DEAD TOWNS
of Illinois
©2005, Kimberly Torp

The effects of the Railroads on Illinois River Valley Towns


(Chapter 20 of the
History of the Illinois River Valley, Chicago, S.J. Clark Publishing Co, 1932)


"Railroads are meat for some towns: they are rank poison for others," once remarked the president of the largest line of steamboats on the Ohio River. And he went on to point out that while the coming of the railroad had served to build up many new communities along the tracks, it had a most lamentable influence on the river towns which depended upon the river traffic to keep them in touch with the rest of the world, to carry their imports and exports.

This change from River to Rail has been unfortunate for those "riverminded" inland towns; unfortunate, but the price this country pays for progress. A change in the prevalent mode of transportation can play havoc with the life of the population dependent upon that mode. Boundary lines, centers of population, alter; towns dwindle and dry up; new communities are born over night, as the decline of one type of transportation and the growth of another take place. That was what happened on the western rivers when the coming of the iron horse doomed the steamboat lines and many of the river towns to the virtual extinction that followed the passing of the steamboat trade.

Where there is no traffic common carriers perish. Illinois has plenty of new towns and cities built up by the fine big railroads; but she has also numerous dead or sleeping towns, retarded communities throughout the Illinois Valley, to which the coming of the railroads and the passing of the river lines was a rank poison as the old steamboat owner said.

And what was true of the river was true of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, that once important highway of traffic so important to the development of early Chicago.

The sleeping towns on the dead Canal -- the tragedy of it! There was a time, and within the memory of people now living when big canal boats, loaded with passengers and freight and drawn by mules on the towpath, plodded from Chicago on southward to La Salle where waited the steamboats of the Illinois River to carry consignments of freight southward. The canal boats stopped at many towns along the route and did a good business. And most of those towns have disappeared -- gone the way of all flesh because the life blood of their transportation ceased to flow. Others still exist, eclipsed by other communities which are nearer railroads.

Starting from Chicago, the canal boats first touched at LEMONT, once a busy rock-quarrying center. Many modern Chicago buildings received the building stone from LEMONT by canal boat. It was a thriving little town, but today has practically fallen asleep.

A score of miles farther down the Canal, the boats "made" LOCKPORT, where there was a canal lock and dam, as well as flour mills, a paper mill, stores and big grain warehouses. They have gone; LOCKPORT has turned to other pursuits. JOLIET, however, the next town, is still a busy and wealthy place -- the one large town on the Canal today. CHANNAHON, a few miles down, was once a busy place, but is practically non-existent today. Next in order is SENECA, once called CROTTY; an important place in canal days. A fleet of canal boats and barges operated by the firm of Robinson & Yorke did a land-office business out of SENECA. There also was a large grain and lumber activity, though the little SENECA of today gives no hint of its former activity.

MARSEILLES, slightly below SENECA, is the location of one of the big new locks and dam, the same size as those of the Panama Canal, which will help preserve an adequate channel in the new Lakes-to-Gulf Waterway hard by the old Canal.

The first of the eclipsed towns on the Illinois River proper, beyond the end of the Canal at La Salle, is PERU. In the period between 1875 and 1882 a flourishing shipping point, PERU was also the location of a large ice business operated by Huse-Loomis Company, who with their fleet of more than a hundred barges and towboats shipped hundreds of tons of ice south to the lower river each year. This company owned a big dry dock also. Here they built ice barges as long as 325 feet and forty foot beam which they would load to a depth of 8 or 10 feet in the winter and tow to the South in the following spring. Also this same company would fill ice houses at McCormick Slough and other places for shipment south by river in hot weather. But times have changed;the ice houses have gone, the river is deserted, the town is a mere shadow of its former self; and the same is true of DEPUE, a few miles below which had an ice plant and big breweries.

HENNEPIN, located at the big bend in the Illinois from which the HENNEPIN Canal extends to the Mississippi, was once a very busy place with its stores and warehouses and grain storage and shipping; but since the Hennepin Canal is idle and the traffic on the River dead, the town of HENNEPIN is asleep also.

HENRY, 12 miles down the river, was once the shipping point for all the farmers of the surrounding country and in the 'Eighties had a population of 4,000. Now it has 1,500. SPARLAND on the opposite side of the River is dead also. CHILLICOTHE, 20 miles above PEORIA, is still a place to be reckoned with, though smaller than a generation ago, its decline perhaps checked by the unusual activities incidental to being a subdivision on the transcontinental Santa Fe Railroad. In 1880, ROME, two miles below CHILLICOTHE, was a good live place. In those days the Illinois Packet Company was running three boats a week on the Illinois River, and there was always plenty of business in and out of ROME. It is little more than a summer resort today.

