City of Evanston History

The Frontier (1800-1850)

Native American Indians lived for thousands of years on what is now Chicago’s North Shore.  Beginning in 1795 the U.S. government signed treaties to push their settlement west and later this policy was codified as the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  Through a series of treaties, the Potawatomi living in the Evanston area were forced to give up their land, and by 1840 were moved west of the Mississippi River.

As Chicago expanded so did routes to and from the city.  Merchants traveled by stagecoach up the old Indian trail known as “The Ridge,” the stretch of dry land running along the north shore of Lake Michigan.  They called the road the “Green Bay Trail” as the road led to Fort Green Bay.  In 1836, Edward Mulford and his wife Rebecca purchased land along the ridge and built the 10-Mile House, which served as a tavern for travelers and a community center (post office, meeting house, church, and school) for the growing number of residents in the area. In 1850, Ridgeville Township was formally incorporated with 441 residents calling it home.

A Sanctified Town (1850-1885)

In 1853, a group of men looking for the perfect site for a new Methodist-affiliated institution of “sanctified learning” was persuaded that the marshy lands along the lakefront in Ridgeville Township were exactly right. The board of the newly chartered Northwestern University purchased land from John Foster and began making plans not only for the university but for the town that would surround it.  Evanston, named after University founder John Evans, was platted in 1854.  In 1855, the University welcomed its first students.  That same year the university amended its charter to establish a four-mile limit against the production or sale of alcoholic beverages.  When the town of Evanston was officially incorporated in 1863, the board of trustees voted to create an ordinance enforcing the four-mile limit around the community.

In these early years, clean water and easy transportation were the main concerns and residents focused on creating necessary institutions for the growing community.  A water works began operating in 1874, giving residents access to fresh lake water.  Drainage ditches and railroads were constructed to facilitate movement within the town, and to and from Chicago.  In 1873, Evanstonians voted unanimously for a tax to support a free public library.  The volunteer fire department was organized in 1875.  And, Gross Point Lighthouse was constructed in 1874 to bring security to the lake shore.

The City of Homes (1885-1920)

After the 1871 Chicago Fire, many city dwellers looked to the suburbs for new homes. Evanston offered an escape from the poverty and crowding of Chicago.  These new residents built homes and neighborhoods that gave Evanston the look of a domestic haven.  Architects began designing homes and the city soon became known for its tree-lined streets and fine housing.

These new residents continued Evanston’s tradition of investing in progress and improvements.  In the 1890’s, residents debated building an electric street railroad, some arguing that it would make streets noisy and bring new people to Evanston, others saying that it would make commuting easier.  In the end, the street railway was constructed and began operating in 1893. In 1892, the community of South Evanston merged with the village of Evanston and the city of Evanston was officially incorporated.

Evanston Modernizes (1920-1960)

In the 1920’s Evanston’s commercial center boomed. Evanston became known as the shopping center of the north shore, with department stores and movie theaters.  Traffic and parking became a problem and so the city created an Accident Prevention Bureau, the first in the nation.

The urbanization of Evanston increased both its diversity and its segregation.  As Evanston’s elite worked to maintain their suburban ideal through zoning, the African-American and Polish immigrant communities built their neighborhoods into cities within the city.  Industry expanded as the city grew. Companies chose Evanston because of its proximity to Chicago and its reputation for “solid people.”  Before 1940, Evanston housed only 6 industries with 25 or more workers. After World War II, industry expanded with 130 companies moving to Evanston.

Search for a New Identity (1960-1990)

During the years following 1960, the city began to lose many of the institutions that defined it.  Factories and department stores closed and workers moved to new areas or struggled to stay without jobs.  The community had to re-think its identity to keep people here and attract new businesses.  In 1967, a new zoning ordinance was passed to allow for the construction of tall buildings in limited areas of the city.  The city became known as “Headquarters City” for all the non-profit organizations that had their headquarters here.

Simultaneously, residents began a process of self-examination that resulted in a push to provide equal opportunities for all citizens.  Evanston’s social and political identity began to change.  In 1964, for the first time, more Evanstonians supported the Democratic candidate (Lyndon Johnson) than the Republican.  Schools were officially desegregated in 1967, and a new housing ordinance was passed in 1966 that made it illegal for real estate agents to discriminate on the basis of race.  In 1972, the city council voted for a new liquor ordinance and the first legal alcoholic drink was served.  In 1985, Joan Barr was elected the first female mayor of Evanston.

A Destination City (1990-present)

Transit-oriented development, new retailing, and a changing populace brought new life to Evanston at the end of the 20th century. An enormous influx of eating places, apartments and condos, entertainment, and other signs of urban vitality turned the downtown once again into a thriving urban area and a model of “mixed-use” development.  The City built a new four-story public library in 1994, continuing the community’s long commitment to free access to library services and creating open community space in the heart of the city. The construction of the Century 12 movie theater complex (completed in 2000) kicked off years of growth and change in downtown. Downtown Evanston emerged once again as a retail destination and as the restaurant center of the North Shore.

The community continued to grapple with issues of income disparity and racial inequity. Jobs, affordable housing and the “achievement gap” in schools remained topics of discussion, while rapid growth took hold throughout town. Preserving Evanston’s livable neighborhoods while encouraging growth, a more diverse tax base, and job creation became issues during these years. Lorraine Morton was elected the first African-American female Mayor in 1993. Morton was also the first Democrat to hold the office and was the longest serving mayor in Evanston’s history when she retired in 2008.