Urbana Neighborhoods


Historic Neighborhoods of Urbana: Their formation and Early History

Urbana, the county seat of Champaign County, Illinois, is located in the center of the county, by the confluence of the Boneyard Creek and the Saline Branch, the westernmost branch of the Vermilion River. Established in 1833, the City is home to the University of Illinois and to approximately 39,000 residents. Within the last fifteen years, the City’s concerned citizens established several neighborhood organizations for the preservation and enhancement of the historic residential character and integrity of their neighborhoods. The Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA), established in 1995, encompasses the residential segments of downtown Urbana, centered on the north side of the Boneyard Creek between Griggs and Main streets north to south, and Race and McCullough streets east to west. The Historic East Urbana Neighborhood Association (HEUNA), established in 2001, encompasses the area between Main and Washington streets north to south and Hartle and Vine streets east to west. The West Urbana Neighborhood Association (WUNA) was organized in 2002, and encompasses the area between Main Street and Florida Avenue north to south and Vine Street and Lincoln Avenue east to west. The city’s oldest residential core within this area extends from Main to Washington streets. The South Urbana Neighborhood Association (SUNA), established in 2006, is bounded by Florida Avenue and Windsor Road north to south and Stone Creek Street and Lincoln Avenue east to west. In addition to the neighborhood organizations, in 2007 the City also established its first district dedicated to the celebration and promotion of the City’s historic architecture – the Joseph W. Royer Arts and Architecture District. This district encompasses downtown Urbana and the immediately adjacent residential neighborhoods, bounded by Main and Green streets north to south and Lynn Street and Lincoln Avenue east to west.

Early Settling and Establishment of Champaign County and Urbana (1822-1833)

According to tradition, the Euroamerican settling of the area which is now Champaign County began in 1822, four years after the establishment of Illinois as a separate state. At the time the area was a wilderness, covered with tall grass prairie and scattered groves along the small creeks that radiate outward from the higher, central part of the county. The first settlers were subsistence farmers from the Upland South – Kentucky, Tennessee, southern Ohio and southern Indiana -, the majority coming from Kentucky, which gave rise to the expression “Kentucky migration” to describe the early settling of Champaign County. Within the first decade of this movement the influx of settlers was very slow, due to two major shortcomings of the region. One was the lack of navigable rivers and decent roads to facilitate transportation, and the second was the extreme difficulty of cultivating the tough, root-bound and sticky prairie soils with the existing primitive iron plows. Prior to the discovery of the self scouring plow (John Deer, 1837), the early settlers avoided the prairies and followed the forests, as the soft and friable forest soils were much easier to cultivate, and the forests also provided timber for fuel, the construction of cabins, fencing, and the production of tools. In what is now Champaign County, timbered areas were very sparse, limited to a few groves along the small creeks originating in the area. The three most extensive groves – the Salt Fork Grove in the east, the Big Grove in the center, and the Sangamon Grove in the west of the county – became the focus of early settlement.

Prior to its establishment as a county, the area of the present Champaign County was considered so-called “unorganized” territory which was, for administrative purposes, attached to Vermilion County (est.1826). In December 1832, the residents of Big Grove petitioned the establishment of a separate county, which was granted and signed into law on February 20, 1833. Their request was put forward and supported in the Illinois General Assembly by John W. Vance, Illinois Senator from Vermilion County, who came to Illinois in 1824 from Urbana, Champaign County, Ohio, with a government lease to operate and manage the Vermilion salt works near Danville. At his request, the new county was named Champaign County, and its judicial seat, which was to be located and platted at a later date, was named Urbana, to commemorate the Ohio town and county in which he lived before he moved to Illinois.

The location of the county seat was fixed on June 21 by two state commissioners on land donated for this purpose by three early pioneers: Isaac Busey, Matthew W. Busey, and William T. Webber. Prior to its establishment, there was great competition for the location of the county seat, and it was expected that it would be located in the northeast part of Big Grove, where Fort Clark Road, an early pioneer migration route, cut across the grove and a post office was already established. Contrary to expectations, however, Urbana was located in the southwest corner of Big Grove, which featured nothing but two cabins along the forest edge � those of Isaac Busey and Thompson R. Webber, early pioneer farmers from Shelby County, Kentucky. Isaac Busey’s offer to the state commissioners on the evening of June 20 to spend the night in his cabin, and the donation of 30 acres of his extensive holdings for the establishment of the county seat stole the deal: Urbana was located the next morning right by his cabin. His nephew, Matthew W. Busey, and his old neighbor from Kentucky, William T. Webber, represented in Urbana by his son Thompson R. Webber, made additional donations of land to seal the deal. The county seat was surveyed and platted on September 3-4, 1833, by Garrett Moore, county surveyor. The original plat consisted of four east-west running streets – Water, Main, Elm, and Green streets -, intersected by four north-south running streets – Vine, Walnut, Market (now called Broadway), and Race streets -, with a central square reserved for the county courthouse. Later, this first town plan became known as the Original Town of Urbana and today this area constitutes the city’s downtown.

Neighborhood Development (1850-1950)

Following its establishment, the residential development of Urbana occurred in distinct spatio-temporal phases. The oldest residential neighborhood outside the Original Town of Urbana is the north half of the WUNA neighborhood between Main and Washington streets and Vine Street and Lincoln Avenue. Formerly owned by city founder Isaac Busey, the area was first subdivided in the 1850’s and 1860’s in response to the coming of the Illinois Central Railroad, the first railroad line to Urbana, which actually ran two miles west of town in raw prairie land. In the 1870s and 1880s expansion shifted to east Urbana spurred by the arrival of the first railroad to run through Urbana, the Danville-Urbana-Bloomington and Pekin Railroad (the later Big Four), and the establishment of its shops and roundhouse in east Urbana in 1870. The earliest subdivisions of east Urbana were developed between Main and Oregon streets and Vine and Anderson streets, on land formerly owned by William T. Webber and his descendants. This area comprises the west half of the HEUNA neighborhood. Residential expansion continued eastward from Anderson to Glover streets between 1890 and 1910. This area comprises the east half of the HEUNA neighborhood. Between 1890 and 1910 development also extended westward, from Lincoln Avenue towards the University of Illinois, which was experiencing significant expansion and development during this period. The creation of Carle Park south of Washington Street in 1909 initiated residential development to the south for the first time. The area between Washington Street and Florida Avenue and Race Street to Lincoln Avenue was subdivided and built up in the 1920s and 1930s on land formerly owned by Albert and Margaret Carle. This area comprises the south half of the WUNA neighborhood. In the 1940s and 1950s, expansion continued south of Florida Avenue and the residential area that was developed here comprises the SUNA neighborhood. The area north of Main Street both in west and east Urbana originally evolved as the city’s industrial area. The earliest industrial establishments were located along the Boneyard creek between Race and McCullough streets. Built in the 1850s, the early factories were torn down by the late 1800s and were replaced by residential buildings. The remaining historic residences in this area form the DNA neighborhood. East of this area extensive brick yards were established between Broadway and Vine streets, which operated from the late 1850s until the early 1900s when they were demolished. In east Urbana, the area north of Main Street between Vine and Anderson streets was occupied by the railroad yards from 1870. The railroad remained a major industrial-commercial force in the city until the 1950s, when the railroad boom collapsed and the buildings were torn down. This part of the city continues as industrial area today.

Source: Ilona Matkovszki

  • West Urbana Neighborhood
  • Historic East Urbana Neighborhood
  • Joseph W. Royer Arts and Architecture District