What is now central Illinois was occupied by native people whom the French called the Illinois. They still lived in the region in the 1830s, when they were forced to emigrate. The white settlers, who in the 1820s moved to the area known today as the City of Urbana, grew substantially in numbers by the 1850s. The establishment of several mills and the Illinois Central Railroad Depot in “West Urbana,” modern day Champaign, were responsible for much of the growth. Several hundred commercial buildings and houses were erected within a year of the arrival of the railroad. Urbana was chartered as a city by the state legislature in 1855 and on June 2, Archa Campbell was elected as the first mayor. In 1863 the first streetcar, drawn by mules, began operating between the newly incorporated Village of West Urbana depot and the Urbana courthouse. After the Civil War, African-American people leaving the South arrived; the 1870 census records indicate that 40 Americans of African descent lived in Urbana
The location of the county seat in Urbana has always played an important role in ensuring the vitality of the downtown area, drawing ordinary and even renowned persons, such as Abraham Lincoln, into the city. The completion of Clark R. Grigg’s Indianapolis, Bloomington, and Western Railroad in 1869 also contributed to the growth of the Downtown. The I.B. & W. provided a direct rail route that enabled Urbana to become a stable and independent trade center. Merchants were no longer dependent on the streetcar railroad to transport shipments of goods from the Illinois Central depot in Champaign. To service the ever-growing railroad industry, the Big Four rail car repair shops opened in Urbana in 1871 and became a major employer in the city
Originally many of the buildings along Main Street were of wood frame construction. When these were destroyed in the 1871 Urbana fire, brick became the dominant construction material. Some of the original buildings that lined Main Street were Tiernan’s, Busey’s Hall, Knowlton–Bennett Drugstore, Peterson Café, the Columbian Hotel, Hubbard Drug Company, and Dickenson’s grocery store. Many of the architecturally significant homes and public buildings were constructed in the late 1800s and early twentieth century. Prominent individuals who built their homes on Main Street near the downtown, included Dr. Austin Lindley, Clark R. Griggs, Samuel Busey, and Frank Marriott. Notable public and semi-public structures include the Unitarian Universalist Church, the United States Post Office, the Champaign County Courthouse, and the Urbana High School.