A downtown raging with history

Now a low activity downtown, West Chicago was once alive and busy.
A view of Main street on a sunny, spring day.
A view of Main street on a sunny, spring day.
Photo by Sasha Baumgartner
The early days

In the 1830s, only over 10 years after Illinois became a state, the land now known as West Chicago was inhabited by a few leading settlers. However, West Chicago did not become a town until 1849 when Galena & Chicago Union Railroad (now known as Union Pacific), reached from Chicago all the way to the area considered the suburbs now. Two railroads met in West Chicago and later three railroads met there during the 1850s.

A railroad junction is where two or more railways meet, and since West Chicago now had three railways meeting in the town, it became the first railroad junction in Illinois. This gave the town the original name of Junction.

Due to the railways and the job opportunities they presented, many people moved to West Chicago in the hopes of building a prosperous life.

“West Chicago is very unique compared to all of the other towns around us, because of the railroad and that most of the people who moved towards West Chicago, moved here to work here. When you think about some of the other communities, they’re called, sometimes bedroom communities because people live there, but they don’t work here. In West Chicago, at least fifty percent of our population has been employed in West Chicago for almost all of our history. In the early 1900s, almost forty percent of working males worked on the railroad in Chicago. So that’s always been a really good job. Although it was more of a blue collar job,” West Chicago City Museum Director Sara Phalen said.

A view of Main Street from the north end when downtown was popping. (Photo courtesy of the West Chicago History Museum).
The hustle and bustle of downtown

The downtown has been occupied with numerous businesses that have come and gone. At its prime, downtown West Chicago had about five working hotels, an opera house, restaurants, and several movie theaters.

Furthermore, downtown West Chicago was a place to go for anything from groceries to medicine to shoes. Businesses spanned all down Main Street.

Long term resident Merle Burleigh recalls downtown in the 1980’s when there were multiple shoe stores, restaurants, bakeries and antique stores. Residents could go downtown for all of their needs.

“Our family moved to West Chicago in 1978. At that time there were 2 shoe stores, 2 antique stores, 2 bakeries, a sports store, White Hat Cafe (best chili and the place to go other the latest news and rumors), Turner Junction restaurant, and Dave’s Latin American store,” Burleigh said via email.

Not only were there places to eat and shop but there was also a medical doctor, dentist and eye doctor for local West Chicago residents.

A view of Main Street from the north end when downtown was popping. (Photo courtesy of the West Chicago History Museum).
One of the oldest things still remaining downtown is the tower on this building built in 1897.
Present day

Modern day downtown West Chicago looks much different than its previous activity. Although some buildings are in their original form, many have been replaced since the early days due to structural damage. Main Street is less bustling as many buildings remain vacant.

“There used to be so much more passenger traffic before. A lot of people, you know, upwards of 500 trains come through West Chicago every day, in the early days, so a lot more people and before cars before 38 and 50 and 64 kind of made a rectangle around downtown, which is why we attribute a lot of the loss of downtown businesses to,” Phalen said.

In 2017, the City of West Chicago adopted the Central-Main Street Redevelopment Plan and then in 2022 the Comprehensive Plan was adopted providing a more modern plan after the Covid pandemic.

“The types of businesses that would be ideal additions in the downtown include boutiques, restaurants (including popcorn, candy, ice cream shops), business incubator spaces for entrepreneurs, businesses promoting and showcasing art, other entertainment type businesses, etc,” Chrisse said.

The businesses that have opened in recent years such as The Whistle Stop, Creative Feeling, Casa Leon and Cocoa Notes Bakeshop, have helped the downtown stay lively.

In the past month, a new business has opened its doors: Muy Cool Party. It is a balloon shop that specializes in balloon decor for any celebration.

“While a lot has changed, a lot has stayed the same. I would say that in the downtown (Main Street) the buildings are the same however, there are newer inhabitants,” school psychologist and WEGO alum
Karen Szot said.

One of the oldest things still remaining downtown is the tower on this building built in 1897. (Photo by Sasha Baumgartner)
The population of West Chicago has significantly grown over the past 70 years with the largest spike occurring in the 1990s; however, there has been a dip in recent years, according to the Bureau of the Census. (Photo illustration created by Sasha Baumgartner via Canva).
West Chicago’s population through the decades
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