Walter S. Gurnee, born March 9, 1813, left his wealthy family of Haverstraw, New York, and moved to Michigan before arriving in Chicago in 1836.
Gurnee established his tannery business in Chicago, and by 1844, he employed 30-50 men. He also became the major partner of Gurnee and Matteson, a saddle and leather company. He successfully invested in real estate, banking and flour milling.
He was one of the original directors of the Chicago Board of Trade and a one-time president of the Chicago and Milwaukee Railroad. He also fought against the merger of the Illinois Central and Michigan Central railroads.
In 1851, Gurnee ran for mayor on the Democratic ticket without the party’s formal nomination. His platform supported the public ownership of the city’s water supply, a permanent system of sewers and the regulation and control of slaughterhouses. He served two consecutive one-year terms as 14th Mayor of Chicago.
Other achievements include founding the village of Winnetka on land he purchased.
The village of Gurnee is named for him. Partly because as a railroad land agent, he purchased land allowing for the right-of-way for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Line which stopped in Gurnee.
Gurnee acquired his vast fortune in Chicago before he and his wife Mary and their four children moved to New York City in 1863, where he died on April 18, 1903. He is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Tarrytown, New York.
Even though the 14th Mayor of Chicago lived in Chicago for only 27 years, he left a lasting legacy to the city and the State of Illinois.