Up Against the Wall: A Brief History of Wilson Street

Gazette Article by: Duff Peterson
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall/Winter 2008

For several years following the construction of the North Shore electric railway line in 1899, the present Wilson Street was an unpaved and unnamed alley running alongside the tracks. It was often impassible because of mud and debris, and was rarely, if ever, used as a thoroughfare. In 1912 the village took over the alley with the intention of improving it and opening it to traffic. It was named Wilson Street in 1914.

It was probably named after James Lawrence and Clarissa Richmond Ware Willson, prominent residents of Winnetka from 1855 until their deaths in 1884. James L. Willson was president of the Village in 1874-1875 and again from 1878 to 1884. The Willsons lived in a large house on the hill near the tracks between Cherry and Ash streets. They were murdered in this house in 1884.

The Willsons had one child, a son named George Ware Willson, who became a physician and served in the Union Navy in the Civil War. In his efforts to cure sailors of yellow fever, he caught the disease himself and died in Savannah before the war was over. The Willsons hung his sword on the wall of their home in memory of their only child.

In 1884, Willson was 71 and his wife was 82 and confined to her bed following a stroke. On the night of February 14, during a snowstorm, someone broke into their house and shot James Willson with a revolver, then charged upstairs and stabbed Mrs. Willson to death with her son’s sword. Emma Dwyer, the sister of local teacher Kate Dwyer, was a friend of the Willsons and found the bodies when she came to call on Mrs. Willson the next day.

Neil McKaige, a young butcher who worked nearby at the Moth Store, was suspected of the crime and threatened by a lynch mob, but Robert Moth calmed the crowd. McKaige was eventually tried for murder but acquitted due to lack of evidence. He left town a few years later, allegedly with money that James Willson had loaned him, and was apparently killed sometime thereafter in a drunken brawl in Minnesota. The Willson murder has never been solved.

Willson house

The Willson home was moved in 1910 to the southwest corner of Pine Street and Green Bay Road, where it stood until it was demolished in 1962 to make way for the construction of the A&P supermarket, now Grand Food Center.

The creation of Indian Hill Park, on unoccupied land along Wilson, was first proposed in 1918. After lengthy discussions of possibly using the land for commercial development, the park was dedicated in 1922. It became popular for skating in the winter, though the present shelter wasn’t built until 1955.

When grade separation for the railroad tracks began in 1938, Winnetkans were dismayed to learn that a 14-foot concrete retaining wall would run along Wilson for several blocks. Many residents were not expecting elevated tracks, and thought that brick would be more pleasing than concrete. In January 1939 Village President William Moulton received a petition for changes in the proposed wall, but in the discussions that followed, engineers noted that the vibration caused by trains would make bricks unsafe as a retaining material. The wall went up and remains in place today.

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