The History of Riverside: The Territory, Early Settlement, and Planned Community​

The Territory 1673-1829

The Portage

Eons ago, when the ice age was in its decline and the glaciers that covered the earth were receding, there was a very large glacial lake known as Lake Chicago that covered the area that is now Riverside. As the glaciers receded, they cut a path through this vicinity that ultimately left a chain of great lakes and a ridge or continental divide that surrounded one of those lakes--Lake Chicago that covered the area that includes Riverside, that ridge narrowed and divided the waters of the Chicago and DesPlaines rivers. During high water periods, the Des Plaines emptied part of its water into Lake Michigan through the south branch of the Chicago River and during low-water periods, the shallow channel or slough that formed was known as Mud Lake.

The Portage, cont'd

In 1673, early explorers Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, were returning from exploring the Mississippi River and portaged through Mud Lake and the Chicago River. There was a creek at what is now 48th Street and Harlem Avenue which connected the Des Plaines River and Mud Lake. The shorter route to Lake Michigan was probably disclosed to Marquette and Joliet by the Indians in the Arkansas River region who had been using the route for centuries. The area between the present-day villages of Riverside and Summit became known as the Chicago Portage.

The Portage was approximately nine miles long, but its exact location was not recorded until 1682 when LaSalle made his last of three trips to this area from Canada. The geographic location of this portage was the main reason the city of Chicago grew where it did rather than at the extreme south end of Lake Michigan.

Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet historic marker just north of I-55 on Harlem Ave. in Summit, IL)


French, Indian, British Possession

Until 1700, the Portage was controlled by the French and their Indian allies. This afforded them power over the fur trade in the territory, then a great commercial activity in the country. By 1763, though, after years of conflict among the French, British and Indian settlers regarding the control of the Portage and the northwest fur trade, France had lost all of its possessions east of the Mississippi River, including governance of the Portage.

The importance of authority over the Portage became evident during the Revolutionary War when a frontiersman, George Rogers Clark, saved the Northwest Territory (now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin) when he defeated the British at Vincennes, Indiana. The Treaty of Paris ended the Revolution and finally gave the United States sovereignty over the region.

French, Indian, British Possession, cont'd

Due to increased settlement on Indian hunting ground, the Government attempted to gain control over the area through treaties with several tribes. Frequently, settlements inside the Indian "boundary line"would spark Indian attacks in an effort to drive off the settlers. Because of the land-hungry settlers, the Government sought to extinguish the Indians' title to the land before pioneer settlement could continue.

The Indian tribes resisted all the attempts by others to settle north of the Ohio River but were finally defeated by the government in 1794. One year later, on August 10, 1795, the Greenville Treaty was signed. It specified the cession by the Indians of "one piece of land six miles square at the mouth of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, a similar piece of land at the site of Peoria and a piece of land 12 miles square at the mouth of the Illinois River". It was the first recorded real estate transaction in the territory.

Cessions made by Indians in the Treaty of Greenville in 1795


Illinois Statehood

With the onset of the 19th century, the development of the area moved quickly, beginning with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the completion of Fort Dearborn near the mouth of the Chicago River in 1804. These events, along with the booming fur trade, increased traffic through the Portage. In 1812, Illinois was made a separate territory with its northern border in line with the southern edge of Lake Michigan. The area of Riverside at this time was locate in the Wisconsin Territory. In 1816, after President Madison recommended building a canal from the Chicago River to the Illinois River, the Indians ceded land ten miles north and south of the Chicago River to build a canal and road to accommodate traffic through the Portage. Riverside is located in that strip of land. (The actual construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, as it was called, did not begin, however, until the summer of 1836) And, in 1818, Illinois became a state of the union.

Early Settlement 1830-1867

The Laughtons

Although the first stretch of the "South West Plank Road" (now Ogden Avenue) from Chicago to the Riverside area was not built until 1848, the original trail and the Indian ford across the DesPlaines River was a well traveled route for pioneers who wished to settle west of Fort Dearborn. Among the first pioneers in the area were the Laughton (or Lawton) brothers, David and Bernardus (Barney), who established a trading post in 1828 near the Portage and the "South West Plank Road". Three years later, the brothers built the Laughton Tavern on the DesPlaines River (it was called the Aux Plaines then) near what is now the intersection of Barrypoint and Millbridge Roads.


Early Riverside Map of Homesteads


The Laughtons, cont'd

The trading post and tavern became important, popular and busy outposts of civilization for many years. The opening of the Erie Canal in New York in 1825 had brought a steady stream of pioneers from New England who were joined by other settlers from the South. This increased traffic changed the wilderness and drove the fur trade from the region, thus making the Portage obsolete. Following the demise of the Portage, the land route that ran north of the water route on South West Plank Road became the established trail for those who traveling from Fort Dearborn westward to the prairies. In 1834, the first stagecoach route between Chicago and St. Louis was created. It ran by way of Laughton's Tavern.

