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Early History of the La Grange/La Grange Park Area

The La Grange area was known by several names in those early years:

David and Barney Laughton, two brothers from Bourbon Springs, built a house near the present day Burlington Railroad in Riverside in 1828.  Stephen Forbes (later the Cook Country Sheriff) moved into Lyons Township in 1829.

Robert Leitch moved to Chicago in 1833 from upstate New York.  In 1837 he moved from Chicago purchasing a 440-acre tract of "canal land" where he farmed and raised cattle.    Thomas Covell and the Joseph Vial family already lived in the area.  Leitch and Covell hunted wolves and deer from Covell's front porch.  Leitch built his farmhouse on the Chicago-Dixon Road (Odgen Avenue) near Fifth Avenue (La Grange Road).  John Robb was another of Leitch's neighbors.  
The Vial House at 444 LaGrange Road still stands.  It is the home of the LaGrange Historical Society and is open every Wednesday from 9:30 AM to 12:30 PM and on the last Sunday of every month from 1 PM to 4 PM.

La Grange was laid out on land originally part of a 440-acre tract owned by Leitch.  (He had moved from New York in 1842.)  At that time people were reluctant to move that far from Chicago.  As with the surrounding areas transportation was a major problem.  The stage coaches between Chicago and the western settlements passed through every two or three days.  The stage line ran along the Chicago and Dixon Road (later named Odgen Avenue in honor of the first mayor of Chicago.)  By some accounts Leitch chose the name Kensington Heights for the area of his farm.  Years later, in the 1860's, he would use the name Kensington Heights for his development project , but he would quickly suffer some business reverses and be forced to abort the project.

In 1846 Henry Kemman bought land directly north of Robb's farm and built a house and barn near the current Village Market in La Grange Park.  Louis Wesemann owned the next farm to the north and lived at 703 North La Grange Road.  Henry Dieke's farm was north of Wesemann's and Henry Meyer's was north of Dieke's.  

The Aurora Branch line (created in 1849) complete a 38-mile stretch into Chicago in 1864.  Upon completion of that stretch the railroad was renamed the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.  John Van Ottrick, the president of the newly renamed railroad, was persuaded to extend the rail line to Chicago.  He had ill-feelings on the future of the Chicago branch and at its dedication was heard to say "It will never pay".  A station was opened in 1868 and given the name "West Lyons".  (Lyons Township had been established in 1850.1)  The station was near the current site of the Stone Avenue Station.

In 1870 Leitch sold his land to a Mrs. Breed.  Leitch immediately moved to Chicago and opened a distillery.  Mrs. Breed resold the land in 1870 to Frank Cossitt.

Franklin Dwight Cossitt was born in Granby, Connecticut in 1821, of French descent..  He purchased a cotton farm at LaGrange, Tennessee prior to the Civil War.  The Cossitt home in Tennessee was called La Grange in honor of the Marquis de La Fayette's ancestral home in France.  Unfortunately for Cossitt, his farm was destroyed during fighting in the early days of the Civil War.  He moved to Chicago in 1862 and built a successful wholesale grocery business.  Cossitt foresaw the advantages of the higher ground in the north Lyons Township area.  Some nearby lower areas with poor drainage had been plagued with malaria. 

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed Cossitt's wholesale grocery business and he turned his primary focus to developing a quality suburban village.  One of his first acts was to establish a real estate firm.  He then bought the areas from what is now Bluff (the pre-historic shoreline of Lake Michigan) to Waiola Avenues, from 47th to Odgen Avenue bringing his ownership up to about 600 acres.  Cossitt subsequently sold the land between Bluff and La Grange Road to Levi Z. Leiter. 

During the same period Cossitt was developing his property, David Brainard Lyman and his brother-in-law, Charles Lay, were developing property between Waiola and Brainard Avenues.  When Cossitt's daughter married Lyman the developments was combined.  Cossitt wanted to use the name previously used by Leitch, Kensington, but he found there was already was post office with the name in Illinois.  Cossitt chose the name La Grange after his former farm in La Grange, Tennessee.  
Levi Z. Leiter --
Like Franklin Cossitt, Levi Leiter was a Chicago wholesaler.  He teamed up with Marshall Field in 1865 and bought Potter Palmer's dry goods business.  For many years Field & Leiter was Chicago's premier department store.  Leiter sold his share of the business to Field in 1881 and the store was renamed, Marshall Field's.  Leiter owned considerable real estate in the Chicago area and was involved in local philanthropies.  He donated property in La Grange for the Suburban Club, the First Congregational Church and paid for the bell in the high school tower.

