Past To Present – Mining To Farming

The village of Elizabeth, population 650, is nestled in the middle of the rolling hill country of scenic Jo Daviess County in the northwest corner of Illinois. Originally settled because of valuable lead deposits, the community prospers today due to the surrounding rich farmlands.

The first white settler, A.P. VanMatre, arrived in 1825 after hearing about the land mining near the Fever River. He built the first smelter in this area, and his mines were very productive for years to come.

A fur trapper, Henry VanVolkenburg, came to Elizabeth two years later. That same year, John Winters, James Flack, and John Flack settled here and raised the first corn crop. The village of Elizabeth is built on a claim owned by John Winters and Captain Clack Stone.

Resisting President Andrew Jackson’s directive to relocate all Native Americans west of the Mississippi, the Sac and Fox Indians went on the warpath in the summer of 1832. Settlers around Elizabeth built the Apple River Fort for their protection. On June 24, they successfully warded off Chief Black Hawk’s raid, which came to be the last Indian attack east of the Mississippi.

Elizabeth was the site of an important battle during the 1832 Black Hawk War. Black Hawk and a band of some 150 Sauk and Fox warriors attacked the hastily erected fort on June 24, 1832. The fort has now been reconstructed next to its original site, bringing the early history of the area to life.
As a result of a series of controversial treaties, the Sauk and Fox tribes moved from their villages near present-day Rock Island to Iowa in 1828. Unhappy with their new lands, Black Hawk returned to Illinois in April of 1832 with some 500 warriors and about 1,000 women, children and old men. They planned to plant corn in the village of the Winnebago Prophet, about 50 miles up the Rock river. But when the Illinois militia was called out, Black Hawk decided to return to Iowa.


On May 14, Black Hawk sent a three-man peace envoy to meet with Major Stillman’s militia north of present-day Dixon. When the messengers were captured and one of them killed, Black Hawk and 40 warriors attacked the 275-man militia force. The militia broke ranks and retreated to Dixon. The Black Hawk War had begun.


The settlers, hearing of the battle and other Indian attacks, were panic stricken. In the Apple River settlement (now Elizabeth), the settlers felled trees, dug a trench, and built a stockade by enclosing a settlers cabin and a second structure.


About 45 men, women and children were inside the fort when Black Hawk and some 150 warriors attacked. The men scrambled for the guns, leaped to the firing benches and took their places at the block house portholes. The women huddled in the cabins on the back wall. Then Elizabeth Armstrong rallied the women. They molded musket balls and loaded weapons so that the men could keep up a steady stream of fire. The battle raged for about 45 minutes. Black Hawk, thinking the fort was heavily armed, abandoned the battle, raiding the nearby cabins for supplies as he and his warriors departed. Considering the ferocity of the fighting, casualties were light: in the fort, two men were wounded, one killed; the number of Sauk casualties was undetermined. The war itself ended on August 2, when U.S. Army troops caught the last of Black Hawk’s band at the Bad Ax River, attempting to cross the Mississippi into Iowa.

The Apple River Fort was torn down in 1847, its lumber used to build a barn. But through the efforts of the Apple River Fort Historic Foundation, Inc., the fort once again stands on a hillside overlooking Elizabeth and the surrounding countryside. It can be reached by a short trail from the parking lot at the northeast corner of Route 20 and Mrytle Street in Elizabeth.

The Apple River Fort Interpretive Center was opened on September 11, 1998. The exhibits tell the story of the Apple River Fort and the Blackhawk War. The Center is located at the corner of Washington and Myrtle streets in downtown Elizabeth.

The Interpretive Center contains a model of the Apple river fort, explains the time line of events leading to the Black Hawk War, the ways of life of the Saulk & Fox Indians and the men and women of the Apple River Settlement.

The Center Includes an information desk, gift shop and the Blackhawk War theatre. The center is open from 9:00 to 5:00 daily – except for Major Holidays. Winter hours, November thru March are 9:00-4:00 daily, except for major holidays. For additional information, or scheduling group tours, please call or write:

Apple River Fort
PO Box 206
Elizabeth, IL 61028
Phone: (815)858-2028
E-mail: [email protected]

A surveyor named Charles Bennett formally laid out the village of Elizabeth in 1839, and, in 1868, the townspeople voted to incorporate. One legend says the town got its name from Elizabeth Winters because she opened the first hotel and was active in other community development projects. Another theory holds that the village was named after Elizabeth Armstrong, a woman who helped rally the men during the attack on the Apple River Fort.

In 1888, the Chicago Great Western Railroad came through Elizabeth, and the town increasingly became the farming center of the county.

The Chicago Great Western Railroad Depot on Myrtle Street in downtown Elizabeth, Illinois was constructed in 1888 and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Sites.

The Chicago Great Western was nicknamed “The Maple Leaf Route” since its three main lines with their branches took on the appearance of a maple leaf. The stem of the “The Maple Leaf Route” ran from Chicago, Illinois, through South Freeport, Pearl City, Kent, Stockton, Woodbine, Elizabeth, and North Hanover to Dubuque, Iowa, and then on to the railroad’s hub city at Oelwein, Iowa. From there, the railroad ran north to Minneapolis, Minnesota; West to Omaha, Nebraska; and Southwest to Kansas City, Missouri.

The Elizabeth depot serviced the Winston Tunnel, located down the line to the West. At over one-half mile in length, this tunnel is the longest in the state of Illinois. In the days of coal-burning locomotives, smoke built up in the tunnel to such an extent that engineers wore gas masks. A huge fan was installed at the West End of the tunnel to blow smoke out. When the fan broke down, a call would be made to the Elizabeth station. A repairman would ride a small gasoline-powered rail car out to the Winston Tunnel… known locally as “The Speeder”.

It was, in fact, the costly repairs to the tunnel that contributed to the Great Western’s decision to sell out to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Company. In 1969 the Elizabeth Railroad Depot closed and the tracks were torn up. The Village of Elizabeth purchased it and then sold to the Jo-Carroll Electric Co-operative, which used the station as a storage building. In 1984, the depot was sold back to the Village of Elizabeth, and in 1997 the Elizabeth Historical Society opened the local history museum.

Just as in the past, the depot was the center of activity in Elizabeth, focusing on the railroad’s business with freight and passengers. So it is expected, the new depot museum will once again make this building the center of activity for the village, focusing now on residents and tourists, re-discovering the historic past.

The Elizabeth Historical Society has opened the entire depot as a local history museum with special emphasis on the Chicago Great Western Railroad.

Hours are from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. on weekends May through October, or by special appointment. Admission is free. For more information, please call or write:

Great Western R.R. Depot
PO Box 115
Elizabeth, IL 61028
Phone: (815)858-2098
E-mail: [email protected]

Just as it was rich lead deposits that first brought settlers to Elizabeth 172 years ago, now it is rich farmlands that make it possible for the village to continue to thrive. From past to present, from mining to farming, Elizabeth has always been a prosperous community, and a community which takes real pride in its rich cultural heritage.


P.O. Box 371
Elizabeth, Illinois 61028

Phone: (815)858-2221
Fax: (815)858-3881
E-mail: [email protected]