Routes to Riverside


The Forbes Family

In 1830, Stephen Van Rensselaer Forbes and his wife, Elvira, came to Chicago from New York to live in the little settlement of Fort Dearborn. Stephen entered into the politics of the frontier town soon after his arrival and was elected Justice of the Peace.

Two years later he became the first elected Sheriff of Cook County, an immense territory which, at that time, extended north to the Wisconsin line and west as far as Belvidere.

Stephen Forbes' fondness for the area along the Aux Plaines (Des Plaines) prompted him to come to Riverside in 1831 and preempt 160 acres of land that included what is now Swan Pond and Riverside Lawn and that ran up to the Indian ford and the Laughton's property.

Stephen Van Rensselaer Forbes


Elvira Bates Forbes


The Forbes Family, cont'd

In 1836, Stephen Forbes' parents, John and Anne Sawyer Forbes, arrived from New York and settled in a large log house they built above Bourbon Springs at the bend of the river. They brought with them a group of 22 people--married sons and son-in-laws and daughters and daughter-in laws and grandchildren - all of whom lived in the log house or nearby.

One of the grandchildren, Flavilla Forbes, became Riverside's first schoolteacher. Stephen Forbes, at one time or another, owned title to most of the Riverside area, although he did not always live there. He also built a sawmill on his property, just east of the present Lyons-Riverside bridge, which supplied lumber to Chicago wagonmakers.

Flavilla Anne Snow Forbes Bliss


The Forbes Family, cont'd

In 1845, the Illinois legislature gave Forbes the right to construct a permanent dam and millrace at the site, but eight years later he sold all his holdings on the Aux Plaines and also the right to operate the dam.

With the advent of the construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in 1836, many new settlers came into the area. Concerned about the ability to farm the increasingly crowded land, the young men of the Forbes family and their families left the area one by one and headed further west.


Treaties and Travellers

During this time the Riverside area was basically an oasis for travelers heading west. The Indians were gradually being driven from Illinois, as the Treaty of St. Louis in 1804 conveyed all the lands of the Sauk and Foxes tribes in Illinois to the United States government, and the Treaty of Prairie du Chien in 1829 ceded all the lands in the northwest part of Illinois to the government. Indian chief Black Hawk repudiated the treaties and tried to rally the Sauks and the Fox, as well as the Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes who held title to the land of northeastern Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan, to join him in a confederation and a confrontation with the government. Due to increasing resistance from the neighboring Indian tribes, settlers in the Riverside area fled to the protection of Fort Dearborn.

In 1832, the Chicago Militia Company left the Fort to fight Black Hawk, camping the first night at Laughtons Tavern. The United States government reinforced the state troops by sending an army commanded by General Winfield Scott who arrived by steamer in Chicago and traveled to the present site of Riverside where they camped for ten days in the area of Scottswood Common (later named for General Scott). In September 1833, a grand council of the chiefs of all the Indian tribes was held in Chicago and a treaty was signed in which the tribes gave up five million more acres in Illinois and Michigan. The last Indians to leave the Riverside area were 800 Potawatomi living in or near Riverside who made their last stand in southwest LaGrange on the Vail farm on Plainfield Road. General Scott and his troops returned home to the east with wonderful accounts of the fertile, beautiful country of northern Illinois.

Treaties and Travellers, cont'd

Another famous visitor to Riverside in its early days was the famed orator and lawyer, Daniel Webster, who stopped here in 1837 on his way home to Boston after surveying some lands in the west. A special committee from Chicago came out to Bourbon Spring to meet him. Among those at the meeting was Garret Forbes, the brother of Stephen Forbes and son of John Forbes who built a log house on the hill overlooking Bourbon Spring. Garret Forbes was later the editor of the Zion Herald in Boston and a lifelong friend of Webster.

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster

The Wesencraft Family

In 1855, the William Wesencraft family arrived in the Riverside area to establish a farm and orchards. Wesencraft bought 26 1/2 acres of land that extended from the Des Plaines River to what is now Cowley Road in the southwest section of Riverside. The home he built (the oldest house in Riverside) is now located in a much-altered state at 78 Pine Avenue where it was moved decades later.

In 1862, a railroad system was organized to run west out of Chicago parallel to the South West Plank Road. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad purchased a strip of land from William Wesencraft for a right-of-way and laid a double track from Chicago west to the Des Plaines River and then built a station at the west terminal in Riverside that was called "Lyons". The Railroad opened for operation in May 1864. In 1889, the "Wesencraft subdivision", privately owned and excluded from the original plan of Riverside, was finally acquired by the village of Riverside.

Wesencraft Home & Farm before the R.R. - look N.W.