Cossitt donated land for the early churches and schools.  He also had trees planted on each side of the several roads.  Robert Emmond was the first Village Forester and devoted his services to the care of those trees for many years.  Another step Cossitt took to preserve his image of a quality residential community took the form of covenants.  He wanted to prevent La Grange from becoming a saloon town, the fate of communities of his time.  These covenants restricted the use of alcoholic beverages on lands he sold.

Why did Cossitt succeed in developing the area when so many others failed?  There were several reasons:

  • The transportation to and from Chicago was improved by the railroads.
  • Many chose to evade the growing population, congestion and crime of the quickly growing Chicago.
  • Cossitt's foresight in providing amenities helped attract residents.

Perhaps the greatest factor for Cossitt's success was the Chicago Fire of 1871 which left over 100,000 homeless.  Many of these homeless sought out villages like La Grange and La Grange Park.

John Unold and his stores. 

In 1868 John Unold moved his general store from Fullerberg (present-day Hinsdale) to a spot known as Hazel Glen.  His store was near Hillgrove and Gilbert Avenues along the CB&Q Railroad tracks.  Shortly he moved again to a section of John Robb's property at Hillgrove and Brainard Avenues.  With  Robb they promoted a new settlement the called West Lyons.  Robb also donated the land for the West Lyons train station, the current location of the Stone Avenue station.  (Robb had previously promoted the area using the name Robbville.)

To read about the formation of La Grange Park, see Early History of LaGrange Park or continue with Early History of the Village of La Grange.


Before the Rails

Starting in 1834 the Chicago-Dixon road was the primary artery for the LaGrange area.   Accounts from that time describe the road as impassable when wet; dry, bumpy and dusty at most other times.  In the 1840s attempts to raise the roadbed and improve its drainage were largely unsuccessful.  In 1848 a private company started a 'plank' road along the same route.  The roadbed consisted of eight-foot-planks nailed to stringers on either side of the road.  The section from Chicago to Brush Hill in Hinsdale was completed by 1850.  By 1851 the planked sections extended to Naperville and it was renamed the Southwest Plank Road.  The cost of $16,000 was recouped by charging a toll for the use of the road.

The Aurora Branch Line

Although Chicago was destined to be the hub for America's railroads, no rail line entered the city until 1848 when a line connect Chicago and Oak Park.  This line would eventually connect to Galena and become the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, but it was the Aurora Branch line which was to have impact on La Grange.

The Aurora Branch Line originated in Aurora, not Chicago.  The line was developed by a group of Aurora businessmen in 1849 who recognized the benefits rail service could bring them.  Towns along the old plank road pledged land for the railroad right-of-way and convinced the railroad to extend their line into Chicago.  The 38-mile Aurora-Chicago line was completed in 1864 at a cost of one million dollars.  The rail line changed its name to a more appropriate "Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad.  (It kept this name until 1970 when, with a merger, it was changed to the "Burlington Northern".)

At the dedication, CB&Q President John Van Ottrick remarked privately, "It will never pay."  He was wrong.

CB&Q Stops

The first stop in La Grange was really a milk stop at the Hazel Glen station, west of Brainard.  Full milk cans were picked up and empty ones dropped each a day.  Unold and Robb moved the station to the West Lyons settlement on Brainard in 1868.  The first commuter service started in 1869 just before La Grange was laid out.

Using locally quarried stone, Cossitt built the La Grange station. 

David Brainard Lyman replaced Unold and Robb's station with a more durable one at Stone Avenue.

By 1876 ten trains ran daily from Chicago to Aurora.  By 1895 the commuter trains had doubled to twenty a day.  Decades before the US and Interstate highway systems were envisioned, it became practical for suburbanites to commute to work in Chicago.

In 1897 the CB&Q got some competition from the new Suburban Electric Railway Company's trolley service and later by the West Town Railway.  The trolleys left every 20 minutes from Hillgrove, turned north of La Grange Road and then zigzagged their way to the other end of the line at 48th and Harrison in Chicago.  Trolleys were used until 1948 when it was replaced by buses.  PACE eventually absorbed the bus service into its operations.

Recommended background reading:

To continue stories of LaGrange and LaGrange Park see:

The primary source of this information includes but is not limited to:

Some of the above information was obtained through the LaGrange Park Public Library.

Last Modified:  11/24/2003