

The Aurora Daily Beacon reported that “All Aurora and most of Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles, Oswego, Yorkville, and the rest of the countryside was massed for several hours in the west side business streets Saturday night to celebrate the installation of the new lighting system.” The paper continued, “River Street was thronged with one solid stream of merrymakers” and “for one night the west side was all Aurora.”

The merchants did a thriving trade that evening, and the final celebrants stayed on until well after midnight.

East Side Merchants Join In

The east side of River Street between Downer and Galena, decorated for new light celebration, Nov. 21, 1908.

There was an intense but friendly rivalry between the east side and west side merchants, and both groups were public-spirited Aurora boosters.

Almost immediately after the west side merchants began their work in August, discussions began among the east side merchants, who would not be outdone by the west siders. Within weeks, all were on board for the installation of an identical decorative streetlight system, and in early September, the Merchants Improvement Association of Aurora was incorporated.

Jeweler Walter A. Egermann

Jeweler Walter A. Egermann was elected president. They would light Broadway from Spring Street on the north to Benton on the south, and the auxiliary streets crossing east to west.

Soon, the LaSalle Street Improvement Association was organized and got to work on acquiring 18 posts and wiring for this previously-neglected east side street.  In the end, the east side business district boasted 142 posts containing 478 lights — a $12,000 project, according to the newspaper.

Being about a month behind the west siders, they had the city electrician and his crews working night and day in rain and snow up to the last minute to finish the job, leaving the entire crew troubled with colds. All was ready to go by the evening of Thursday, Dec. 17, 1908.

The opening paragraph of coverage in the next day’s Aurora Beacon described it thusly:

“Amid the din of steam whistles, the boom of cannon, and the rattle of firecrackers, while roman candles shot high, a multitude which packed the length of Broadway roared its applause when hundreds of beautiful new street lamps, the gift of Aurora merchants were lighted last night at 7:30 o’clock, bathing the mass of people and the highway in bright, golden light.”

Besides bells, whistles, and fireworks, the celebration included a parade with four bands. Delegations from Joliet, Lombard, Elgin, and other quarters accounted for more than 2,000 out-of-town visitors.  The west side merchants closed their businesses for the evening to participate.

An estimated 15,000 people thronged the streets.

Both the east and west side lights were turned over to the city to become part of its overall lighting system, operated and maintained by Aurora.

City of Lights

Broadway in 1909.

With the entire downtown district — 16 blocks — now blazing forth in beautiful light, Aurora boasted it was “the best lighted city anywhere.” Nearly 300 new light posts with almost 1,000 lights covered the downtown.

Aurora’s fame quickly spread, as did the decorative lighting.

When the new concrete Fox Street (Downer) Bridges were built across Stolp Island in 1908 to 1910, they were equipped with the five-light poles.

The welcome arch for the Grand Army of the Republic was lighted in Aurora tradition.

The east bridge was completed by May 1909, when Aurora hosted the annual statewide encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans’ organization.

A grand, temporary welcome arch was erected on Fox Street (Downer) on the island in front of the GAR Hall — and in keeping with the spirit of the times, it featured 800 small electric lights.

Aurora quickly adopted the moniker “The City of Lights,” and it appeared on postcards and advertising.

There were graphic logos as well — the first appeared on the cover of the City’s Annual Report for the year 1909.

City of Lights logo created for the July 4, 1910, celebration.

Then, for the big, three-day Fourth of July “Homecoming” Celebration in 1910, an elaborate circular logo was crafted (this one is reprinted on T-shirts that the Historical Society offers for sale).

Other logos or images followed periodically over the years, and the slogan is still seen and used today.

After serving in their original form for nearly three decades, in 1935 the light posts throughout the downtown were streamlined.

The arms and side lights were removed, a brighter bulb was placed on top, and the circular globe was replaced with one of a more elongated style, “giving the whole a more modern and pleasing appearance,” according to a September 1937 Beacon-News article.

Broadway in 1940, after replacement of the old lights.

In 1940, when Broadway underwent repaving and a major transformation, the lights were removed and replaced with tall lights with a single arm stretching out high above the street.

At that time, six of the old light posts were given to the Aurora Historical Society “in recognition of the great service it is doing.” These were installed on the perimeter of the Society’s museum grounds at the corner of Cedar and Oak, the old Tanner homestead.

With round globes back on top, the lights were first turned on with great fanfare on Oct. 2, 1941.

Today, more than 80 years after they were installed on the site (and more than 110 years after they were first installed downtown), they still light the Tanner House Museum grounds, a reminder of and tribute to the far-sighted merchants of 1908 who helped make Aurora “The City of Lights.”

City of Lights poster stamp in 1915. 

City of Lights Photo Gallery


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