Jewish Settlers enter Champaign County

ICRR Train, 1856

ICRR Train, 1856

Joseph O. Cunningham

J.O. Cunningham 

When Champaign County was founded in 1833, the northern part of the settlement was a strand of timber known as ‘Big Grove,’ while the southern half was mainly long grass prairie. Boasting a county-wide population of 800, the settlement’s population rose at a gradual pace. It wasn’t until 1854, when Illinois Central Railroad extended its north-south line just west of Urbana, followed quickly by Great Western Railroad’s east-west line from Springfield to Illinois’s border near Danville, that growth flourished in Champaign County. Local historian Joseph Cunningham called the arrival of the railroads, “The Awakement.” 

By [the railroads] construction, the markets of the world were opened to the remote settlements of Central Illinois. The people no more awaited the tiresome journeys of the wagons to Chicago, the Wabash towns, and to St. Louis. The railroad also opened up a highway for immigration to the country and over this new highway, population poured as never before.” – J.O. Cunningham 
Champaign County Population Statistics, 1833-1900

Although neither line went through Urbana, the railroads changed the community as business boomed and the small village became a city. However, competition arose in the west with the development of West Urbana (which would eventually become the separate town of Champaign) near the Illinois Central depot. These developments in Champaign County created new economic opportunities for enterprising Jewish merchants who were arriving from Cincinnati, Kentucky, and Indiana.  

The first wave of Jewish migrants to arrive in Champaign were from German-speaking areas of Europe. Upon immigration to the United States they proceeded to Midwest towns and the South. These mostly German Jews with their secular European education were uniquely situated to assimilate into American life becoming entrepreneurs and community boosters.  

Jewish Settlers enter Champaign County