Historic Districts & Landmarks

1880 Elgin Map.jpg



First Settlers

The first Anglo-European settler in Elgin was Hezekiah Gifford who first arrived in 1834 and returned with his brother James Gifford in April of 1835 to permanently settle in the area. Other families soon followed and by 1837 a dam was built across the Fox River to provide power for grist mills. The original town plat was recorded by James Gifford in 1842. The town benefited from being along the major east-west route between Galena and Chicago. A stage coach line ran through Elgin between these two cities and the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad was completed through Elgin in 1850.

Dairy Center

The coming of the railroad spurred growth and development in the community. One of the major industries of the city had its origin in these years as Elgin became a major dairy center for the region. Throughout the 1850s Elgin shipped train cars of milk into Chicago and in the 1860s Gail Borden opened a condensed milk plant in Elgin. During the late 19th century other creameries and butter manufacturers joined the Borden milk plant in Elgin.

National Watch Company

In addition to the dairy industry, the coming of the Elgin National Watch Company had a major effect on the growth of the city in the late 19th century. This company founded its operations in Elgin in 1866 and produced its first watch in 1867. The company was the largest producer of watches in America and became the largest watch factory in the world. From the 1870s to the 1890s the growth of employment in the watch factory more than doubled as did the population of Elgin. By 1890 the city's population had risen to 17,823 residents.

Early 20th Century

By the early 20th century, Elgin was a prosperous community with a wide variety of industries and businesses. This prosperity was reflected in the many fine homes built during these years and the rapid expansion of Elgin on both sides of the Fox River. Limestone quarries located south of Elgin near the Fox River supplied much of the stone used in building construction at the turn of the century. Many dwellings in Elgin boast fine cut limestone foundations and accent and trim work. Clay deposits along the river also provided a readily accessible material for brick manufacturing.


In addition to the residential area, Elgin also boasted a busy commercial area and various industries adjacent to the Fox River. Although the Elgin National Watch Company complex was razed in the 1960s, many other important commercial and industrial buildings remain extant. In recent years, the city has promoted the revitalization of its downtown area and is now funding a variety of civic and historic preservation efforts.