#591: Wabonsia, Illinois

February 5th, 2016

Along Kinzie, a dog was taking a crap in Wabonsia, Illinois.

It was the gated dog park within the gated downtown community of Kinzie Park, an early 2000s ritzification of the stretch south of “Little Hell.” A few steps west of the crapping pedigrees, a jogger swiped his way past the security station meant to keep us scrubs out of the $2.2 million for a condo condo complex.

Beyond that, overhead Metra tracks dangled with icicles. Then, crackle-pavemented parking lots for the Blommer Chocolate Factory that scents the region. It’s a nothing stretch, a passby for passersby biking or driving out from work.

But this was once Wabonsia, Illinois, a separate legal entity from the town of Chicago growing to the south.

Layouts

Blommer Chocolate Factory is on the west side of Jefferson. Wabonsia doesn’t even get the plant, just a parking lot that charges a baseline $216 per tow and the cool, chocolatey smell that blankets the region.

Appearing on an 1835 plat map and an 1834 map of the newly minted Chicago, Kinzie’s Addition, “Wababsia” and the School Section, this sliver of roads and river was its own separate town or subdivision.

Owned by John H. Kinzie — son of the Kinzie Street Kinzie — Wabonsia became part of Chicago sometime between Chi-Town (1833) and Chi-Officially-Designated-City (1837).

Wabonsia, Illinois, was guarded by Jefferson Street to the west and Kinzie Street to the south. The north branch of the river did and still does cut northwest making the third side of this triangle town. As I wandered by, a police boat sped to either some emergency or the schoolteacher protest. The water waked and sloshed near condo walkways after the cops sped by.

Wabonsia was on a grid, like Chicago, but its grid cut northwest, askew from the town to the south and parallel with the river’s branch.

Every single slanted street in the once-entity — Kane Street, Dunn Street, Cook Street, West Water — is gone.

Oh my Lord Baby Jesus, Historians were Racist

Along Jefferson, Blommer to the west, cars were parked diagonal along a crackling industrial road. Pavement slow-mo shattered to reveal bricks and, further north, gravel and mud.

Early details are sketchy and horrible.

In her (by 21st century standards) white-man-burdenish-horrible 1856 memoirs “Wau-Bon,” early settler Juliette Kinzie — wife of John H. — recalls that her husband subdivided his land north of Chicago in early February 1833 to make it more appealing for sale to the booming town.

This would be Wabonsia’s birth.

February 1833 is a date that the editor of the equally racist 1930s “Wau-Bon” edition in the Harold Washington Library’s sixth-floor Chicago Room called shenanigans on. That pre-dates the boom by four or five months, plus why trek out to survey and subdivide in February cold?

Personally, I think the savvy and shitty John H. Kinzie probably sensed which way the wind was blowing and got ahead of Congress on this one, but whether Wabonsia became a thing in February or later in the year isn’t terribly important.

Wabonsia was a thing by the 1834 map and, according to the Chicago Room’s also retrospectively racist 1895 “Aboriginal to Metropolitan: History of Chicago, Illinois” by John Moses and Joseph Kirkland, the “’Wolcott’s addition, North Branch addition and (sic.) Wabansia addition” joined Chicago sometime after June 1836.

“The enlarged area of the town was heralded to the world, and made Chicago the center of speculative attraction for lot buyers,” Kirkland and Moses, “Aided by Eminent Local Writers,” wrote.

Speculation

The mud and gravel peaked under the Metra tracks, running a path back to bricks to crackling pavement north beyond. The tracks cut parallel to the river so it crossed both Jefferson and Kinzie, slicing along Wabonsia like its awkward roads used to.

Chicago’s history is basically the plot of “Blazing Saddles.”

It was a sleepy town (like Rock Ridge) that suddenly became valuable because lawmakers (like Mel Brooks’ fart namesaked Gov. Le Petomane) decided would become the center of a transportation hub (a train route in the movie, the Illinois and Michigan Canal in real life).

I had some cool stats on the land boom in a previous story (one lot went from $66 to $800 in a month), but Kirkland and Moses provided some fascinating and super-racist description of how much of an event a land auction was in early Chicago.

“A negro dressed up in gaudy colors, with a scarlet flag, and riding a white horse with harness of scarlet, rode through the town announcing the hour which the sale would begin. Crowds flocked around and followed him and hung upon his entrancing words.”

Unfortunately for this story, the Wolf Tavern, Chicago’s first tavern and the namesake of Wolf Point, seemed to be just south of Wabonsia.

Few places name a location for James Kinzie’s tavern beyond “west of the river,” which makes sense as it predates a lot of the roads. A story Chicago Daily News editor Henry Justin Smith recounted in a book commissioned by the Century of Progress World’s Fair in the 1930s put the tavern at Lake Street, but that story also got the owners wrong and told a story never heard elsewhere that the place was so full of rats it used to be called “Rat Castle.”

It’s a great story I don’t believe. But a few old sketches of the tavern in a few of the old books in the library’s Chicago Room do show a wooden bridge to the north. Kinzie Street commuters still speed down that path each day.

End of Town

Beyond the crackling path, a train tankard sat, mottled with a bit of bright graffiti. Grand Avenue sat to the north, commuters in the now-dark speeding west to their homes. A bus shelter not quite near the bus stop was likewise vandalized, a mix of paint, scrapes and stickers for an artist named “Walrus Cobbler.”

North of that, the parking lot of the “Chicago Tribune Freedom Center.” It’s a pretentious name for the printing plant.

The Fermilab physics lab in the suburbs is built on the dead town of Weston, Illinois.

Hyde Park, Lake View and untold numbers of other places were once their own places before Chicago swept through.

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam, as They Might Be Giants reminds.

Each part of the world is as old as the next, whether something historic happened there or whether it was just platted differently. John H. Kinzie set aside this town or subdivision to make it easier to sell to Chicago, not because he envisioned a community there.

But Wabonsia, Illinois, was a thing. This gated condo complex for richies and crackling, chocolate-scented parking lots has a past that might not be generally known.

And now you do know it.

It’s a weird bit of trivia worming its way into your brain. This little slap of condo in River West has a history of plats, possible Rat Castles and scarlet-clad slaves as advertising campaign. Whatever it is, you’re stuck with it now.

I’m sorry.

You’re welcome.

Edit: 8 p.m. Feb. 8, The original version of this story was just mixing up all the Kinzies, calling them all John. The Kinzie Street Kinzie was John. Two of his sons were John H. (owned Wabonsia) and James (owned the Wolf Tavern). All were savvy. All were shitty.

Take a photo exploration of an abandoned train tunnel running south of Wabonsia

Learn about a Roaring ’20s murderess who used to be my neighbor

A distant relative of this guy recently contacted me to say thanks

The world’s first movie theater was both Chicagoan and zoöpraxographical

Why’s there a statue of a dentist, anyway?

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