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Shawneetown marks its 200th birthday Saturday

  • Bill Hayes, a 1956 graduate of Shawneetown High School, was guest speaker at a Bicentennial event Saturday morning in Shawneetown.

    Bill Hayes, a 1956 graduate of Shawneetown High School, was guest speaker at a Bicentennial event Saturday morning in Shawneetown.
    Eric Fodor

Eric Fodor
updated: 6/14/2010 1:19 PM

While there were no fire hydrants painted like soldiers, Shawneetown';s Bicentennial event Saturday morning attracted a big crowd interested in reminiscing and learning about history.

And the history of Shawneetown is as colorful as the fire hydrants painted like Revolutionary War soldiers in 1976.

Bill Hayes, a Shawneetown native who graduated high school in 1956, spoke about Shawneetown';s storied history at an assembly held at the grounds of the old Dunbar School, now Coleman Tri-County.

Hayes, who now resides in Texas, was part of the team who put man on the moon and designed the international space station, according to the master of ceremonies, Eddie Vickery.

"I lived here 17 years before going off to college," Hayes said.

"And there are no places like Shawneetown."

Shawneetown wasn';t supposed to be a small town three miles from the Ohio River, more or less like other small towns in Southern Illinois. Shawneetown was supposed to be the "gateway to the west," a jumping-off place for westward expansion. A mark of the town';s possible importance is its federal charter in 1810. In the early days, the famous and infamous passed through Shawneetown as a matter of course. Shawneetown was a commercial center on the frontier. Chicago, on the other hand, was a tiny settlement with seemingly nothing going for it, Hayes said.

Things changed.

"And I ask what the people of Shawneetown should do about this. They should thank God for small favors," Hayes said.

The Sears Tower would obstruct the view of the river or the hills to the northwest. Police Chief Radar Patton, now 34 years on the job, would have 13,400 officers reporting to him, Hayes said.

"If you had asked the early residents of Shawneetown what they wanted, they would have answered their version of a large city. But people often don';t know what';s good for them," Hayes said.

Prosperity started with the river traffic and salt mines. John Crenshaw - infamous for the Old Slave House - shipped salt from the area during territorial times and early statehood. Andrew Jackson even inquired about buying some of the salt works, Hayes said.

Things were happening - the federal government platted the town, the Kaskaskia Trail was blazed, the land office opened, Henry Eddy started a newspaper, steamboats arrived on the Ohio River.

In the town';s infancy, the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, came to visit.

"It was as though Washington himself had risen from the dead," Hayes said.

Legend has it Lafayette knew no one at the reception in his honor until he saw an old soldier in tattered clothing who stood around the door, not daring to come in, Hayes said. Lafayette rushed over and embraced the old man for a long time, then fell into conversation with him. At one time, the old soldier had saved Lafayette';s life, Hayes said.

In its early days, Shawneetown was also developing its reputation as a wild river town.

"It was not only the Williamsburg of Southern Illinois but also the Dodge City," Hayes said, referring to the wild west town.

There were, as newspapers of the time reported, too many newspapers and too much revelry. But the booze kept on flowing, adding to Shawneetown';s bawdy reputation.

Michael Jones was the first attorney to arrive in Shawneetown. He also became the first state senator.

"His home still stands, and it is now called Hogdaddy';s," Hayes said, his speech sometimes punctuated by the roar of motorcycles on state Route 13 headed to the saloon or Hog Rock in Hardin County.

Southern Illinois'; sympathies were divided during the Civil War. Many with Southern leanings lived around Shawneetown. But Gen. John A. Logan worked hard to keep Southern Illinois in the Union, Hayes said.

Prosperity continued through the Civil War. However, the eventual undoing of Old Shawneetown began to rear its head. The river began flooding more and more. The levee was beefed up, eventually able to handle the river at 61 feet by the mid-1930s.

But, "Mother Nature one-upped man again," with the infamous flood of 1937, Hayes said. The catastrophic flood inundated the entire town and left people with a dilemma - calling in Noah or building on higher ground, three miles west, Hayes said. Relocation won out as the logical alternative. Many homes were moved from the old town to the west.

"Many buildings that could not be moved were destroyed," Hayes said.

The destroyed buildings include the historic Riverside Hotel, Hayes said.

A twist of irony that seems all-too-typical for the history of Shawneetown: The levee has not been breached again since 1937. There have been floods, but none similar to the catastrophes that drove most townspeople three miles west.

Hayes also remembered the gas plant explosion in 1944 that killed 12 people, the capstone of a 10-year period that would try the souls of the residents of any town. From 1935 to 1945 Shawneetown endure the flood, Depression, moving the town and the selective destruction of Old Shawneetown, the deaths of some of the town';s best and brightest young men in World War II and the catastrophic explosion at the gas plant, Hayes said.

The 1950s were brighter for Shawneetown. Hayes recalled the great basketball teams of 1955-1956, integration of the school system and the Sesquicentennial in 1960.

Hayes listed several of the memorable people from Shawneetown.

"We could discuss each one for hours, but we will have to leave it to the readers," Hayes said.


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