The little town of SPRING BAY, located ten miles above PEORIA but on the opposite side of the River is a typical example of what the railroads have done to enhance the growth of one town and retard that of another. There is nothing at SPRING BAY now to indicate that it was once an important center of shipping and business; but such was the case. At one time it was a rival of PEORIA. More business was actually transacted over SPRING BAY'S levee than over PEORIA'S. The change in the mode of transportation set SPRING BAY back a generation. PEORIA with her splendid railroad facilities forged ahead until she is one of the great cities of the state.

Among the towns of the Illinois Valley which have largely ceased to function, MOUNT PALATINE in Putnam County furnishes a good example of how the changing conditions of life of any vicinity draw prosperity from one community and turn it towards another. MOUNT PALATINE was once the center of learning of Putnam County and environs. It had one of the early educational institutions of the state which attained to the dignity of a "college." Today its existence is barely indicated on the map of Illinois. The town is located on the rich strip of prairie running eastward from a line of timber bordering the Illinois River, at the dividing line between Putnam and La Salle counties. The town was laid out in 1849 by Christopher Winters with the avowed intention of starting "a live Yankee Town" on his land, and also of making it an educational center. Winters had bought a large tract of this rich prairie land in 1830 and between that year and the laying out of his town in 1849 had been developing his plans. The first house was erected in 1842. The seminary or academy was already under way. The Rev. Otis Fisher who had been instrumental in building up an academy at GRANVILLE, came over to MOUNT PALATINE and took charge of the school there. He assumed his duties as superintendent in 1842, the school being housed in a substantial red brick building. For 15 years the institution flourished and the town grew. Students from the country roundabout came to MOUNT PALATINE to study. Winter had the rank of his school raised from seminary to the dignity of college. And as a college it continued for 15 years. Meantime the Illinois Central Railroad had been extended to the town of TONICA, six miles distant, which began to grow at the expense of MOUNT PALATINE. The College no longer proved a profitable undertaking. It was sold to the Catholics in 1860 on condition that they would maintain a school at the place. This they have done ever since. The town continued to go down hill, although as late as 1879 there were in MOUNT PALATINE three churches, a good district school,, two general stores, a blacksmith and wagon shop or two, scattered over an area of 60 acres, about 100 inhabitants.

Not alone was the change from the steamboat to railway responsible for the decline of numerous towns throughout the length and breadth of the Illinois River Valley. Other causes contributed to it, chief among which was the frantic speculation in Illinois land which immediately preceded the Panic of 1837,. It was the age of the great migration; the eyes of Easterners were fixed upon the vast strange country west of the Alleghenies. Across the mountains from the East poured the settlers by thousands eager for new homes and a place to invest the dollars they brought with them.

The Illinois Valley got its share and the land promoters at once put in their appearance and capitalized on the growing craze for land speculation. Towns sprang up like magic, aided by the he land promoters, whose persistency in boosting the real estate they had for sale has a very modern sound in our ears. They set out to sell land, acreage and town lots, some of which was good, some well nigh worthless, to people who had never seen it. They advertised in papers all over the country. The effete dwellers in the East,s canning these colorful ads setting forth the merits of land in the new "West" bought, "sight unseen," and frequently awoke to the fact that they had been swindled -- sometimes only after they had crossed the mountains and seen their worthless purchases.

Every community that had the least likelihood of ever becoming a fair sized village was boomed out of all reason. The natural richness of Illinois soil and the salubrity of her climate were reasons enough to furnish the he promoters with a basis to work on. Their imagination did the rest. On paper each of these newly-laid-out towns had a rosy future before it. Every village with the smallest prospect of growth, and in some cases uninhabited spots in the wilderness, had large areas staked off into town lots and platted in highly ornamental style for the "information" of purchasers. As an example of the florid style of advertising real estate in those days, the following, published in many of the large American newspapers in the year 1836, is a fair example:

1,000 Lots for Sale in the City of Brooklyn --
Sale October 27, 28 and 29, 1836.

