McHenry in the 1850s

In the 1850s, McHenry was an up-and-coming village. Being the first village in McHenry County, it was settled in 1836, and was the original County Seat. It was during the 1840s & 1850s that McHenry, like much of the area, started to expand and prosper. According to the 1855 Illinois state census, McHenry was listed as having 1,684 people. As the population started to grow, along came more farms, churches, and businesses. When the first settlers came out to what would McHenry, there was very fertile soil and the Fox River, which would be more than enough to get a foothold to start a village. Many of the people who settled here in the 1830s & 1840s, were starting to prosper by the 1850s and would be a large part of the foundation of the city for generations to come.

Railroad stockholders meeting announcement from the 25 Apr 1857 edition of the Waukegan Weekly Gazette. Some of the biggest names in McHenry are listed including George Gage, A.H. Hanley and H.N. Owen.

It was also during this time that new technologies and innovations came to McHenry that would help establish the village as one of the biggest in the county. The town had a new bridge in 1849, by Jacob Story and Alden Harvey costing $1500. The former bridge had been swept downriver during a storm. The trestle-work bridge constructed by Story and Harvey lasted until 1864 when yet another bridge was constructed, this time at a cost of $2,350. In 1857, George Gage and other city leaders worked to get the railroad through McHenry. While the village missed out on the first two railroads that came to McHenry County, they picked up the Fox River Valley line. This railroad came up through Elgin and went to Lake Geneva. Getting a railroad helped ensure the village’s relevance. An interesting item that came to the village in 1851 was the Lake & McHenry Plank Road. Seen as the way to solve horrible road conditions, plank roads somewhat resembled wooden railroads. Tolls paid along the plank road would pay for repairs and maintenance of the road. However, tolls weren’t able to cover these expenses and the plank roads were abandoned by 1877.

Meeting announced in the 13 Jun 1857 Waukegan Weekly Gazette.

According to the Northern Illinois Gazette, McHenry was home to three different churches: Methodist, Universalist, and Congregational. It was also home to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. The Universalist Church was the newest congregation, being organized in 1853. The others were established in McHenry during the 1830s & 1840s. The cemetery at St. Patrick’s was consecrated in 1851, two years later the new church was constructed next to it. McHenry originally had the Village Cemetery, which was started soon after people started settling in McHenry. When it needed a larger spot of land, the Woodland Cemetery was plotted out in 1852. Most of the people buried in the Village Cemetery were moved to Woodland Cemetery.

Clip of McHenry from the 1962 McHenry County Plat Map.

Like most of the country, McHenry started out as mainly agrarian. However, it did have some businesses that stood out in the community. The most prominent was the Owen Brothers Feed Mill. An impressive 2 1/2 story structure, the mill produced flour, had a sawmill and for a time featured a wool carding machine. Two hotels were also located in town, the Fremont House and the Mansion House. Both hotels were noted for their 4th of July and New Year’s parties, and the Mansion House hosted parties for the Sons of Temperance. The Fremont House run by Horace Long still stands on Riverside Drive, most recently it was the Town Club bar. The Mansion House stood where the Riverside Hotel now stands and was run by E. Baldwin. Built in 1851, it was lost to a fire in 1858. In 1851, McHenry had four stores including a blacksmith, two boot and shoe stores, and a wagon shop. By 1855 the village also featured a tinsmith, cooper, dressmaker, lime dealer, and a Daguerrean. At the end of the 1850s, McHenry had itself poised to be a strong, thriving agrarian community and a future vacation destination.


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  • “The Proposed Bridge.” The Waukegan Gazette. (Waukegan, IL) 2 Aug 1851, 2. Web. 7 Feb 2022.
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