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Columns

Reflections: Only scant reminders remain of Kendall's trolley era

Winter on the Fox: Ice skaters look up to watch an interurban trolley car cross the Fox River in Oswego in 1919. The trolley route followed River Street in Aurora south to Montgomery. From Montgomery, the trolley line extended alongside Ill. Route 31 to Oswego where it crossed the river and proceeded southwest to Yorkville. Trolley service to Montgomery and Oswego was abandoned in 1925 due in large part to the growing popularity of the auto.
Winter on the Fox: Ice skaters look up to watch an interurban trolley car cross the Fox River in Oswego in 1919. The trolley route followed River Street in Aurora south to Montgomery. From Montgomery, the trolley line extended alongside Ill. Route 31 to Oswego where it crossed the river and proceeded southwest to Yorkville. Trolley service to Montgomery and Oswego was abandoned in 1925 due in large part to the growing popularity of the auto.

By late September 1900 residents living in and around Oswego had some new sights to see and marvel at. As my great-great-grandmother put it in a letter to her daughter out in Kansas: “When I can't sleep at night I can watch the Street cars run out my window over across the river.”

A group of investors had proposed building an interurban trolley line from Aurora south through Montgomery and Oswego to Yorkville in 1897. An early proposal to build a third-rail electric line was quickly discarded in favor of using overhead trolley lines. The line would run mostly on public rights-of-way using light rails and electrically-powered trolley cars.

In August 1897 representatives of the new Aurora, Yorkville & Morris Electric Railroad met with the Kendall County Board to start hammering out a trolley franchise. As proposed, the line would begin in downtown Aurora, run south on River Street through Montgomery and along the Fox River through the new Riverview amusement park then under construction just south of Montgomery before gently curving west to join the West River Road – now Ill. Route 31 – for the run to the Oswego Bridge across the Fox River.

There, the line would turn east, cross the river to Oswego’s Main Street, where it would turn south once more on Main Street before heading towards Yorkville along what is now Ill. Route 71. Near Yorkville, the line would turn once again to follow the tracks of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Fox River Branch Line between the tracks and today’s Van Emmon Road into downtown Yorkville.

Among the issues that had to be hammered out was who would pay for improvements the line required, such as either strengthening or rebuilding the Oswego Bridge. In addition, the company pledged “that in every way possible the company would guard against frightening horses” or otherwise interfering with traffic on the roads along which the trolleys would run. In the end, the trolley company agreed to pay $3,500 towards the cost of a new, stronger box truss iron bridge to replace the existing 1867 tied arch structure at Oswego, and the other issues were ironed out as well.

Residents of the towns the trolley would serve were, in general, enthusiastic about the new, all-weather transportation option. As Kendall County Record Publisher John R. Marshall noted in a Dec. 13, 1899, commentary: “With only four reliable trains a day, it was hard for one to come here and be so late getting into Chicago as is necessary with the regular passenger train. With the electric accommodations, one can go to Aurora and take an early morning train to Chicago.”

Construction began in the spring of 1900 and by June 27, the tracks were completed from Aurora to the west end of the Oswego Bridge. “Operation of the electric road from the bridge will be commenced this Tuesday afternoon by a free ride of the town and village officials to Aurora and back,” the Record’s Oswego correspondent wrote. “Yorkville will have to wait about three months longer before enjoying such privilege.”

Regular service began in early July from Aurora to the terminus at Oswego, and use was enthusiastic and frequent. As Marshall wrote on Aug. 1: “That the Aurora and Yorkville electric road will be a great convenience and daily comfort is shown by the way it is used now between Oswego and Aurora. Every day parties drive up from about here [Yorkville] to Oswego and take the car there for Aurora, saving 12 miles’ drive.”

Work continued feverishly the rest of the summer and into the fall of 1900 on the new Oswego Bridge and the trestle at the east end of the bridge designed to carry the electric line up Washington Street over the CB&Q tracks to Main Street.

By late December, the bridge and trestle along with the tracks were finished and regular trolley service had begun, linking downtown Aurora through Montgomery and Oswego with downtown Yorkville. The first car arrived at the Kendall County seat at 10:45 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 22, 1900.

“There were two cars down – one with the Aurora guests, the other empty to return with a number of the distinguished populace of Kendall’s capital,” the Record reported on Dec. 26. Welcoming the new arrivals was Record publisher Marshall, who had welcomed the first railroad train into Yorkville 30 years before.

The interurban, providing hourly service from Yorkville from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. at affordable rates, was part of a vast interurban network that, it was said, allowed passengers to travel via trolley all the way from the Mississippi River and with transfers all the way to New York City.

In an era of terrible roads, the interurban was a godsend, carrying passengers and freight, including farmers’ milk, to and from Aurora. Everything from fresh bakery bread to students to office workers to shoppers rode the trolley to and from Aurora daily.

But a little more than a decade later, the line and others throughout the nation were under assault from the burgeoning number of automobiles and trucks. The public was also insisting on more and better roads, and in 1918, Illinois residents approved a $60 million bond issue to build paved roads, the bonded indebtedness to be paid through gasoline taxes.

The interurbans were unable to compete with increasingly inexpensive, dependable motor vehicles and publicly financed roads and in the 1920s, one by one, the interurban lines closed down.

On Aug. 6, 1924, the Record reported that “Through an order from the Illinois Commerce Commission, the interurban line from the [Fox River] park south of Montgomery to Yorkville will be discontinued.” In the event, the line carried on until Feb. 1, finally succumbing to the advance of transportation technology and the nation’s willingness to subsidize roads but not rails.

Today, there are scant reminders of the trolley era, but look closely between the road and the railroad tracks the next time you drive Van Emmon Road into Yorkville, and you will see some of the last evidence of the old trolley line.

• Looking for more local history? Visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

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