Berwyn is a community incorporated in 1902 as a village and located approximately 20 minutes to the southwest of the Chicago Loop. The south end of Berwyn today was originally made up of three communities: LaVergne, Upsala or “Swedetown,” and Berwyn. This entire area was bounded by 31st Street, Ogden, Lombard, and Harlem Avenues. At roughly the same time, still another community was developing on the north side of present day Berwyn – South Oak Park.
The city now known as Berwyn had its real beginnings when two attorneys and real estate partners, Charles E. Piper and Wilbur J. Andews, purchased 106 acres from the Field syndicate for development near the CB&Q tracks. In those early days, rail lines had a major impact on the development of suburbs in the Chicago area. Piper and Andrews asked the CB&Q to build a station at Oak Park Avenue, but the railroad refused, saying there were already stations at LaVergne and at Harlem Avenue. Undaunted, the two developers built a station themselves and the railroad agreed to stop there.
With a growing subdivision and railroad station to serve it on the way, Piper and Andrews needed a name. They sought out the CB&Q’s passenger agent, P.S. Eustis, who gave them a set of railroad timetables. After poring through them, they came across Berwyn, a small town about 18 miles west of Philadelphia. Berwyn, Pennsylvania, was a beautiful and affluent village noted for its fine gardens and scenic setting. Since this was exactly the sort of community that the two developers hoped to replicate in Illinois, Piper and Andrews decided that Berwyn was the perfect name. On May 17, 1890, the Cicero Town Board gave its approval and Berwyn, Illinois was born.
Soon, a general store and office building costing about $6,000 was constructed, followed by a small post office. Homes quickly followed and gradually, eight miles of streets were macadamized and sidewalks were laid. In those early years, Piper and Andrews were actively promoting their growing community, advertising extensively in Chicago newspapers. Typical ads boasted of Berwyn’s convenient location – just 9-1/2 miles or 28 minutes by CB&Q train to Chicago’s Union Depot – while others pointed out Berwyn’s many churches, splendid schools, water, sewers, electric service, and lack of saloons. Many choice lots and modern residences, the ads stated, were still available at prices ranging from $3,000 to $10,000.
Berwyn Incorporated as a City
Berwyn’s growth was such that soon some form of local government was necessary and, in 1902, it was incorporated as a village. Six years later, on June 6, 1908, Berwyn became a city, receiving its official charter from the State of Illinois. The 1910 census recorded Berwyn’s population as 5,841.
The first two decades of the twentieth century saw Berwyn develop in much the same way as other Chicago suburbs. It was a place in which, as “The WPA Guide to Illinois” states, “harried commuters relaxed in the evening, weeded gardens, set hens, and mowed their lawns.” In 1921, the central Bungalow portion of the city began its rapid development. Large numbers of Czechs moved from the Pilsen area on Chicago’s near West Side to Berwyn and its neighbor on the east, Cicero. Literally thousands of new homes were built each year. The population growth and the infill of vacant land finally brought the two parts of Berwyn together.
Many newcomers found jobs at Western Electric’s huge Hawthorne Works in Cicero, commuting via trolley. On July 24, 1915, Berwyn was plunged into mourning when the steamer Eastland, chartered for a Western Electric company excursion, rolled onto its side in the Chicago River, claiming 812 lives. Many in Berwyn lost relatives, friends, or neighbors in the disaster.
Early Residents Build Quality Homes, Neighborhoods
Berwyn’s construction boom continued into the Roaring Twenties, as farms and fields gave way overnight to new homes. Entire blocks were built at once, with contractors digging all basements simultaneously, then bringing in crews to lay foundations, followed by carpenters, bricklayers and plasterers. Block after block of bungalows rose as Berwyn’s population swelled; from 14,150 in 1920 to 47,027 in 1930 – an increase of 222% in just ten years.