Chapter VIII: Aurora and DeKalb Railroad

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In the summertime, we would take the streetcar to the baseball game at the baseball park next to the Riverview Amusement Park. The baseball park was somewhere out past the gasworks. I can remember the smell of the gasworks when we went past on the streetcar.

Construction of the electric railroad was started at Aurora, and got to Maple Park somewhere around 1914, perhaps a little earlier. They were a little delayed in finishing it.

One year, I don’t remember which, but they had promised the line would be in full operation so we could go to Aurora to celebrate the Fourth of July. But when the Fourth came around, all they had was a steam locomotive hauling some flat cars on which they had fastened some benches. A great disappointment to one and all.

The railroad was eventually finished, running from Aurora to DeKalb with many stops in between: Kaneville, Maple Park and Cortland, as well as many crossroads.

The railroad had no separate right-of-way in the town: it just ran through the middle of the street like a streetcar, stopping wherever someone wanted to get on or off. There were a few paved roads in 1914, but not many, so the streetcar was very popular.

It was a single track affair, with a sidetrack here and there to allow the car going in the opposite direction to safely pass. No complicated semaphore signals or anything like that was necessary.

The car had a motorman and conductor, as well as a special compartment for smokers. Men generally sat in this section, and the women in the larger section in the front part of the car.

The streetcar line also had a sort of freight service where goods were shipped from Aurora-DeKalb to Maple Park, and unloaded in the center of the street. That’s how we got our bakery goods and ice cream from either Aurora or DeKalb.
It was also through the streetcar line that we got electricity in our store and house. It was a direct current, and thus no individual light could be lighted at a time: it was either a circuit of five lights, or none. With the electricity, we put fans in the store. They were direct current fans and seemed to go at a terrific rate.

The streetcar line did a terrific passenger business from DeKalb to surrounding towns when Maple Park had the only saloons in the area. On a Saturday night, the passengers stood in the aisles to get to their favorite oasis.

There were several other children from Maple Park who went to what we called the Sisters’ School in DeKalb. In addition to my sister, who went there for two years, there was Evelyn Loftus, the Conlin boys, and some from Cortland. Father Solon, Pastor of St. Mary’s Church in DeKalb, which also ran the Sisters’ School, would inquire from time to time from the streetcar people to see that everyone was behaving properly in the car.

The Aurora DeKalb Railroad (its proper name) got into financial difficulty around 1918, and was operated under receivership for some years. It finally went out of business around 1921.

An attorney named Harvey Gunsel, from Aurora, was one of the receivers and sometimes would act as a motorman. There was a boy named Harvey Welsh who got off the car at Cortland. One day when we all said, “Goodnight Harvey” (to the boy), Gunsel, the motorman, thought we were speaking to him and replied, “Goodnight, boys.”

I rode the streetcar to and from DeKalb to go to St. Mary’s Sisters’ School and then Dekalb Township High School. Beginning in 1916 and the years following until it ceased to operate, the car stopped right in front of the store. We left at 7:30 AM every morning, arriving in DeKalb about 8 AM. Later, I took the Northwestern Railway to and from DeKalb, going to high school and what was then the Normal School.

I rode the streetcar to and from DeKalb (to Grade School, High School and Normal School) from 1916 through 1922. I took the steam train to school in DeKalb when the Aurora and Dekalb Interurban line went out of business. After that, I rode the Chicago Northwestern train to and from DeKalb and Maple Park until the summer of 1923. That fall, I went to the University of Illinois at Champaign.

At present (1978) there are very few, if any, passenger trains operating west of Geneva, Illinois, and I believe there is no longer any station at all in Maple Park. The hard roads and the automobile ran railroads out of business.
It used to be exciting to see the fast passenger trains fly through Maple Park, and see the people sitting on the observation platform at the end of the train, waving as they went by. The Portland Rose was one of the fine trains in those days going to the West Coast. Of course, it wasn’t air-conditioned, and some of the fumes and debris from the steam locomotive would find its way into the passenger car. Nevertheless, it was a luxury for those days.

In the summertime, the Aurora streetcars going to the park were open—no sides—with long benches running from side to side. The running boards were on each side. You got a nice, breezy ride in those days. Nothing can compare with it today.

Yes, those were the not-so-good old days of dirt roads; back-houses; kitchen and living room; wood- and coal-burning stoves; pumps; kerosene lamps; blacksmith shops; livery stables; harness shops; medicine shows; tent shows; high-button shoes and button hooks; ice boxes; armbands; steam locomotive trains; streetcars; boned corsets, etc.

In those “good old days” we had no income tax, no sales tax, no welfare payments and no installment loans. We had the poor house, the County Farm, instead.

Many of our farmers came from the “old country”—Germany, Ireland and Sweden.

There were old Civil War veterans living in the town who told tall tales about the battle of Lookout Mountain and other battles. On Decoration Day, the school kids visited the cemeteries and left flowers on the graves of those who’d fought in the Civil War. Several days before Decoration Day, the kids went around collecting flowers growing the gardens. We had no florist to go to.

When I was in grade school at Maple Park (probably about the fifth grade), I recited Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in the Town Paul on Decoration Day. We really remembered the Civil War.

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