The history of Champaign Urbana
Published: Wednesday, August 24, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 13:08
Blame it on the railroad is the general answer when new residents ask why there are two towns side by side in Central Illinois. Champaign, located only two miles from the business district of the county seat, Urbana, which already had a population of 1200 people in 1857 when it was incorporated, and has been the larger of the two ever since. So what happened to make the county seat the less populated of the two? It really does seem to be because of the railroad.
The tale begins when the county was formed by reducing Vermilion County in 1821. The creator of the bill for such a deed was Illinois Senator, John Vance from Vermilion County. His original home had been in Champaign County, Ohio and so, when the paperwork made it official in 1833, he named the new county after his home.
People had actually been living in the area since 1821, when Runnel Fielder first squatted the land. Since then, more people had arrived and the area had about 30 cabins clustered together on the north side of a grove near the Salt Fork River and a couple on the south side. Near the north side settlers, was the unpaved Fort Clark Road, originally a bison path, passing through the area on its way to what is now Peoria. A post office had been established in the area as well.
Other squatters were establishing their homesteads in the new county, such as Henry Sadorus in the extreme south part of Champaign County. He claimed to have arrived in the area prior to Fielder.
Regardless of who was first, residents of the new county now had a duty to establish a county seat and so a small group of men were elected commissioners to find possible locations for the town. When several possibilities had been chosen, the state commissioners arrived to make a final decision. After inspecting a couple of possibilities on the north side of the grove, the group traveled to the south side to view an option. This was really more of a formality since it was generally agreed that the north side was the better choice.
Since it was getting late, one of the county commissioners, Isaac Busey, offered his home for the group to spend the night. In the morning the state officials left the Busey home and planted the stake creating the county seat a few yards from his front door, on the south side of the grove. Of course, many rumors, few of them nice, flew about what happened that night in the Busey house.
Many years later, in an interview with former Champaign mayor, Dannel McCollum, for his book Remembering Champaign County, Busey's niece, Garreta Busey, revealed that the story among the family was that ,"Ike served up a fine supply of his homemade corn whiskey" rendering the officials too hung over to want to return to the north side.
Soon, the south side of the grove was more inhabited and by the mid-point of the century the population, which had grown to 256, according to J.O. Cunningham's book, A History of Champaign County. Many folks decided to locate near the courthouse in downtown. Few settlers ventured beyond the grove area, although some had moved on to groves to the west, Sangamon Grove, and north, at Mink Grove. "There was basically no reason for people to settle in this area," said Howard Grueneberg, Urbana Free Library's Archive Librarian. "Other than the trees there was nothing here but swamp most of the year. It wasn't unusual to be able to travel by canoe from Thomasboro to Urbana."
The railroad arrived in the swamp of Champaign County in 1854. The Illinois Central Railroad was building a track the length of the state. The Chicago Branch was built two miles west of Urbana. In this territory, as Cunningham explained in hisHistory, "not a dozen men entered land in the [Champaign] township before 1850." Champaign.ilgenweb.net described the area that would become "the business center of Champaign was one vast pond where the mud turtle and water moccasin luxuriated; the mosquito wound his bugle and the frogs gave a rival symphony." In the archive entitled Downtown Champaign 1854-1869, "Champaign at that time was known far and wide as possessing the muddiest street in the state. No difference whether it was a contest as to quality, depth or consistency."
Regardless of the mud, many men saw the possibility of becoming successful and built their business near the tracks. Unlike several other villages, such as Homer, which had moved several miles, Urbana watched as a new town grew between them and the tracks.
Although the station was originally known as the Urbana Depot, the people refused to acknowledge themselves as part of Urbana and just called it the Depot. Later in 1857, the area was incorporated as a town using the name West Urbana. In 1860, the town took the name of the county and became Champaign, according Tom Kacich in his book Hot Type.
All that remains of the Big Grove area now is the Brownfield and Busey Woods. The swamps have been drained since the late 1800s. Gone are the diseases, like cholera, which was seen in epidemic proportions several times in the early years. Isaac Busey's cabin stood behind what is now the Courier Building on Race Street. The original courthouse was built near where the current one stands today. Wolves, bears and rattlesnakes have been replaced with domestic animals and the bison were gone before Fielder arrived. Native Americans roamed the area until about 1840, visiting Fielder and Sadorus both with friendly visits. No problems have been recorded between the two groups. The Boneyard Creek garnered its name because of the large number of animal bones on its banks supposedly left from Natives hunting in the area.