Early History


Gurnee Area History 



1835-1927 | 1928-1975 | 1976-Present | Timeline
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Early Gurnee Area History (1835-1927)

Early settlers in the Gurnee area came by foot horseback and by "Prairie Schooners" drawn by oxen or via the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes. They came from the town of Warren in New York State, which was named in honor of Major General Joseph Warren, killed at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Warren Township, formed in 1850, was also named after him. The first settlement of Warren Township commenced in 1835 in the vicinity of the Aux Plaines River (now the Des Plaines River).

In 1835-36, a land company from New York State erected a Community House (site of the old Gurnee Grade School) to accommodate families while they were locating and getting government land grants to their farms. Near the Community House there was a ford used by the Indians for crossing the river. A floating log bridge was built there in about 1842. Later a stationary wooden bridge was constructed, and still later an iron bridge was erected. With the erection of a permanent bridge, roads were established and this area became the hub of the township. It was at this junction that the Milwaukee Road crossed the river from west to east and then continued in a northeasterly direction to eventually join Chicago to Milwaukee. This road was "laid out" in 1836 by three early settlers, namely: Thomas McClure, Mark Noble and Richard Steele. The east-west road, now known as Grand Avenue, was a main route from McHenry County to the port of Waukegan. Stage coaches ran on this route as late as 1890.


Just east of the bridge, at the junction of Milwaukee Road and Grand Avenue, was the Muaw Tavern, earlier known as "Marm Rudd's Tavern" and more recently as the Mother Rudd House. This was a stage coach stop between Chicago and Milwaukee and was a stopover for farmers from the west traveling to Little Fort (Waukegan) to barter their crops for supplies and to ship out from the ports. This building was acquired by the Village of Gurnee in 1984, has been restored, and now houses the Warren Township Historical Society.


Looking North, Gurnee, IL


In 1837 the first post office in the area was operated at Abington Inn at the corner of Milwaukee Avenue and Belvedere Road. In 1847 a post office was opened in present-day Gurnee, which was then known as Wentworth, so named after "Long John Wentworth," a Chicago man who was serving as a Congressman in Washington. In 1870 the name of the post office was changed to O'Plaine, a shortened form of Aux Plaines, the early spelling of the Des Plaines River. In 1873 the first train went through on the newly built Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad and in 1874 the town was renamed Gurnee Station, later shortened to just Gurnee. The town and post office were then renamed Gurnee.

The name of Gurnee was said to have come from a Louis J. Gurnee, who did surveying for the railroad. However, one of the first settlers in the Chicago area was Walter S. Gurnee, a Democratic political leader and one time Chicago mayor who came from the east in 1836. Some believed that the village was named for him.

In 1840 the population of Lake County was 2,634.


 In 1845 the population of Lake County had reached 8,236 and by 1850 it had risen to 14,266. Good land was worth $5.00 per acre and livestock was abundant.


In the spring of 1854, the Chicago & Milwaukee Railroad began running its trains from Chicago to Milwaukee in the unprecedented time of five hours and the stage lines went out of business.

In 1860 the Lake County population was 18,300 and the Warren Township population was 1,124.

Early businesses in the Gurnee area were the McClure's and Depke's Garages, both still familiar names in the community. Gurnee had at least three blacksmith shops over the years. Jim Dada had a shop near the river, later sold to Dave Russell. John McGarva was a wagon maker and did his own iron work, and Howell Haines had a blacksmith shop on the east side of town. At one time there was a creamery on the northeast corner of Route 132 and O'Plaine Road. Later the building was used as a cider mill, and also a cement block factory.

The Bowman Dairy Company of Chicago established a small plant in the area and farmers brought milk there for shipment by train to Chicago. Later the building was used as a pickle factory. Gurnee also had a creamery located on the northwest corner of Grand and O'Plaine Road; the creamery burned down many years ago.

A cobbler in the area carried his business from house to house, living at each one until shoe repairs or new shoes were completed and then moving on to the next family. In the late 1800's there were four inns or hotels (at one time) in the area as well as an antique store, a cleaners, a tin shop, a lumber yard and a stockyards.

