Originally, Aurora was home to a village of 500 Potawatomi Native Americans, who traded peacefully with white settlers in the area. In 1834, Joseph and Samuel McCarty came west from New York to look for a site to build a sawmill, and they found the Fox River. An island at a bend in the river provided a great location to establish mills and factories where water power could be harnessed. At first, there were two separate settlements on either side of the river, but they merged in 1857 to form the town of Aurora. Aurora quickly developed into a manufacturing town, first known for textiles and later for heavy machinery, foundries, and machine shops. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad extended its line to Aurora in 1849. Soon after, the railroad became the area's largest employer, locating its repair and railcar construction shops there. The repair shop necessitated the building of a roundhouse, the largest stone roundhouse constructed in the country. The railroad was the largest employer until the 1960s.
Socially, the town was very progressive from the start. The first free public school district in Illinois was started in Aurora in 1851. The town experienced an influx of European immigrants in the latter half of the nineteenth century, drawn by its industrial jobs. Abolitionist organizations appeared in Aurora before the start of the Civil War, and out of 20 congregations in 1887, two African American churches thrived. By 1870, the city had more than 10,000 residents, and by 1890 there were approximately 20,000 residents—a testament to the city's industrial development.
In 1881, Aurora was the first town in Illinois to light its streets with electric lights, which gave the city its nickname, "The City of Lights." On May 26, 1909, one of the strongest earthquakes to hit Illinois knocked over chimneys in Aurora and was felt over 500,000 square miles. In the 1910s, Aurora was home for a time to six different automobile companies, all of which were eventually unsuccessful.
Aurora continued to be a manufacturing powerhouse through both World Wars and the Great Depression. The railroad shops, which once employed 2,500 and covered 70 acres, closed in 1974, and all but three of the buildings were demolished. In the 1980s, many factories started to close, and unemployment jumped to more than 15 percent. Aurora responded to this by welcoming a riverboat casino to its downtown, developing the area around the casino, developing nearby residential communities and, most importantly, creating multiple business parks on the outer edges of the city.
Today, Aurora is enjoying a population resurgence, having increased more than 40 percent between 1990 and 2000. Businesses continue to move and expand into the area. As real estate prices go up in Chicagoland, the Fox Valley is being seen as a market waiting to be tapped.
Historical Information: Aurora Historical Society, PO Box 905, Aurora, IL 60507; telephone (630)906-0650. Aurora Preservation Commission, 1 South Broadway, Aurora, IL 60507; telephone (630)844-3648; fax (630)906-7430