A Brief History of Evanston

A Brief History of Evanston

Today Evanston is an attractive, prosperous city which over 73,000 people call home. Though it is the closest North suburb of Chicago, Evanston has resisted becoming merely a ‘bedroom’ community, maintaining an independent character marked by a bustling business center, a renowned university and a high-quality public education system. This independence is reflected in Evanston’s 150-year history: in the strength and imagination of the people who not only built the city, but also helped shape the course of America.

The region we know today as the North Shore was once home to the Potawatami Indians. Villages were situated along the forested shores of Lake Michigan, where abundant game and easy access to the lake supported a lifestyle of hunting and fur-trading. Traces of these Native American villages have been found in Evanston on the site of present-day Saint Francis Hospital and at Dempster Street by the lake.

The first known European visitors were French voyageurs, who referred to the area as ‘Grosse Pointe,’ after the large point of land now marked by the Grosse Point Lighthouse. In 1674, French explorer and missionary Jacques Marquette wrote of the North Shore area: “the land bordering the lake is of no value…” Little did Marquette know that this lakeshore area would later become prime real estate! The French explored the shoreline, but did not attempt colonization. After the War of 1812, the United States acquired the French lands around Lake Michigan, and Grosse Pointe became Grosse Pointe Territory.

After living here for centuries, the Potawatami were forced to cede all their lands to the U.S. in a series of five treaties dating from 1795 to 1833. The government then parceled out plots of land to pioneer settlers who were moving from the East. The first European-American settler of Grosse Pointe was Major Edward H. Mulford, a jewelry dealer from New York. In 1836, Mulford bought 160 acres and improved the land with the Ten-Mile House, a house and tavern which held the territory’s first post office and the first court of Cook County.

From Mulford’s bold beginning, Grosse Pointe shed Marquette’s lowly expectations and boasted 330 residents by the 1840 census. The subsequent years witnessed a change in the boundaries of Grosse Pointe as more land was annexed into the district. In 1850 Grosse Pointe was renamed Ridgeville, and this loose conglomeration of land increased its population to 441 by that year.

On May 31, 1850, nine devout Methodists gathered with a common vision: to found a university which would be a haven for ‘sanctified learning’ in the West. They chose a spot just south of Grosse Pointe, and in 1855 Northwestern University opened its doors. The nine founders, including John Evans, Orrington Lunt, and Andrew Brown, hoped their university would attain high standards of intellectual excellence. Today these hopes have been fulfilled, as Northwestern consistently ranks with the best of the nation’s universities.

Northwestern’s founders had a vision not only for a university, but also for the surrounding town of Ridgeville. In 1854 Brown and Evans submitted a plat to the county judge for a new community: plans that included laying out wider streets, adding parks, and renaming the town ‘Evanston,’ in honor of John Evans. On February 15, 1857, the town of Evanston was named. After founding Northwestern and Evanston, Evans entered politics, establishing the Illinois Republican Party and helping Abraham Lincoln become president. Lincoln even visited Evanston in 1860, and Evanston would vote staunchly Republican until the late twentieth century.

In the same year Northwestern University opened, another Methodist school was founded: the Garrett Biblical Institute, a seminary for the training of Methodist ministers. The presence of two Methodist-supported institutions lent a religious tone to life in Evanston, and earned it the nickname ‘Heavenston.’ This devotional quality is still evident today, as shown by Evanston’s abundant number of churches of all denominations, and the active role they play in the lives of many.

Not surprising for a devoutly Methodist town, Evanston strongly supported the abolitionist movement of the late 1850s, and once the Civil War broke out, many residents joined the Union army. The University was also heavily involved, and after President Lincoln’s call for volunteers, Northwestern’s graduating class of 1863 was reduced to two students. The men Evanston contributed to the Union cause included four generals, 24 officers and 54 volunteers.

At the end of the Civil War, Evanston experienced an economic and population boom that lasted well into the twentieth century. Between 1860 and 1870 the population quadrupled. The city developed to accommodate the people’s needs: in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Evanston set up municipal water works, a fire department, a telephone system, a lighthouse, many churches of various denominations,a high school, a public library and a historical society.

But even with the growth and urbanization of Evanston, its conservative character remained unchanged. This was due largely to an amendment of Northwestern’s charter passed in 1853, prohibiting the sale of alcohol within four miles of the university. When the town of Evanston was incorporated in 1863, one of the trustees’ first official acts was to make the “four mile limit” a city ordinance. This act had a profound and continuing effect on the city, keeping it ‘dry’ until the 1970s. Evanston was a staunch supporter of the temperance and prohibition movements, partly due to the fact that one of its long-time residents was Frances E. Willard, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union from 1879 until her death in 1898. Willard became a figure of national prominence, not only for her support of temperance but also for her pioneering efforts in women’s education and suffrage.

In 1874, Evanston expanded once again by annexing North Evanston, and then South Evanston in 1892. Yet even as Evanston grew, it was threatened by the even greater growth of Chicago. Urban sprawl almost swallowed Evanston, but the smaller city was determined to preserve its independence, and by 1904 had on three occasions rejected annexation to Chicago.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Evanston earned a new nickname as ‘the city of homes’ because of the many beautiful and architecturally distinguished houses built by affluent residents, many of whom were moving from the congested neighborhoods of Chicago. Yet this landscape of single-residence homes was bound to change as the population continued to grow, and between 1893 and 1920, 1,428 apartment units were built, and another 5,772 were completed in the next ten years. It became necessary to originate zoning ordinances which would preserve the older homes. Today, thanks to a commitment to these and more recent zoning laws, Evanston continues to be a beautiful and historic city.

Business and culture flourished throughout the 1920s. Census data show a 70 percent increase in population between 1920 and 1930, after which it stabilized, due to the lull of the Great Depression and the trying years of World War II. But in the 50s and 60s, the population boom resumed, with another increase of 12 percent, and with this growth came many changes. In the 1960s Northwestern expanded its property by constructing a 74-acre landfill, altering the Lake Michigan shoreline. In 1964 the city went “all the way with LBJ” and voted Democrat for the first time in Evanston history. Perhaps an even deeper change occurred in 1972, when Evanston ended its famous dry spell and the first legal beer was served in a local restaurant. It wasn’t until 1984 that Evanston’s first retail liquor store opened.

A 1967 zoning ordinance allowed tall buildings to be constructed in Evanston, the first being the 22-story State National Bank Building, built in 1969. The most recent changes in Evanston’s landscape include the impressive glass Office Building at 1800 Sherman Avenue, and the Northwestern University/Evanston Research Park, launched in 1984. The Research Park is a collaborative effort by Northwestern University and the City of Evanston, designed to attract businesses with up-and-coming or experimental technologies. Located on the triangular plot of land in the boundaries of Emerson Street and Benson and East Railroad Avenues, the park now houses over 60 firms. A further improvement to Evanston is the new Davis Street train station, completed in 1994, which links both Metra and CTA platforms as well as bus services and taxis; getting to and around Evanston has never been easier! A welcome addition to the Evanston community is the attractive new Evanston Public Library which opened in 1994.

Evanston today is a vibrant and diverse community, with many varied activities and cultural interests. It is the city which gave the world Tinkertoys (invented here in 1914), and originated the name for the ice cream sundae. The Fountain Square Arts Festival takes place here once a year, blocking off one of the busiest streets to display hundreds of arts and crafts. With a healthy offering of arts events, a lakefront devoted to public recreation, and a thriving business environment, Evanston’s future has never looked better.


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