Okay, picture this: you’re on the State Street Bridge downtown, gazing at the gorgeous Jefferson Street Bridge as the beautiful Rock River ripples on by. You start heading towards the News Tower to maybe go enjoy City Market, but a question pops into your head: what direction am I facing? Most would say you’re facing east, but that’s not completely true.
You’re actually facing southeast. Think that’s kind of odd? Just wait.
There’s a lot that’s quirky or unique about the Forest City, but something that tends to get overlooked is her design. Unlike other cities and towns, Rockford was not originally designed on a cardinal directions-based approach, but instead was designed to follow the twists and turns of the river. This is most evident downtown as the west bank technically faces northwest and the east bank faces southeast, but river-oriented development is standard for most of the entire length of the city along the river. Of course, the farther from the river you go, the more likely you are to travel roads that do adhere to the directional-based design. Now, having the city’s street design follow the river instead of the cardinal directions isn’t that unique; Freeport, Peoria, Aurora, other river-based cities also tend to follow their respective rivers; but Rockford’s design is even crazier than that:
Our bridges aren't straight.
Though many river cities may follow their river for their initial design, it’s rare to find any city with diagonal bridges—especially cities designed in the 19th century or later, or even in this country in general. To understand how Rockford’s bridges got to be so whacky, we have to go back to the founding of our community.
For Rockfordians, the names of our founders aren’t too hard to forget thanks to our countless fieldtrips to Midway Village, and the various streets/statues/structures dedicated to them: Germanicus Kent, along with Thatcher Blake and Kent’s slave, Lewis Lemon, founded the west side, and Daniel Shaw Haight (pronounced ‘Hate’) founded the east side. Already this should tell you something’s different about our community: we were once two separate communities on opposite banks of the same river. In the 1830’s, Kent founded his community of Kentsville on the west bank of the Rock River and Haight founded his community of Haightsville on the east. Both men saw the potential for the land in front of them since a natural ‘ford,’ or shallow place in the river, made it easier to walk across the river.
But being able to cross the river easily and the fact that it was slow moving and not too wide, also meant it was easier to go back and forth to the towns on opposite sides of the banks. So, both villages had to jockey for status as the more important village out of the two—spurring competition, animosity, and an economy.
According to Jon W. Lundin’s book Rockford, An Illustrated History, both Kent and Haight hired the same surveyor to plat their respective banks for later development. The man did so, but either Kent and Haight did not consult with each other or the surveyor made a mistake in his platting because the villages did not align east and west. When this was discovered, neither developer felt that it was their responsibility to align with the other (even though nothing permanent had been built yet and the wooden stakes outlining the plat could easily be moved), so they kept them where they were. Thus, when the Rock River got its first bridge, the State Street Bridge, roughly 20 years later, it donned a near 30-degree tilt so it could connect both East and West State Streets (the Chestnut Street Bridge has the strongest tilt out of the downtown bridges at nearly 40-degrees). The two towns eventually merged into what we now know of as Rockford, but the designs of the separate communities are forever ingrained in our landscape.
(This aerial of Rockford's downtown shows just how diagonal our bridges are)
Though some may see this local factoid as a physical allegory representing later east/west strife, it's also the first sign of Rockford budding into the economic powerhouse of the region. There were other small villages along the Rock River that had similar geographical assets as Rockford and could have easily been the site of a river crossing (and, indeed at one time, were), but no other village had to compete with another village directly across the river. Kentsville and Haightsville propped each other up while they were attempting to outdo each other—spurring growth and relevance in the region. Now, some of those little villages along nearby parts of the river don't even exist anymore, having been scooped up into Rockford's city limits or lost to the history books.
We must also recognize that it is unlikely that our downtown would have straddled the river if our community was only founded by one person. Few river city downtowns straddle their respective rivers (unless the river was fairly thin like the Kishwaukee in Belvidere) because it's cheaper and less effort to stay on one side and then eventually maybe spill development over to the other. Freeport, Pecatonica, Rockton, other towns and cities have their downtowns only on one bank of their river. Haightsville and Kentsville had their own separate downtowns and main streets, but when the cities merged, two downtowns became one. This has uniquely left us with the east side of downtown developing a separate but complementary character to the west and vice versa. Where the east is more village-like, the west is more urban—adding to how fascinating Rockford is.
The combination of this stubbornness and the decision to follow the river for the street layout rather than the cardinal directions also left us with some amazing sight lines as well (Seriously though, you don’t get sight lines like Rockford’s everywhere). My favorite in the city is the sight line from the Midway Theatre all the way down to the News Tower. Here you have two iconic Rockford buildings directly in line with each other even though they’re nearly 2,000 feet apart. There’s also the new Sports Factory sightline we get when we travel on Chestnut. You can see that extraordinary asset from 6 blocks away plus the river.
(Google Maps is a little distorted but you can see how the Midway Theatre tower aligns beautifully with the News Tower five/six blocks away)
Also, this iconic picture of JFK (below) parading down E. State Street with the News Tower and the Talcott Building appearing to be across the street from each other in the background would not have been possible if it weren’t for Kent and Haight’s stubbornness. You can’t even tell there’s 1,000+ feet separating these two buildings, let alone an entire river.
My point is, Rockford is fascinating and unique—all the way down to her bones. So, the next time you cross one of the downtown bridges and you have to turn your wheel to stay in your lane, remember that that’s a little connection to our founding fathers and our community’s 180 years of history.
(Animated pictures from Google Maps. JFK picture is no longer under copyright)