In the early nineteenth century, the area of Illinois which was to become Champaign County was a land of marsh and slough grass, broken by a few discreet groves of trees. The first white settlers to pass through the area found it so inhospitable that they simply kept going. It was not until 1822 that a white man actually settled in the area and built a cabin. In fact, two settlers built cabins in that year, and local historians still enjoy arguing which was first: Runnel Fielder or William Tompkins. Both cabins were erected on the edge of the Big Grove, the largest of the groves of trees in the county. Fielder's cabin was in the southeast part of the Grove, while Tompkins' cabin, on the southwest edge of the Grove, occupied part of the future site of Urbana.
It was two years later when two more settlers chose sites in the future Champaign County. In 1824, Henry Sadorus and Joe Smith settled at Sadorus Grove. Smith moved on to the Peoria area in less than a year, while Sadorus became a permanent settler.
After 1826, a trickle of additional settlers moved to the area, a majority finding cabin sites near Big Grove. Some, including both Fielder and Tompkins, moved on. Others, such as Isaac Busey, Matthew E. Busey, William T. Webber, and Asahel Bruer, stayed on, and by 1832, they felt they were ready to set up their own county government.
Up to that time, this area of Illinois was part of Vermilion County. So the residents persuaded the new state senator from Vermilion, John W. Vance, to sponsor legislation creating a new county. Vance chose the name Champaign for the county, and Urbana for its county seat, after the Ohio county and town of his boyhood home. Governor John Reynolds signed Vance's bill into law on February 20, 1833.
Isaac Busey, Jacob Bartley, and George Akers were duly elected to the first governing County Commission. A separate three-man commission, consisting of John P. Richardson, James P. Jones, and Stephen B. Shelledy, was appointed to select the site for the new county seat. Among the sites considered were several settlements in the Big Grove. As the central part of the new county, and also the most populous, some part of this grove was a logical choice for the future town of Urbana. The commissioners spent a night with Isaac Busey, on the southern edge of the Grove—and in the morning, the stake designating the site of Urbana was driven near the Busey cabin.
The first court house, a log cabin, was built in 1836, but was used only for a year or two. A one-story wood court house was built in 1841. Finally, in 1849, a “permanent” court house—a two-story brick building—was erected, providing office space for the county clerk for the first time.
The first newspapers in Urbana were the Union, established in 1852, and the Central Illinois Gazette, 1853. Joseph O. Cunningham, later lawyer, judge, and historian of the county, edited the Union from 1853 to 1858.
Transportation was a problem for the new county, as it was for the entire state. So in 1836, the Illinois legislature incorporated the Central railroad. But it took federal assistance, in the form of a grant of every even-numbered section of land along the right of way, to actually get the Illinois Central started.
Nineteenth century railroads, having land of their own to sell, were notorious for bypassing existing towns. But there were several good reasons for the IC to bypass Urbana: fewer rivers had to be bridged, and a better route through Yankee Ridge could be found. The chosen route passed two miles west of Urbana—close enough to the Big Grove that ties could be cut there.
So a depot marked “Urbana” was erected, on land donated by Matthew W. Busey. A plat was duly filed for the Illinois Central Railroad Addition to Urbana. Of course, there was nothing between the Original Town and the IC Addition except two miles of empty prairie. But after the first train arrived in 1854, a community known as The Depot began to grow up in the IC Addition.
Many towns bypassed by a new railroad simply bought and platted new land near the tracks, moved every building worth moving to the new site, and started their town over. (A few years later, in Champaign County, the town of Homer did exactly that.) But, for whatever reasons, Urbana decided to stay put. The community around the depot came to be called West Urbana.
Not surprisingly, the citizens of Urbana were concerned that a new rival was growing to the west. So in 1855, incorporation of Urbana was proposed to the state legislature—with boundary lines which included the depot. At the last minute, a delegation from West Urbana rescued the independence of the new community. The legislature set the west boundary of Urbana at a section line, the future Wright Street—in the middle of the prairie. Archa Campbell was elected as the first mayor of Urbana.
Their independence secured, the citizens of West Urbana voted to incorporate as a village under general Illinois law. The first Town Board of Trustees held its first meeting on April 28, 1857, and elected John W. Baddely as Board President.
By 1859, the rivalry was becoming intense. The Union, recently moved to West Urbana, was referring to the two towns as East Urbana and West Urbana. The Urbana paper Our Constitution protested indignantly. And when it was reported that West Urbanaites were beginning to call their town Champaign, taking the name of the county itself, the Urbana papers heaped scorn on the idea!
Nevertheless, West Urbana voted to reincorporate as the City of Champaign in 1860. On May 26, E. T. McCann was elected the first mayor. The following year, the state legislature passed a charter for Champaign, which was signed by Governor Richard Yates on February 21, 1861. On March 25, the citizens of the infant city voted whether to accept the new charter. One of the wards east of the IC tracks voted against it, and the other was split almost equally; but the vote in both west side wards was overwhelmingly favorable, and the charter was adopted by a total vote of 177 to 63. The sign on the depot was finally changed to “Champaign.”
To ensure the retention of the county seat, Urbana in 1859 replaced the ten-year-old “permanent” court house with a magnificent new structure. At $40,000, it was apparently felt that the new court house was so large an investment that no one in the future could vote in good conscience to move the county seat elsewhere.
But Urbana still had no convenient connection to the Illinois Central, and the lack was felt in both communities. The next chapter describes the solution to this problem.
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