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Thursday, November 17, 2011

James McKay of Waukegan


One of the most influential citizens in the development of early Waukegan was Scottish immigrant, James McKay, (right) who lived there from 1841 - 1869. McKay (1808-1887) constructed many of the town's first buildings and held office as Sheriff and Mayor of Waukegan.

James McKay, and his first wife Elizabeth, arrived in Little Fort (Waukegan) in May 1841, via Chicago where they had lived from 1835 - 1841.

It can be difficult to piece together an individual's life and influence, especially when few records exist from this period. Fortunately for this research, James McKay was active in construction and politics, leaving a trail to follow.

In October 1841, the McKays built their dwelling house in the area of today's Jackson and Glen Rock Streets. The following spring, they purchased 160 acres of the heavily timbered land around their home. McKay subdivided much of his land into residential and business lots known as "McKay's Addition to Little Fort," and in 1844 "McKay's Second Addition to Little Fort."

In 1845, Elizabeth McKay contracted consumption (tuberculosis) and died at the Sauganash Hotel in Chicago. She was only 30 years old.



It is unclear why she was staying at the Sauganash, but the hotel was described by Chicago pioneer, Juliette Kinzie (1806-1870) as "a pretentious white two-story building, with bright blue wood shutters, the admiration of all the little circle at Wolf Point." Wolf Point is the location at the confluence of the North, South and Main Branches of the Chicago River, and is historically important in the development of early Chicago.

In 1847, McKay married Margaret Allison.

One of McKay's early projects was to build Little Fort's first hotel, the Exchange Hotel. In 1843, he built the McKay Tavern on Washington Street, and leased it to another party to manage. In the 1850s, he built and owned the Vollar House Hotel, later known as the Transit House, at the northwest corner of Sheridan Road and Water Street.

The McKay Bridge was also built in the 1850s. The bridge was either named for him because he had it built or because he had so much land in the vicinity. The bridge was constructed over the Waukegan River ravine at Washington and Glen Rock Streets. At the time, Washington Street did not extend west of the bridge, and Glen Rock extended diagonally to Libertyville.


McKay's Bridge, Washington Street, looking east. Image circa 1870. LCDM 94.14.97

McKay's political career included serving as sheriff from 1842-1847, and mayor from 1863-1865. In 1845, he was elected as president of the Little Fort Reading Room and Library Associates. He was also a founding member of the Waukegan Horticultural Society (along with nurseryman Robert Douglas), which evolved into the Lake County Fair Association.

There are two letters in the museum's Horace Butler Collection related to McKay and politics. In 1844, McKay wrote a letter to Horace Butler (1814-1861) in Libertyville opposing the nomination of Daniel Dickinson to public office. Butler lived in Libertyville, was a lawyer, justice of the peace, and from 1844 to 1846 a member of the Illinois State Legislature.


James McKay's letter of April 1844 to Horace Butler of Libertyville. LCDM 92.25.3

The letter reads:

Littlefort 25th April 1844

Friend Butler,

There is a hellish Plan on foot here, among the Clique, and Patterson [Arthur Patterson] is the fool to accomplish the object, he has this day put up the notices to take the assessment for Dickinson [Daniel O. Dickinson] commencing in the month of May in the Irish Precincts and goes on slowly to the tenth of July among the friends in Bristol & Mill Creek.

It was remarked to me and I saw you that Sheepard is to run for the Legislature. If Patterson can be bought on your part it will stop this draft.

Be sure to write Wentworth not to change our P.O. and if no one else will give Dickinson hell I will in the fall.

Yours in haste,

J. M.


Bristol and Mill Creek were two of ten voting precincts located in Antioch and Millburn respectively. The "Wentworth" mentioned in the letter is assuredly "Long" John Wentworth (1815–1888), the editor of the Chicago Democrat, two-term mayor of Chicago, and a six-term member of the United States House of Representatives.

In June 1844, Butler received a letter concerning James McKay from John O'Mealy, written on behalf of his Irish friends in Little Fort:

They are very much dissatisfied with the nomination of James McKay and they are fully determined to give every opposition to his election that they possibly can give... Neither time nor money will be spared to defeat McKay in his election.

The letter has a decided anti-McKay tone, but the crux of the upset was that the Irish immigrants felt their opinion was being ignored, since Benjamin Marks was their candidate of choice. However, O'Mealy writes in the last paragraph (of the two-page letter):

For my own part I never had reason to be dissatisfied with him [McKay] as a public officer nor as a private individual and would vote for him in preference to any other person that could be brought forward were it not for Mr. Marks being brought forward by so many of my Countrymen.

In 1854, there was much political upheaval over Stephen A. Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act in which men of the new territory could vote on the slavery question for themselves. James McKay along with Dr. David Cory, Henry Blodgett and 500-600 of Waukegan's citizens consisting of Whigs, Democrats and Free Soilers, met on the public square and burned an effigy bearing the initials S.A.D., and calling Douglas a traitor.


"Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler," by John L. Magee. This 1854 cartoon depicts a giant Freesoiler being held down by James Buchanan and Lewis Cass standing on the Democratic platform. The Free Soil party opposed the expansion of slavery.

The Waukegan men's resolution printed in the Chicago Tribune read in part: "Resolved. That Stephen A. Douglas and his little band of hangers-on and selected bullies, will please understand that the people of Illinois have learned to estimate men by their intellectual and moral virtues, and that the day is past when those really small can be bloated into Giants solely by the aid of political machinery and bad Whisky."

These documents only begin to tell the story of James McKay in Lake County, but by all accounts, he was respected and admired. There was even a schooner built in Waukegan and named "The James McKay" in 1848. The schooner sailed Lake Michigan until November 4, 1856, when it foundered in a gale at Chicago's harbor.

In 1869, McKay sold his Waukegan land and retired to Chicago with Margaret. When he passed away in 1887, his estate was valued at $50,000.

Special thanks to Al Westerman for his research on McKay in the Lake County Recorder of Deeds office.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is also a street on the north side of Waukegan named McKay (mayor 1863-65). Two blocks south is Ferry St.(Elisha Ferry mayor 1859) and one block north is Rice St. (Chauncey Rice mayor 1871).

Shawn