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Looking Back: Lighting up downtown Kankakee

January 27, 2019

The phrase “the best and brightest” usually is applied to individuals whose achievements make them stand out from their peers.

In the year 1949, however, that “best-and-brightest” label could have been used to describe Kankakee. Since the end of World War II just four years earlier, the city and its surroundings had been booming: new industrial plants and businesses were opening here, creating many jobs; large subdivisions were being built to house the growing families of workers; a new county fairgrounds had opened south of the city; new parks and schools were opening or on the drawing boards; and the downtown business district was crowded with shoppers.

Kankakee was a prosperous, growing community, considered one of the best places to live and work in Illinois. On June 20, 1949, it also became one of the brightest places, as powerful new streetlights were turned on to illuminate the downtown area.

“Shortly after 9:30 o’clock tonight, Kankakee will leap to the front of the nation in modern street lighting for business districts,” reported the Daily Journal in its headline story June 20. “At that time, lovely Kay Christopher ... will pull the switch that will snap on the 198 new mercury vapor lamps that have been installed in more than 23 blocks of the city business district.”

Miss Christopher, a native of Dwight who had taken voice and acting lessons in the Kankakee studio of drama teacher Beryl Danforth, was a Hollywood starlet under contract with RKO studios. She appeared in a number of films in the late 1940s and also was a photographic model.

The lighting ceremony was a major event for Kankakee, drawing a crowd estimated at more than 15,000, along with a bevy of invited guests including the mayors and chambers of commerce officials from more than 30 Illinois and Indiana cities, and representatives of various utility, engineering and construction companies.

Plans for the “Lights On” event included a torchlight parade of marchers and automobiles into a darkened downtown area (merchants had been asked to extinguish their lighted signs and shop window lighting for 30 minutes before the new lights were switched on). The parade would form at Court Street and Chicago Avenue, and proceed westward to a reviewing stand in front of the City National Bank building at Court Street and Schuyler Avenue.

Unfortunately, the parade ran into a problem in the form of the large, enthusiastic mass of spectators that had gathered downtown. Led by color guards and the Kankakee American Legion Drum and Bugle Corps, the parade moved as far as possible “before the huge crowd which literally engulfed Court Street halted the line of march,” reported the Daily Journal.

Police officers “found themselves helpless in attempting to open a wide enough path in the 100 and 200 blocks of East Court Street to allow the parade to move through as scheduled,” continued the Journal’s account. “The color guards, drum and bugle corps and convertible bearing Miss Christopher and the mayor managed to edge their way to the reviewing stands, but the other convertibles carrying the ‘Miss Kankakee’ contestants never did reach the intersection of Court and Schuyler.”

After remarks by Mayor Albert F. Hattenburg, Miss Christopher pulled a switch that brilliantly illuminated the downtown streets.

“When the huge lighting system flashed,” noted the Journal, “birds roosting in trees east of the post office apparently thought that morning had arrived. There was a chorus of tweets.”

The mercury vapor lamps provided a blue-white light almost twice as bright as the more yellow light emitted by the previous downtown streetlights. The older lights had been installed in the 1920s, replacing units that dated from the 1880s and 1890s. The earliest electric streetlights were installed in 1886, when lamps were suspended on wires above 30 street intersections, mostly in the downtown area. Even earlier, in the 1870s, lighting was done using widely scattered street lamps that burned kerosene. Kankakee’s lamplighter, Charles Heil, visited every lamp twice each night — once to light it, and once to extinguish it.

Guests from other Illinois and Indiana cities were impressed by Kankakee’s bright new lights.

“This is one of the best lighting systems I have ever seen,” a Chicago official told the Daily Journal.

The newspaper noted “The enthusiasm of the visitors over the new light system was shared by Kankakee residents. As late as 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., many Kankakee persons were still driving about the business district, seemingly almost entranced by the power of the mercury vapor lamps.”

Since that event 70 years ago, the lighting system in downtown Kankakee has been changed a number of times. None of the later installations, however, was accompanied by a public event as festive as the 1949 “Lights On” ceremony.

Jack Klasey came to Kankakee County as a young Journal reporter in 1963 and quickly became “hooked” on local history. In 1968, he co-authored “Of the People: A Popular History of Kankakee County.” Now retired from a career in the publishing industry, he remains active in the history field as a volunteer and board member at the Kankakee County Museum. He can be contacted at jwklasey@comcast.net.

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