Gurnee's namesake was never a resident - or a Republican
He wasn't the man who discovered Gurnee. He never even lived here. In fact, it's possible Walter S. Gurnee never even set foot in the village named after him.
"We always tell the school kids when they come through here," said Jill Martin of the Warren Township Historical Society. "Most of them are surprised that it was named after a real person. I think the kicker to it is that he never lived here."
It may not have been the most dramatic way to name a community, but for executives of the railroad industry the practice was undoubtedly a boost to the ego.
With the arrival of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad in Gurnee in 1873, the train station was named after Walter, a member of the board of directors for the railroad.
Originally called Gurnee Station, the village took its current name in 1874.
While there is a record of a Louis J. Gurnee surveying the land in 1836, there is little doubt Walter bore the village's namesake, according to Martin.
But Gurnee the man was much more than a rich railroad tycoon.
Born the son of a wealthy tanner in New York in 1813, Gurnee came to Chicago in 1836, when he started a tannery business after studying under his father for many years.
His father had made a small fortune in the business in New York and promptly sent his son west, with financial backing in hand, to conquer the land rich in opportunity.
Gurnee also dealt in insurance and real estate, becoming one of the larger landowners in the Chicago area.
"He was really a wheeler and dealer, an investor, a broker,; and that got him high enough so that he became part of the railroad board," Martin said.
Gurnee's name is also associated with the founding of Winnetka as well as the land he owned, which would eventually become Highland Park.
It was the Highland Park Historical Society that provided its counterpart in Warren Township with its first portrait of Gurnee five years ago.
Although Lake County is predominantly Republican, one of its principle figures chose the Democratic Party when Gurnee was elected mayor of Chicago in 1851.
At that time mayoral terms lasted one year, but Gurnee was elected again in 1852. Under his administration, the Board of Health was created.
Gurnee attempted to run for mayor of Chicago again in 1860, but "Long" John Wentworth, a former mayor and U.S. Representative, defeated him in a bitter election.
Originally a Democrat, Wentworth served as mayor of Chicago in 1857 but soon crossed over into the Republican Party to follow Abraham Lincoln.
"His star was flying high until those darn Republicans got so popular (after the 1860 election)," Martin said. "From what I surmise, I think he got kind of upset about that because it wasn't two years after that when he left and went back to New York."
Gurnee retreated back to his home state in 1863 and purchased land in Westchester County, but he still maintained his business ties to Chicago.
By the time the railroad had anointed this area Gurnee Station, its namesake had already been living in retirement for 10 years. Walter Gurnee died at age 90 in April 1903.
Nearly 100 years after his death, Walter Gurnee's legacy might not be tied to his achievements as a successful businessman or a reforming politician but in the irony of the area named for him and it's political demographic makeup.
"I do find it amusing that the biggest Republican stronghold is named for a Democrat," Martin said. "I've told the politicians that one and they don't really laugh."
Story by John Roberts / Staff Writer
Gurnee Sun March 25, 1999 / Sun Publications
Reprinted with Permission
Photo from the Chicago Historical Society