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History

History

The community of St. Charles invites you to discover its distinctive past, present and future. Community members share a common history that makes St. Charles what it is today. Scenic river views, neighborhood ambiance, stunning architecture, friendly faces and a small-town atmosphere were created through 175 years of a colorful past.

Historically, the Fox River area was an ideal place to settle because of its lush forests, expansive prairies and abundant resources. Prior to the Blackhawk War, the area was inhabited by the Potawatomie Native American Indians and earlier by the Fox Tribe, from which the name of the river is derived.

In March 1834, Evan Shelby and William Franklin established a settlement they named “Charleston” on the east bank of the Fox River at what is now Baker Memorial Park. In the years that followed, entrepreneurs — like Dean and Read Ferson, Ira Minard, and Bela Hunt — arrived from New England states and settled along the Fox River. The original name of the settlement was changed in 1839 when it was discovered that there was another town in downstate Illinois with the same name. Steven S. Jones — an early settler, lawyer and publisher — is credited with suggesting the new name of St. Charles.

St. Charles Grows Along With the Country

The first industries in town were lumber mills, gristmills and wool carding mills, all powered by the water wheels near the man-made dam on the Fox River. St. Charles was home to many “firsts” in the state, including the first medical school — The Franklin Medical Institute, which opened in 1842 at the northeast corner of First Avenue and East Main Street.

community of St. Charles

Prior to and during the Civil War, a number of Underground Railroad “stations” existed throughout St. Charles. Leading citizens of the town were known abolitionists and members of the Kane County Anti-Slavery Society. And many were “conductors” on the Underground Railroad who assisted fugitive slaves on their journey north to freedom.

St. Charles was also home to the 8th and 17th Illinois Volunteer Cavalry units who trained here at Camp Kane, now Langum Park on Route 25 east of the river and south of Main Street. Marcellus Jones, a member of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, is credited for firing the first shot at the Battle of Gettysburg.

From 1874 to 1910, St. Charles, like other towns, experienced monumental changes in industry, “technology” of the times and government leadership. The first mayoral election was in 1874. Muddy, wheel-rutted dirt roads were paved with bricks to accommodate the new “horseless” carriages. Local industry expanded with the help of the railroad, streetcars and new road construction. As industry grew, so did the need for laborers.

Many of the town’s original citizens were immigrants from Lithuania and Belgium, who came to work at the Moline Malleable Company or the Cable Piano Factory. By the turn of the century, St. Charles had shifted from a small farming community to a multi-cultural and primarily industrial city.

A Place to Relax for Turn-of-the-Century Chicagoland

During the early years of the 20th century, St. Charles offered a “resort” town atmosphere to Chicago-area residents with its scenic river views and the creation of Pottawatomie Park in 1912, the first designated public park in Illinois. As the “Roaring Twenties” rolled in, St. Charles became a destination for pleasure with the construction of the Arcada Theatre and Hotel Baker.

Local philanthropist Edward J. Baker, his niece Dellora, along with her husband, Lester Norris, were heirs to the John W. Gates estate. John “Bet-A-Million” Gates made his fortune in the marketing and selling of barbed wire. Later, he founded the Texaco Oil Company.

The Baker and Norris families generously shared this inherited wealth with their hometown and built many of the historic structures enjoyed today, including the St. Charles Municipal Center, the Baker Memorial Community Center, the Baker Memorial Methodist Church, Hotel Baker and the Arcada Theatre.

The Arcada Theatre, built in 1926, was an immensely successful theater and vaudeville stage. Popular actors and entertainers of the day, such as Burns and Allen, Ginger Rogers, Maria Von Trapp, Edgar Bergen, Will Rogers, and the John Philip Sousa Band, performed on the stage at the Arcada. The Arcada is one of the few remaining vaudeville theaters in the area that has retained its original interior and offers today’s moviegoers a wonderful atmosphere of yesterday’s lavish theater experience.

Hotel Baker opened its doors in 1928. With its Spanish décor and richly appointed guest rooms, it was one of the most beautiful hotels west of the big city of Chicago. As word spread, it became a popular, romantic getaway and was nicknamed the “Honeymoon Hotel.”

Today, St. Charles still beckons visitors from around the world to experience its historic downtown districts, abundant recreational opportunities and beautiful riverside setting.

Written by the St. Charles History Museum

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