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St. Charles, Illinois – Main Street


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On a warm starry night, when streetlights illuminate the graceful low masonry bridge on which Main Street crosses the Fox River, this is one of America’s prettiest town-center scenes.

Thirty-five miles west of Chicago, St. Charles was a summer-cottage resort for Windy City business tycoons a century ago. Today, this small city of about 33,000 is a thriving year-round community with excellent schools, attractive parks and a handsome, prospering downtown — all of which helped convince Family Circle to give St. Charles number-one ranking in its annual “Best Towns for Families” survey in 2011.

The scenic Fox River is an emblem of St. Charles. If you cross it on Main Street any day from May through October, among the kayaks and canoes, you’re likely to see one of the St. Charles Paddlewheel Riverboats, which have been giving tours on the river for decades. The riverboats dock just below Main Street at Pottawatomie Park, the best-known of the city’s wealth of well-tended green spaces.

There’s much more to see and do along Main Street, in this town that celebrates its “balance between hip hot spot and historic hamlet,” according to the region’s West Suburban Living magazine. The recently restored Hotel Baker has been a local riverside landmark since 1928 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Recently the site of the wedding of celebrities Jennie McCarthy and Donnie Wahlberg, the Baker boasts a vintage ballroom, a classic boathouse and live entertainment in the ROX City Grill.

Just across Main is the Steel Beam Theatre, a venue for live professional shows in a building built of river stones that was reclaimed after years of decline. Cross the river on Main and you’ll come to the 1926-vintage Arcada Theatre. Originally a vaudeville venue decades ago, the Arcada hosted touring performers from George Burns and Gracie Allen to Maria Von Trapp. Today, its distinctive marquee proclaims shows that range from top rock acts to student music concerts.

If you’d like to learn more about this award-winning city, the St. Charles History Museum on Main Street houses more than 10,000 historic photos and 15,000 artifacts. From 1928 to 1990, the museum’s building was a gas station — well-befitting a community that once was a resort for millionaires and now is a destination for families, visitors … and maybe even you.

All photos courtesy of Downtown St. Charles Partnership.

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Downtown La Salle Illinois e1462282465532

LaSalle, Illinois – First Street

Main Streets 2016 Indiana

A stroll down First Street can teach you a lot about LaSalle, a town that helped power American industry and commerce from the mid-1800s into the early 20th century. Named for the French explorer Robert LaSalle, the city sits alongside the old Illinois and Michigan Canal. While its founding industries, coal mining and then zinc smelting, have long since faded away, First Street remains a busy central locale for community events, dining and local businesses.

LaSalle first rose to prominence as the western terminus of the 96-mile canal from Chicago, which was completed in 1846. The city boomed as the transshipment center for passengers and freight of all kinds, which traveled on canal boats to and from Chicago, and on steamboats down the Illinois River bound for St. Louis and New Orleans. LaSalle became a meeting place of southern and northern U.S. culture. Today, visitors to First Street can ride a mule-pulled, replica canal boat on the same hand-cut canal that carried American pioneers, back when the West was opening.

That’s not the only historic landmark in LaSalle, which is also home to some stunning works of architecture. Completed in 1876, the grand Hegeler Carus Mansion features 57 rooms and one of America’s first private gyms. It was the longtime home of the Open Court Publishing Company, founded by local zinc baron and philanthropist Edward C. Hegeler. The publishing firm, now based in Chicago, is credited with having helped introduce Buddhism to the United States. On nearby Marquette Street, the Hotel Kaskaskia, built in 1915, hosted famous guests like Amelia Earhart. The building is currently undergoing renovation and will reopen as a hotel, museum and conference center.

As in its heyday, First Street is a magnet for artisans, restauranteurs and small business owners. Local favorites include Herrcke’s Hardware, Wash n’ Wag Dog Grooming and Lock 16 Gift Shop, named for a segment of the I&M Canal. A handful of pubs and restaurants, especially the Spanish-fusion spot The Pink Chihuahua and Lock 16 Cafe, have garnered dedicated and growing followings.

Thanks to its mix of old and new, First Street is the perfect spot for community events. The annual Jazz’N the Street spotlights the local blues scene and treats guests to a barbecue cook-off contest and fireworks. During the holiday season, Miracle on First Street delights local kids with sleigh rides, hot chocolate and a chance to eat breakfast with Santa.

Carus Mansion photo courtesy of Albert Herring
Canal Boat photo courtesy of LaSalle County Tourism Coalition

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