“Without transportation, nothing happens.” – Anke Voss of the Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library
The story of Champaign begins with Urbana and the railroad. In 1833, Senator John Vance introduced a bill that would create Champaign County with Urbana as the county seat. The location selected for Urbana was known as Big Grove. Growth to this area was slow but steady. Early colonists preferred to settle in wooded areas–as opposed to prairie–where timber and water was easily accessible. Timber accounted for 20% of the surrounding area at that time while prairie made up 80%. In 1850, President Fillmore approved a land grant for the Illinois Central Railroad. Multiple routes were considered, including one through Urbana, one going slightly west of Urbana, and another through Danville. The route that ran two miles west of the Urbana courthouse was chosen.
The first train pulled into West Urbana station in 1854 and with it came more economic opportunity than could be imagined. By 1857 business facilities in the town of Champaign consisted of eight dry goods stores, five hardware and stove stores, two jewelers, four warehouses, three millinery (women’s hats) stores, three blacksmiths, and one dentist, with at least ten more different types of businesses. In 1857 the area was incorporated as the village of West Urbana. The first large plat was a two-block space designated as a public square in what is now West Side Park (stops #14 and #15).
In 1861 Champaign–meaning “low-level plain”–received its charter of incorporation as a city and continued to grow around what is now downtown Champaign. The university, which was then known as the Illinois Industrial University, opened six years later in 1867. Around this time many legendary businesses set up shop downtown. In the 1860’s and 70’s, two of the longest-running retail stores in the area opened–Joseph Kuhn’s and Robeson’s (now the Robeson Building, stop #19). As the landscape of Champaign changed, transportation shifted gears to keep up with the bustling downtown area. From the late 1860’s to the late 1930’s local public transit included horse-drawn railways; an “electrified” streetcar system; and city buses.
By the end of the century, downtown Champaign continued to grow with very little indication that it would stop. Students came to the university in droves, bringing great economic impact to the area. Life in downtown Champaign consisted of everything from vaudeville at the Eichberg and Walker Opera House (#12) to sodas at Swannell’s. At this time the city also began to establish crucial municipal institutions: the City Building (#10), police and fire departments, and gas and electric companies.
The Historical Champaign Downtown tour will lead you on an exploration through the rich history of the development of downtown Champaign. Each landmark tells a different piece of the story of Champaign’s growth from a small frontier train station to one of the largest metropolitan areas in Illinois.