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How Illinois Was Settled

In a word, “steamboats”

Illinois Times

November 18, 1977

The frontier-bound family of legend traveled by covered wagon. In Illinois, they were in fact more likely to arrive by barge or, later, steamboat. 

Edited slightly from the original.


The bulk of what Illinois frontier families produced they consumed locally—not from any reticence about engaging in trade but because the lack of roads, bridges, and boats made trade so difficult. Happily, if it could be put into a keg, a barrel or a bale, if it walked on two legs or crawled on four, a river boat could carry it. If rivers—to borrow a familiar metaphor—were the highways of early nineteenth-century Illinois, river craft were the trucks, the buses, even the taxicabs. Unhappily, the frontier-era river-roads were traveled by canoes, flatboats, rafts—small craft at the mercy of the currents. The new steamboats could haul more and haul it faster upstream and down. Before the big boats there was only trade along the rivers; with them came commerce. 


The Illinois River is that story was no exception. The Illinois River was the biggest stream in the state, the Mississippi's biggest tributary above the Missouri. The better part of the produce of the new farms that dotted the state's rolling interior made its way down the Illinois to St. Louis, and a good part of its population moved in the other direction—up the Illinois, from New Orleans, Cincinnati, and St. Louis.


The boats that plied the Illinois came in many sizes, though their shape—a box sitting atop a serving platter, with a wheel at the rear—varied little. They bore names like Avalanche, Prairie State, Gladiator, Prairie Bird, Ocean Wave, Cavalier. Though some of them were out of New Orleans (the Illinois was deep enough in most seasons to float the bigger class steamer upriver as far as Beardstown), most were smaller craft built for use on shallower streams like the upper Illinois and its tributaries. Unlike some of the gaudier Mississippi boats, which looked like whorehouses with paddle-wheels, the Illinois River boat was built for work, not show.


The Winnebago was typical. She was built in Beaver, Pennsylvania, a smallish boat that weighed only eighty-five tons empty. Because of her shallow draft she was the first steamer to work the Rock River, the modest stream that enters the Mississippi at Rock Island, and was a familiar sight on the Illinois too. She hauled salt pork and hides, corn and whiskey and sugar, tobacco and U.S. troops (from St. Louis to join in the fighting during the Black Hawk War in 1832), and immigrants bound for the interior to start new farms. Soldiers, farmers, salt pork—the history of the Illinois valley could be read in the cargoes of the boats that floated it.


The first steamer on the Illinois chugged upstream in 1828. It scared some of the river people half to death. One man, Hugh Barr of Pekin, saw that boat coming upstream and thought it "some infernal contrivance of the Indians to frighten or harm him." Barr took after the smoke-belching steamer with his rifle and his hounds. He caught up with it, too; the captain was as unfamiliar with the Illinois as Barr was with steamboats and had steered himself into a channel lake from which he had to back out. The crew, their escape temporarily cut off, had to summon all their eloquence to convince Barr that the machine they were riding was not the Devil's handiwork.


Traffic was light that first year. At Naples. Morgan County's river port, there were recorded only nine boat landings in 1828. But by 1831, steamers were swarming over the Illinois like pond skaters. That year, 186 landings were made at Naples. A few years later, the landings at Beardstown, twenty miles upstream, totaled 450.


The effect of the steamers on commerce along the Illinois was extraordinary. Beardstown in 1819, for example, consisted of a single hut built of birch poles by French traders; two years later log cabins had replaced the birch hut, but a farmer sending a load of beeswax to market in St. Louis still had to ship it in an Indian canoe. By 1834, however, six years after the Illinois steamers had begun scooting by its front door, Beardstown had been transformed. One report said that between the opening of the river after the winter freeze and the first day of March there were shipped from Beardstown 1,502 barrels of flour and 150 barrels of pork, while another 581 barrels of flour, 40 of pork and 150 kegs of lard were stacked along the riverfront awaiting shipment. The town had a hotel, a brick schoolhouse and a weekly paper, and its thousand permanent residents provided business enough for a shoemaker, a barber, two blacksmiths, a baker and two tailors.


A good share of the produce from farms as far west as Springfield was funneled through Beardstown on its way south. Because of its location on the river, Beardstown (like Peoria and Naples and a half-dozen other towns) became a food shipper. And a food shipper in the mid-nineteenth century was perforce a food processor. Swine and cattle, to take the most common example, could not conveniently be shipped alive to distant markets nor could they be driven there overland, and raw meat could not be shipped because it would spoil. So livestock were driven only as far as the nearest river port, where they were slaughtered and the meat smoked or salted. Pork was Beardstown's biggest export in the 1830s and 1840s. There were three packing houses in town which by the winter of 1837 were killing fifteen thousand head a year.


Corn and other grains were hard to ship, too, because of their bulk and their tendency to spoil. (The giant grain barges seen on the river today are a recent invention.) Harvest time, when grain was shipped to market, was the time of year when prices were lowest. Because of this, much of the crop around Beardstown and Peoria was sold instead to breweries or distilleries which converted it to beer or whiskey—products that were less bulky to ship, which did not readily spoil, and for which there was always a demand. In 1835 Beardstown's two steam distilleries reportedly produced 4,000 barrels of whiskey worth $25,000, enough to quench local thirsts and still leave a handsome stock for the export trade. More of the corn raised by some Illinois farmers of the day was drunk than was eaten. 


