The Railroad Comes To McHenry!

George Gage was one of the most prominent people in McHenry during the 19th century. He and many other of McHenry County’s founders saw the importance of getting a railroad in town. Going into the 1850s, railroads were sliding west into Illinois, mainly out of Chicago, but also from other towns south of McHenry County as well. People soon realized the town’s growth directly coincided with its proximity to a railroad. Most towns in McHenry County were starting to court railroads into getting a line to go through their city.  

Section of Colton’s 1856 map showing FRVR from Elgin through McHenry County. Courtesy of Mapgeeks.org.

There were different ways for a town to get a railroad. One common way was to get money from a government body, it could be local, state or federal. Another strategy was to raise the funds among the citizens of the town. Sometimes it was a combination of the two. Also, there were several different railroad companies that were installing track and running the industry. Most were not the huge railroad conglomerates that we think of today. Many were assembled for a specific location. Like roads, railroads were often named for the area they were from or where they were going. The first railroad to come through McHenry County was in 1854. It was the Galena Chicago Union Railroad which had stations in Marengo, Huntley and Union. In 1855, Woodstock had their station from the Chicago, St. Paul & Fan Du Lac Railroad. In 1856, this line would be completed when it reached Harvard.

Image of the Fox Valley Rail Road Company crossing through McHenry in 1857.
Compliments of the Library of Congress.

At the same time, the Chicago, St. Paul & Fan Du Lac line was laying down track heading toward Woodstock, McHenry was getting a line of its own. Actually, it was piggybacking off a line already being laid. In July 1852, in the town of Elgin, which lies south of McHenry, town leaders we setting up a line that would connect their community with a north-running line that was already being constructed in Wisconsin. The length of the track would be about 33 miles from Elgin to the Wisconsin-Illinois border. This company would become known as the Fox River Valley Railroad. The section of the railroad the headed north would connect with the east-west running Belvidere and Mississippi Roadroad in Kenosha Wisconsin and also the Central Wisconsin Railroad at the state border. The FRVR line would eventually run all the way north to Milwaukee. In 1858, the FRVR would be sold and would eventually become known as the Elgin-Stateline Railroad, part of the Chicago-Northwestern Railroad.  

Image of George Gage from the 1885 History of McHenry County.

If one were to look at the map of the Fox River Valley Railroad, one can see that running along its proposed path is none-other than McHenry, as well as Algonquin. Hearing of the railroad and seeing an opportunity, George Gage set himself to getting a line in McHenry. Gage was the area representative in the Illinois State Senate. He was able to work out some legislation that funded parts of the railroad and insured that it came through McHenry. Conveniently, Gage himself owned some undeveloped land in the western part of the city that would be just perfect to put a railroad. When the railroad did come through, the western part of the town grew up around it.

The railroad definitely helped McHenry economically, not only just the city itself but local farmers as well. Getting a railroad was a momentous event for McHenry, however not in some of the ways it had intended to be. When McHenry was first settled, the main developments were along the Fox River and the area just to the west of it, known as Riverside and Centerville respectively. When the train came through, the west part of town became known as West McHenry or Gageville. Having the railroad put on his own land led to a lot of contention between the people of McHenry. The most famous example was when West McHenry “acquired” the city post office from McHenry, causing the city to be the only place in America with two post offices in town. Over time, the animosity seemed to fade, as did the influence of the railroad itself. However, the foresight of George Gage and others, is what help McHenry become so prosperous. 

Sources
  • “American Express Company” The Press and the Tribune. (Chicago, IL) 7 May 1859, 6. Newspapers.com. Web. 8 Sep 2020.
  • “A Meeting Called In Elgin…” The Ottawa Freetrader. (Ottawa, IL) 10 Jul 1952, 2. Newspapers.com. Web. 8 Sep 2020.
  • “A Meeting Called In Elgin…” The Alexandria Gazette. (Alexandria, D.C.) 15 Nov 1958, 2. Newspapers.com. Web. 8 Sep 2020.
  • “Financial and Commercial” The New York Herald. (New York, NY) 7 Jun 1953, 2. Newspapers.com. Web. 8 Sep 2020.
  • “The People of Kendall County…” The Miner’s Express. (Dubuque, IA) 11 May 1953, 1. Newspapers.com. Web. 8 Sep 2020.
  • “A Meeting Called In Elgin…” The Iowa Capital Reporter. (Des Moines , IA) 10 Jul 1952, 2. Newspapers.com. Web. 8 Sep 2020.
  • “A Railroad Sold” Saint Paul Weekly Minnesotian. (St. Paul, MN) 20 Nov 1958, 4. Newspapers.com. Web. 8 Sep 2020.
  • History of McHenry County, Illinois: Together With Sketches of Its Cities, Villages And Towns : Educational, Religious, Civil, Military, And Political History : Portraits of Prominent Persons, And Biographies of Representative Citizens, Also a Condensed History of Illinois. Chicago: Inter-State Pub. Co., 1885.
  • Lipman & Riddle & Fox River Valley Railroad. (1857) Fox River Valley R.R. in Wisconsin with its connections. [Milwaukee] [Map] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/98688662/.
  • State Map of Illinois [map]. 1856. Scale not given. “Colton’s Atlas of the World, Illustrating Physical and Political Geography”. Mapgeeks.org. <https://mapgeeks.org/illinois/#Coltons_1856_State_Map_of_Illinois_with_vicinity_of_Chicago&gt; (8 Sep 2020).