Historic Preservation

History of Galesburg

gwgaleIn 1834 the Rev. George Washington Gale of Whitesboro, Oneida County, New York, conceived the idea of establishing a western college in a town specifically colonized for that purpose. Subscriptions were taken for the purpose of raising $40,000 to purchase and plat a Township of land in one of the western states. By May 1835 sufficient funds had been secured for an exploring committee to go to Indiana and Illinois. On or about November 1835 a purchasing committee (consisting of Sylvanus Ferris, Nehemiah West, Thomas Simmons and Mr. Gale) purchased 10,746.81 acres in Knox County. Nehemiah Losey, deputized surveyor and later a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Science at Knox College, laid out the town among prairie grass and wild flowers. It was six blocks north and south and seven blocks east and west.



On June 2, 1836 the first wave of settlers arrived from the east, led by Nehemiah West. It was decided that no log cabins were to be built inside the town limits, so these original settlers did not immediately locate in Galesburg, but erected a temporary encampment known as Log City until suitable frame residences could be erected in the town proper.

From its inception, Galesburg inhabitants were anti-slavery advocates. The anti-slavery influence and involvement in the Underground Railroad had an affect upon numerous people and communities beyond the boundaries of Galesburg. Residents of the city also established one of the first anti-slavery societies in Illinois, founded in 1837. Not only did residents believe that slavery was wrong, but many were willing to put themselves on the line by breaking the laws of the time; Galesburg’s founder, George W. Gale, was indicted in 1843 for harboring runaway slaves.

Knox College received its charter under the title of Knox Manual Labor College in 1837 and immediately set out to erect an academy building. As the town was originally platted, Knox College campus buildings were a short distance from the central business district, and the Manual Labor Farms were situated even further from the city. However the manual labor portion of the education was eventually dropped and the farms were annexed to the city as residential areas. The fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate was held on the Knox College campus at Old Main. This is the only remaining site where the debates took place and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

By the fall of 1837 the town had 232 inhabitants. The growth of Galesburg was steady, but slow. It was incorporated as a village in 1841 and by 1850 had a population of about 882. In the mid-1850s, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad completed a line that went through Galesburg, and forever changed the economic and political bases of the city. The population exploded to over 4,000 by 1856 and reached 9,230 in 1867. The City of Galesburg incorporated on February 14, 1857. After an election in 1869, and after years of debate and an Illinois Supreme Court decision in 1873, Galesburg became the county seat.

Civic improvements to the city began in 1866 with the authorization of Galesburg Gas Light and Coke Co., paving of the streets with brick began in 1877, the first telephone was installed in 1880, the post office began to deliver mail and electric street lighting was introduced in 1883, public transportation and construction of the Knox County Courthouse began in 1885. In 1905 the City Council authorized the issuance of bonds to purchase land and construct a City Hall, a Police Station and a Fire Station, having survived without such municipal amenities since then.

Wood was plentiful, and the nearby deposit of clay suitable for brick making allowed the settlers to construct modest frame houses. The city was fortunate to have an oil mill, which ground flaxseed raised by the local farmers and exchanged oil for seeds. This oil was used as the base for white paint by the early builders making Galesburg one of the few prairie towns to have white houses. Lack of architectural features fit with the lifestyle of the early settlers and the lack of speedy overland routes necessitated homemade products. By 1880 numerous Victorian era homes reflected the economic prosperity catalyzed by the coming of the railroad and success of commercial enterprises, particularly following the Civil War. 

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City of Galesburg; 55 W. Tompkins Street; Galesburg, IL 61402-1387|Phone: 309-343-4181|Directions|Contact Us|Intranet
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