The steamers were the agents of prosperity because it was they who provided the transportation link between the market cities and the isolated farms and orchards of the prairie. But they also constituted a market themselves. Boat building quickly grew into an industry, and many a river-town merchant grew fat supplying passing passenger boats with steaks, liquor, and other goods.


And fuel. The larger boats had a prodigious appetite tor wood, burning up to two full cords every hour. Stops were frequent at the "wood stations" which were manned by "wood hawks" who lived on the fringes of the frontier economy, and its society as well. Many of them were squatters in timberland that bordered the river. They cut and stacked wood and sold it to the boats for two or three dollars a cord. It was hard work, and sometimes spring floods washed a winter's labor away downstream.


The drummers, immigrants, gamblers, preachers, and other human flotsam that drifted up and down the Illinois needed land accommodations too, and catering to travelers was a thriving sub-industry of the river towns. Hotels were always among the first businesses to open; Upper Alton, Montezuma, Naples, Meredosia, Beardstown, Peoria, Peru, Ottawa—all of them had inns. It is significant that one of the first official acts of the Beardstown city council was to regulate rates for rooms, meals, and the stabling of horses—which, by the way, cost as much to house and feed overnight as a man (assuming the horse had no taste for whiskey).


Accommodations aboard an Illinois River steamer varied widely in quality. Some boats were filthy, the food suspect, the crew members sullen. Such a boat could make the eight days from St. Louis to Beardstown seem like sixteen in  the  mid-1830s.  The better-class boats, however, like the Avalanche of the Illinois River Express Line, which used to run boats between St. Louis and LaSalle, could boast truthfully of "superior accommodations [and] the well-known urbanity and unwearied attentions of its officers to the comfort of her passengers . . . "


Urbanity and attention to passengers' comfort were features of cabin passage only, of course. Many of the passengers aboard Illinois River boats rode in steerage, where they shared space with cargo and the boiler. It was a cheap way to travel ($2 a person from St. Louis to Beardstown in 1835) and for that reason popular among poor immigrants.


Steerage had other charms besides its low cost. A. D. Jones made a trip up the Illinois from Alton in the late 1830s. "We learned . . . that all the berths were long since taken up," he wrote later, "and that we must take our chance with some sixty others at rough-and-tumble on the cabin floor. By a little management, and a bribe of a quarter-dollar to the steward—an important personage in such a case, and whose good will, once secured, well repays the cost—I obtained a snug corner, where with my saddlebags for a pillow, I passed a tolerable night."


Jones goes on: "Previous to retiring, we were serenaded with several songs . . . The effect of music in such a place and at such a time . . . is indescribable. As I sat on the rail of the guard, and heard the sparkling and troubled water rushing beneath me, and cast my eyes upon the fairy and delusive spectacles of the lime-rock bluffs . . . and listened to the old and familiar melodies, my heart melted within me ."


The Illinois’s “sparkling and troubled water" concealed a river bed littered with snags and sand bars. There were six major obstructions between Alton and Beardstown. Inexperienced pilots often ran aground, especially in low water seasons when clearance was sometimes as little as two feet.


The river was less dangerous than the boats themselves, however. The early steamers had an unsettling tendency to explode; catastrophes of that sort were a weekly occurrence on one or another of the chain of rivers in the state, according to historian James Gray. Gray also notes that running aground on a bar, sinking, or blowing up were not the only dangers to which river travelers were exposed. "Along the river were hangouts of thieves who murdered crews outright and carried their cargoes on to New Orleans . . . ." In more amiable moods these racketeers merely scraped the boat's caulking, assured the owner that it was sinking, then, while pretending to help with the rescue work, made off with most of the boat's merchandise."


Even in the 19th century it was hard to get good help.


At times the river itself was hardly more cooperative. Winter, especially, was the season in which the people along the Illinois were reminded, rather too forcefully on occasion, how much they depended on the river. The stream froze up between December and February most winters. One such freeze-up kept shipments of newsprint out of Peoria, causing one paper there to reduce its size: "Our subscribers cannot more regret our cramped awkward sheet than we do," the editor allowed, "but if the elements continue to favor us, our former size will soon be resumed." Food, too—sugar from New Orleans, coffee from South America, other exotic items foreign to Illinois—sometimes ran short until the river opened and the boats resumed their errands.


The boats were too common a fixture of life on the frontier to escape memorialization in story. Some of these tales grew a little tall— something in the water hereabouts, probably—as this one, a favorite among Peorians. proves. It is about the fishing exploits of the cook aboard the ship Peoria, as retold by James Gray:


He used as bait a hog that had died on board, attaching the whole carcass to the stern cable by means of a meat hook. This unusual line was inadvertently left all night in the water. The passengers woke next day to find the boat being carried, stern foremost, downstream in spite of the engine. The cause was, of course, that an enormous catfish had swallowed the bait and was now hurrying home, towing the steamship behind him. Captain Keese, being used to such emergencies, got out his rifle and shot the catfish.


That's right; in addition to soldiers, farmers and salt pork, Illinois River steamboats carried a lot of liars, too. ●




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The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

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I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

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