McKinley the Entrepreneur
William McKinley enrolled at the then three-year-old Illinois Industrial University (University of Illinois) in 1870 at age fourteen. Two years later, he was forced to withdraw due to a lack of finances.
He moved to Springfield to work as a clerk in a drug store but returned to Champaign in 1875 to work for his uncle J.B. McKinley's farm mortgage business. It was here that he took an interest in utilities. In 1884, at age twenty-eight, McKinley built the Champaign-Urbana Water Works. The project nearly ruined him financially, but he continued to build and quickly funded the Champaign and Urbana Light, Heat, and Power Company. Over the next ten years, he purchased street railway companies throughout the midwest but had mixed success due to financial panics.
In 1890, at age forty-five, McKinley began work on what was to become his crowning achievement when he purchased and electrified the horse-drawn Urbana and Champaign Street Railway in 1901. Linking these systems formed the foundation for his Illinois Traction System.