Kimberly Obrien’s Gurnee History Blog: Walter S. Gurnee

My cousin Kevin and I met up for lunch in downtown Chicago yesterday. Kevin recently moved here with his kids after years in Madison, Wisconsin, and I’ve been enjoying introducing them to new restaurants this summer (despite sometimes putting up with abuse from overworked lunch counter attendants fed up with all the impatient lawyers and executives who frequent downtown establishments during the week).

Sitting at Gold Coast Dogs, he asked a simple question that sent me one a research mission:

Where does the name “Gurnee” come from?

Get this: our village’s namesake never even lived here!?!

Walter Gurnee was just this guy… a RICH guy… a railroad tycoon, as it turns out. When the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad laid tracks through town in 1873, the board of directors for the railroad decided to name the train station after Walter. Thus from “Gurnee Station,” the village took its current name in 1874.

In fact, Gurnee wasn’t even from Illinois! He was actually born into an upscale New York family in 1813. He relocated to Chicago in 1836, opened a tannery business, invested in many real estate contracts, and eventually become one of the larger landowners in the area. He got elected the 14th Mayor of Chicago in 1851. After this mayoral stint, Gurnee moved back to New York in 1863 but maintained his business ties to Chicago until his death at age 90 in 1903.

I can’t find any record of why the board made the case to name the station after Gurnee, but there you have it!