The first school in Gurnee was a one room log building put up in about 1840 and located along the river. It was not long before a larger school was needed, so a new two room brick building was erected about 1868. By 1892 this building housed the eight grades of grammar school and two years of high school. Students wishing to continue their education boarded and roomed in Waukegan or traveled by horse and buggy daily. Tuition to Waukegan High School was $25 a year.


Christian Church & Public School, Gurnee, IL
Kilbourne Road

Gurnee's first Christian church, known as the Gurnee Disciple Church, was organized in the 1850's and met in the grade school until 1879, when a church was built adjacent to the school. The school and church could share the hitching rails as well as the plumbing out back. Baptism ceremonies were held in the river.

Next door to the current Fire Station on Grand Avenue once stood the Modern Woodman Hall. The Modern Woodman was a fraternal organization with a popular insurance plan. The auxiliary, or women's group, was known as--and still is active as--the Royal Neighbors of America.

Woodman Hall Gurnee, IL

The building was two story and frame with stairways both inside and outside. Originally its lighting was lanterns brought in for the occasion. A well stood in front with a tin cup wired to the pump for the convenience of all. The hall was always used for local and national elections. Frequently it was the scene of fall bazaars. At such a time the downstairs dining hall would be filled with people enjoying chicken dinners, oyster stews, homemade pies, etc. All the good county politicians would patronize these suppers and circulate among the local people. In the upstairs hall booths would be set up. Homemade quilts would line the wall awaiting the drawing for the winners. In the booths there would be at least one fish pond, some fancy work offerings, ice cream cones, and home baked goods, to mention a few. Local talent would present a program of musical selections and readings sometime during the evening.

Many dances were enjoyed throughout the year in the upstairs room. At the time that the high school was being constructed, classes were held in the hall. When the Community Church was being moved from its riverside location to the present location, services were held here. When Grand Avenue was being paved from Waukegan to Wedge's Corners the work crew was housed and fed in the hall.

Another popular use of the hall was for the Annual Homecoming Picnic. A real homecoming it was for everyone with a picnic, parade, music, games and prizes. Former residents came from quite distant places to visit with old friends and neighbors. In later years this occasion became known as the Warren Township Homecoming and was held on the Dada and Decker picnic grounds at Gages Lake. Further recollection brought to mind the free beef sandwiches, ice cream, and pop.

By 1955 it was decided that the hall had outlived its usefulness and had become somewhat of a fire hazard, so it was one more landmark to disappear from the village. The Modern Woodmen deeded over the property to the village. Rollo Worth was the last person to serve as clerk for the Woodman.


Charles Lamb, an early resident of Warren Township, organized the first telephone system in this area. His 'central' was located in his home on west Grand Avenue. Among his other businesses was conducting the local undertaking business and managing the Warren Cemetery. Marion F. Schryver learned the trades through Mr. Lamb, and in later years brought the phone and undertaking business into Gurnee. 

The telephone operation was located above McClure's Garage. Mrs. Loretta Ray was the operator for many years. This was a set-up of party lines with as many as eight families to a line. It wasn't always easy to get an open line, but in the case of emergency one could certainly ask for the line. And then--if the need for the line wasn't critical--one might pick up a bit of news while waiting! Parties weren't issued numbers. The individual family had its own combination of long and short rings. Cost for the phone was twelve dollars a year. In the event of a fire, a call to the operator would alert her to open all the lines and then make a long, long ring. This would bring all the able-bodied men with their buckets to help put out the fire.

Gradually the Illinois Bell Telephone area came nearer to the Mutual Telephone area. A few people had both phones, mostly for business reasons. They were often asked to relay messages from people on one line to a relative or friends on the other line. During the depression there were very few active phones in the village, but they were generously shared. When the Warren Mutual Telephone Association was dissolved, Illinois Bell Telephone Company took over their lines, poles, etc.



The Village of Gurnee / History / 1835-1927 / Last Revised 09/24/14