This city is situated on the LaMoine River, nearly in the center of the Military Tract, on a direct line from BEARDSTOWN, on the Illinois River to Commerce, on the Mississippi River, by way of RUSHVILLE and CARTHAGE; from QUINCY on the Mississippi to PEORIA on the Illinois; from MT. STERLING to MACOMB.
The City of BROOKLYN, in its local situation with regard to other places of business, is a place of very considerable importance; being 14 miles from RUSHVIILE; 23 miles from CARTHAGE; 27 miles from COMMERCE; 40 miles from QUINCY; 18 miles from MACOMB; 25 miles from BEARDSTOWN and 70 miles from PEORIA.
History has not yet given an account of a country (in point of health, beauty and fertility) equal to the one surrounding this city. LaMoine River is a most delightful stream, affording water at all seasons of the year for immense machinery. It has been examined by competent engineers from its mouth to this city, and the estimated cost to construct dams, and locks to make it a perpetual navigable stream, is $30,000. The water power gained by the construction of said dams must, and will pay 10% per annum on the stock exclusive of tolls, The proprietors think the stock worth a premium of 10%. They intend having a company chartered at the next session of the Legislature of this state to accomplish this great and desirable object.
The proprietors have no hesitancy in saying that there is no hazard in the purchase of lots in this city, as there is no city on any canal in the United States, which has advantages equal to BROOKLYN in point of health, beauty and soil; the farmers producing one half to double the quantity of wheat and corn over any other state in the Union.

The number of 1,000 lots will be laid off for a beginning, many of which will be sold in different cities throughout the United States. Agents selling abroad will recollect that all numbers of lots marked for sale at home will not be offered abroad.

Terms-10 per cent on all sales, cash in band. The balance in six and twelve months. * * *


This advertisement which appeared in the
Saturday Courier of Philadelphia, the Courier and Enquirer of New York., the Advertiser of Louisville., the Eagle of Maysville, Kentucky, the Missouri Republican of St. Louis, in addition to the more local press of Palmyra, Missouri, Quincy, Jacksonville and Springfield, Illinois, gave a good send off. But where is BROOKLYN today? One must have very good eyesight to find the least trace of it on the map of Illinois. The "city" for which great things were prophesied, failed to grow.

In addition to these towns which did not grow or which grew awhile and then fell back, there were others which never had any actual existence at all. Such was the famous ROLLINGSTONE, to which a whole town-full of settlers came out from the East, drawn by false advertisements, only to die on the wind-swept prairie in winter or wander hopelessly back to New York whence they had come.
(WEBMASTER'S NOTE: ROLLINGSTONE was actually located in Minnesota, NOT Illinois. Thanks to Wm. Walters, PhD. for this info)

Among other retarded towns of the Illinois Valley might be mentioned MILTON, NEW YORK, RICHMOND, CENTREVILLE, RIDGEVILLE, MOSCO, MT. MEACHAM, NEWBERG, all in Schuyler County.

Pike County, extending from the Illinois River on the east to the Mississippi on the west, did an enormous river business in the heyday of steamboat activity. Plying regularly and frequently along the channels of both rivers, the steamboats found plenty of business awaiting them at the levees of flourishing Pike County communities. CINCINNATI LANDING on the Mississippi is a good illustration of a Pike County steamboat town. In 1848 it did the biggest river business of all the towns in the county on either river. Up-river and down-river packets brought cargoes of freight and deckloads of passengers to its wharf. The largest of the big white New Orleans steamers served CINCINNATI LANDING. The coming of the railroads, however, heralding the decline of the river business, pulled the old river town from its eminence as a trade center. Its business has gone by the board and the town has become a dead letter.

The list of eclipsed towns of the Illinois Valley might be strung out indefinitely. Some are still possessed of considerable vitality. though nothing like what they had of old. Others are looking forward to a re-awakening which will re-establish them once more as places of consequence. And such a development is not entirely unthinkable, now 'that steamboating, in its modern aspect, has begun again on the Western Rivers.

As an illustration, news comes as this page is written that the old river town of VALLEY CITY on the Illinois, once known as GRIGGSVILLE LANDING-a busy shipping point in the days when all the incoming and outbound freight of GRIGGSVILLE and other adjacent towns passed over its levee-is feeling the vitalizing effects of this reawakening river business. Fully cognizant of the strategic location of VALLEY CITY as a river shipping point, the Cast Stone Company, large manufacturers of building materials, have established their terminal site there. Here the great fleets of barges, carrying thousands of tons of "cast stone" will assemble to be towed by powerful towboats to their destinations In the North, South, East and West. And there will be great activity at GRIGGSVILLE LANDING once more, whose citizens doubtless look-and with reason now- for a return of the old times.

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©2005, Kimberly Torp