Our History

"In 1835, James T. and Hezekiah Gifford, along with Samuel Jewett Kimball, settled a city that they would name "Elgin" in the state of Illinois, 38 miles west of Chicago. Situated on the Fox River, Elgin is directly between the lead mines of Galena and Chicago. Gifford, being a devoutly religious man, named his new city after a Scottish psalm. "I had been a great admirer of that tune from boyhood", he once stated, "and the name Elgin had ever fallen upon my ear with musical effects". Over the next 165 years, Elgin would be music to the ears of a great many people and industries, including one of the largest watch making factories in the world, the largest producers of dairy products in the Midwest, including the home of The Borden Milk Company, as well as the manufacturing of cars, shoes, bicycles and religious printed material." – Author James McDunn

An Overview of Elgin's History

The City in the Suburbs embodies the touchstones that make us celebrate the past, enjoy today, and be ahead of the curve for tomorrow. Elgin has a quality of life and accessibility that are unusual for a city, including cultural, entertainment, and recreation opportunities not available in other Chicago suburbs.

Founded in April 1835 by the Gifford brothers on their trek west and attracted to the Fox River, Elgin was named after the Scottish hymn "The Song of Elgin."

Most of Elgin lies within Kane County, Illinois, with a portion in Cook County. As of the 2020 census, the city had a total population of 114,797, making it the sixth largest city in Illinois.

As true today as in 1849 when the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad reached Elgin, the City in the Suburbs benefits greatly from our convenient access to Chicago. In close proximity to O’Hare International Airport with three interchanges on I-90, Elgin has exploded with significant growth.

Once known as the “butter capital of the world” for achieving fame for the butter and dairy goods sold, this industry became less important with the arrival of the Elgin Watch Company from the late 19th to the mid 20th century, when it was the largest producer of fine watches in the United States. Although the factory ceased production in the early 1960s and was torn town in 1965, the clocks at Chicago's Union Station still bear the Elgin name.

According to local historian E.C. “Mike” Alft, Elgin has a long tradition of education and invention. Elgin is home to the Elgin Academy, the oldest coeducational, non-sectarian college preparatory school west of the Allegheny Mountains. Elgin High School boasts five navy admirals, a Nobel Prize winner, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a Tony Award winner, two Academy Award–winning producers, Olympic athletes and a General Motors CEO among its alumni. Elgin resident John Murphy invented the motorized street sweeper in 1914 and later formed the Elgin Sweeper Corporation, which still manufactures the well-known Elgin street sweepers. Pioneering African-American chemist Lloyd Hall was an Elgin native, as was the legendary marketer and car stereo pioneer Earl "Madman" Muntz and Max Adler, founder of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, America's first planetarium.

The city is known for its historic architecture and landmarks from the Victorian era, including some fine examples of homes in the Queen Anne style. Many of the most remarkable homes once belonged to National Watch Company executives. Many interesting Sears Catalog Homes arrived in Elgin as kits from 1908 to 1940 and original cobblestone homes built by the earliest settlers still stand. They can be seen in Elgin's historic districts, two of which are recognized by the National Register of Historic Places.

The Elgin Public Museum at Lords Park is the oldest building in Illinois built expressly as a museum that is still serving that purpose.

Elgin Ecology

Although one of the largest and fastest-growing cities in Illinois, Elgin still retains some of the natural beauty and habitat diversity that first brought settlers to this area. On the East, the city borders the 4,200 acres Poplar Creek Preserve, maintained by the Cook County Forest Preserve, which includes bike trails, hiking trails and equestrian trails. The Shoe Factory Road Prairie located in the preserve provides an example of the hill prairies that once dotted the region. Poplar Creek Preserves connects to the 4,000 acres Spring Creek Valley Forest Preserve via a conservation easement covering parts of the Sears campus.

Elgin boasts two highly protected nature preserves, the Bluff Spring Fenand Trout Park. For its size, Bluff Spring Fen has a remarkable number of distinct plant communities, including a hill prairie and a fen, or alkaline spring marshland, which is home to several rare orchids. Trout Park also includes a similar calcerous seep community, with the addition of a unique forest community of oaks, ashes, maples, and uncommon species such as arborvitae and witch-hazel. When the park was created in the 1920s, the local newspaper ran a lengthy front-page story with lists of the plant species of Trout Park, reflecting both the great variety of plants present and interest Elginites had in conservation. In the 1960s, the Northwest Tollway bisected the site and reduced it in size.

Courtesy of Elgin Area Chamber