Old Shawneetown

Illinois, Gallatin County

river mile 858

858 IL Hardin Old Shawneetown spur end 600 8 high
spur end

Poor Shawneetown! The Delorme map shows a boat launch there, but when the research team visited we found it down at the bottom of the steep narrow road from the high top of the levee. Underwater. Underwater on both ends, the downstream end where the road seemed to vanish into brush, and the upstream end where a few outdated light poles hung sadly above the water where a boat launch might have been. It’s a ghost town.

Shawneetown itself moved, following the 1937 flood, to a new location three and a half miles north of the Ohio, becoming one of the many nondescript small towns — population about 1200 — with a couple of gas stations and many empty storefronts characteristic of small towns throughout this part of the state. Now Old Shawneetown holds only the gridded streets, a few ramshackle houses, and the distinguished remains of Shawneetown in its heyday, the first half of the 19thcentury.

Shawneetown is the oldest town in the state of Illinois, founded in 1812. It is at a prime location: just downriver of the confluence of the Wabash and the Ohio, two major transportation routes in the history of North America, just south of major river bottoms, and defended by the northernmost extent of the Shawnee Hills on the north side, and major hills in Kentucky on the south. The best short history of Shawneetown is on the Encyclopedia Britannica website. That source notes that Native American burial mounds are located near it; a Shawnee village was on the site when Europeans first arrived; it was a shipping point for the products of nearby salt springs. The source of its prosperity was a U.S. Government Land Office established in 1812, which, with its location on the Ohio River, led to its becoming a trade and financial center. When Illinois became a state in 1818, Shawneetown and Kaskaskia, on the Mississippi River, were its two most important towns.

The Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Volume 22, Number 1, of 1929 contains a fascinating article by Stella Pendleton Lyles about the early history of the town. As is characteristic of the period, there is plenty of what is now inappropriate language about Native Americans and African-Americans. However, it contains fascinating detail about the salt industry, about Native American sites, and about the origins of the African-American community, based on research in old newspapers and through interviews. It is especially interesting because it gives a view of the town that predates the 1937 Ohio River flood.

In its heyday Shawneetown was far larger that Chicago, which a stone monument erected probably in its bicentennial year informs us, borrowed funds from Shawneetown to survive flood damage. What remains now is the recreated John Marshall House (Wikipedia has the photographs and architectural drawings from the Historic American Buildings Survey) and the Shawneetown Bank, an Illinois State Historic Site, currently closed to visitors. Constructed in 1839-1841, an excellent example of Greek Revival architecture, it stands astonishingly tall and classical amid the deserted remains of the streets, the equal of any civic building in Cincinnati or Pittsburgh in the 1840’s.

There’s plenty of room on the flat grass plain of the former streets, and there is a grocery store, so bicyclists might enjoy visiting. Paddlers would have great difficulty getting out of the water, up to the top of the levee, and into the town.

Next park:  Cave-in-Rock State Park

Field research June 2018