Wesencraft Farm Annexation Plans


Planned Community 1868-1969

At the edge of the Des Plaines River, some nine miles from Chicago, we find a unique example of the country's most talented landscape architects, architects, and engineers working together to create a new kind of community, one in which nature would became an integral and essential part of everyday living for all its residents. The result was Riverside, where families would dwell together amid a setting of wooded groves and meadows, along a curving stream.

In 1868, a group of eastern businessmen led by Emery Childs were interested in developing a residential community in the countryside outside of Chicago. In their search they discovered a large parcel of land on the Des Plaines River owned predominately by David Gage. Taking Gage as a partner, they formed the Riverside Improvement Company for the purpose of developing the land.

Being aware of Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, architect Calvert Vaux, and their extraordinary accomplishment in Central Park in New York City, Prospect Park in Brooklyn and their impending work for Chicago's South Parks, the RIC hired Olmsted, Vaux & Co. in 1868 to design the suburban community of Riverside.

Fredrick Law Olmsted


Calvert Vaux


Hand-drawn map of Riverside depicting the area in 1836.


Scene 2: General Plan of Riverside, 1869

Olmsted (who later was credited with being the "father of landscape architecture") believed that in order to have a rich and fulfilling 1ife, one needed to be surrounded by nature. He felt that the well planned suburb, not the cities of the day, was the place where one could find "most attractive, most refined, most wholesome form of domestic life". In Riverside, he set out to create a new community that would illustrate his ideas of "harmonious cooperation of men in a community and the intimate relationship and constant intercourse and interdependance between families".

Olmsted visited the site and prepared the Preliminary Report for Riverside. He states, "the city (Chicago) as yet has no true suburb in which rural and urban advantages are agreeably combined".


Swan Pond (near present day library site)


In 1869, the landscape architectural firm of Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner Calvert Vaux prepared the "General Plan of Riverside". They created one of the earliest totally planned suburban communities, a rural self contained community providing all the civilizing advantages found in the city at that time within a rural country-like atmosphere.

Original Plan for Riverside

Original Plan for Riverside

These civilizing advantages included such amenities as easy access from Chicago. (The train had already been extended here, and Olmsted proposed a divided approach road to link to the city). Riverside had the best engineered streets of the time with cobblestone gutters for proper drainage, sewers, water lines, gas lines and gas street lamps.

Example of early cobblestone gutters in Riverside


From Western Home Magazine-1870. Rolling Machine used to make streets in Riverside


To provide the rural country - like setting - vast amounts of public lands were set aside (almost 1/2 of the entire village). There were two large commons, an extensive riverbank area, triangular islands dispersed throughout the village, varying public right of ways. All the best land was for the public use for all time. The depressed, curvilinear roadway system broke away from the typical grid street plan. There were large residential lots (typically 100' x 200') and residents were encouraged to plant two trees in their front yard, as nature and the landscape was always to be of the utmost importance throughout the Village.

The firm of Jenney, Schermerhom, & Bogart was employed to oversee the construction of the village and the implementation of Olmsted & Vaux's plan.

Large Residential lots were common in early Riverside. Pictured here is the home of EP Ripley - 1896


Woman fishing on riverbank


Features built into the Riverside plan are shown to the right:

1. Expansive Riverfront

2. Triangular Islands

3. Large common areas

4. Curvilinear Roadways


Village Growth 1869-2000

Riverside Township was formed in 1870, and by 1871, Riverside had a water tower, a commercial building, the union church, a new train depot, and a 125 room hotel. Over 50 homes had been completed.

The Chicago Fire in 1871 and the subsequent financial panic in 1873 left the RIC bankrupt. But fortunately Olmsted's plan was basically complete; becoming in time the outstanding example of suburban town planning that it is today. The village was incorporated in 1875.


Engraving of the Riverside Hotel-From Western Home Magazine


View of Downtown Riverside (from school building c.1885)


Union Church


By the early 20 century many outstanding architects had contributed to the built environment of the village including Olmsted & Vaux, Jenney, Whittlesey, Withers, Sullivan, Wright, and Drummond. Many of these works remain today.

Gardener's Cottage (Coonley Estate), built c.1913- William Drummond


Dore Cottage, built c.1869 - Olmsted & Vaux


Water Tower - William LeBaron Jenney c.1900 & Original Train Depot


Central School, built c.1897- Charles Whittlesley


Riverside Improvement Co. Building, built c. 1870 (photo c. 1900) - Frederick C. Withers


Babson Estate - Louis Sullivan c.1907 (Razed in 1960)


Coonley Estate, built c.1907- Frank Lloyd Wright


In 1970, the US Dept. of the Interior recognized Riverside's significance to the history of the nation and designated the Village a National Historic Landmark. Riverside remains today as the unprecedented, successful expression of Olmsted & Vaux's vision for a true suburban ideal.