Matthew Zellner is an EHC archival intern and a student at Northwestern University studying Radio/Television/Film. In honor of Evanston’s upcoming sesquicentennial, he’ll be contributing to a series of articles on life in Evanston in 1863, as part of our History Wednesdays feature. Ask questions and join the conversation by leaving comments below, and by tweeting at the us @EvanstonHistory, using the hashtag #Evanston1863.
2013 will mark the sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary of Evanston’s incorporation in 1863. A century and a half have seen Evanston change drastically; the Evanston of 1863 would be almost unrecognizable to Evanstonians today.
Just how different was Evanston 150 years ago? It’s easier to grasp if you consider what wasn’t there, including: street lighting, electricity, telephones, running water, a high school, a fire department, and banks. Much of the north, west and south sides were not part of the original incorporated area of the town, which included only what we recognize today as downtown Evanston and the area around Northwestern University.
Here are three more modern luxuries that Evanstonians had to live without in 1863:
1. Paved roads or concrete sidewalks
Evanston might have already had railroads in 1863, but it had yet to invest in modern roads or sidewalks (they wouldn’t become common until the 20th century). It was not uncommon in the first half of the 19th century to take a boat up the North Shore to avoid having to use the Green Bay Trail, as the roads around Evanston were treacherous, to say the least.
Much of Evanston was marshland that flooded often, and many of the roads were so well worn that they had sunk a foot or more into the ground. Margery Blair Perkins, in her book Evanstonia, recounts that early Davis Street, with a surface made of clay and gravel, became a “hogswallow” every time it rained. Evanston was testing some pavement surfaces, such as Macadam pavement (a thin, elevated layer of small rocks), but most performed poorly. Perkins notes that one of the first somewhat successful pavements was a section of Chicago Ave north of Davis that was paved with “a double layer of brick laid on sand.”
Sidewalks, though originally “looked upon as frill,” existed in a few areas in 1863. The first sidewalk appeared outside Northwestern professor (and later president) Oliver Marcy’s house in 1861. Sidewalks were made of wood, similar to the Nicholson pavement(wood blocks) that was being championed in Chicago at the time.
The wooden sidewalks, while keeping early Evanstonians out of the hogswallow, had a terrible reputation for harboring “hordes of rats.”
2. A police department
Chicago’s police department was founded in 1855, necessary for a city that by 1850 had already gained the reputation of the “wickedest city in America,” according to Flinn and Wilkie’s History of the Chicago Police. Yet “Heavenston,” with its low crime rate, remained without a police department in 1863. It appointed one policeman, former butcher Robert Simpson, to deal with the few lawbreakers.
Many of these lawbreakers were not even human. A major focus of Evanston’s law enforcement through 1863 had been to deal with the problem of wandering livestock. The government of Ridgeville, as the township was first named, established pounds for animals on each side of the town.
Simpson did have some serious matters to address as well. Evanston had banned dueling, always a popular pastime, by 1863. The four mile limit on alcohol enacted by the first amendment to Northwestern’s charter was also in effect at this point, but it is unclear whether Simpson was needed to enforce the ban. Hurd and Sheppard’s A History of Illinois and Evanston mentions that by the 1880s, the Evanston Citizen’s League had dedicated itself to ensuring violators were prosecuted.
Perhaps because of the morality of the town of Evanston, it was able to exist somewhat peacefully (see Dowie Riot) over the next decade with the addition of only one more police officer. Evanston would not add a full police department until the 1890s.
3. A public library
Despite having been the home of Northwestern University since 1855 (when Old College Hall was built), Evanston, the city that would be called the “Athens of the Midwest,” still did not have a public library in 1863. The first would not open until 1871.
At the time, it was still a rarity to even have a personal library. Hurd and Sheppard mention that it was remarkable that one of Evanston’s pioneers, Major Edward Mulford, possessed a collection of books. It earned him the nickname, the “Gentleman Pioneer of Evanston.” For many years, Mulford’s collection was the largest library in Evanston.
In fact, even Northwestern still didn’t have much of a library. Northwestern University Library’s official history mentions that the University’s board of trustees had only approved the “commencement of a library” seven years earlier. In 1863, the University Library occupied only a single room on the third floor of the Old College. Not only was the library small, but it also wasn’t public. Northwestern’s library would not become semi-public until it became a government depository in 1876.
According to A History of Illinois and Evanston, the closest thing Evanston had to a public library in 1863 came in the form of Sunday school libraries. The first Sunday school library, eventually associated with the First Methodist Church, was located in a log schoolhouse on the corner of Greenleaf and Ridge, and had an enormous collection of fifty books!