There are no guarantees. It seemed that Shawneetown, Illinois, and New Geneva, Pennsylvania, were destined for long term prosperity, but history was unkind. Can they and other dwindling towns turn the tide?
Old Shawneetown, Illinois, lies along the Ohio River. It was the first place settled in the state, in 1798, and was the site of the first bank in Illinois.
The sign at the edge of town says Old Shawneetown has a population of 300. That’s stretching it quite a bit. The most recent Census estimate puts the population at 191. The majority of the village land is vacant.
Gallatin County, where Old Shawneetown is located, was founded in 1812. Its current population is tallied at 5,589, down almost 65 percent since 1900. The village has been in decline since the 1937 Ohio River Valley flood that enveloped it in water two stories deep.
Like Shawneetown – its newer counterpart above the floodplain, just up Illinois 13 – Old Shawneetown was designed with grand aspirations. The main street is wide. Some of the remaining buildings are architecturally magnificent.Surviving landmarks include a State Historic Site, the massive, colonnaded Bank of Illinois chartered in 1817. The bank was closed in the mid 1820s, but reopened 1834-1842. The bank building was completed in 1841. The historic home of John Marshall, a founder and bank president, sits across the street, where it has a view of the river over the levee.
Other buildings of note include the City National Bank (closed and for sale); Hog Daddy’s, a “biker friendly” bar (closed and for sale); and an excellent example of a 1930s Texaco gas station (you guessed it, closed and for sale). As of early July, the Hardware Bar and Grill was still open, also serving bikers when they gather in the town.
At 7 o’clock on an already brutally hot morning, the town is quiet. An older man sits outside the bar on the high curb in the early sun. He doesn’t respond to my greeting. Maybe he didn’t hear me. Or maybe I didn’t hear his response.
The high floodwall cuts the all-but-deserted downtown off from the river, muffling the motor of a towboat on the other side. The whooshing of cars and growls of a few trucks passing over the high bridge are about the only sounds.
As I am writing a draft of this piece in Rudy’s Barbecue (“serving you since 1932”), a restaurant up the hill in Shawneetown, my thoughts drift back to New Geneva, Pennsylvania, another historic village about 930 miles upriver from here on the Monongahela above Pittsburgh. New Geneva is a few miles north of the West Virginia border. I lived there in the early 1980s, a place I fondly remember as West Pennsylginia.
Old Shawneetown and New Geneva are tied together by Ohio River Valley history.
New Geneva, for awhile, was home to Albert Gallatin, a Swiss immigrant who was first chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee and Thomas Jefferson’s Treasury Secretary, among other things. Gallatin designed the funding mechanisms for internal improvements deemed so important to nation building and developing commerce. Gallatin’s New Geneva home, now a National Historic Site above the industrialized Monongahela River, presents interpretation of his role in the nation’s development.
Old Shawneetown, a banking center, played a role in providing capital to build the western frontier. It is located in the namesake Gallatin County, Illinois. For awhile, Old Shawneetown was the federal administrative center for the Old Northwest Territory. The Goshen Road, which stretched from Old Shawneetown to Alton, Illinois, near St. Louis on the Mississippi, was the spine of a population corridor that allowed Illinois to become a state in 1818. The town thrived and declined with changing river traffic and population growth elsewhere in the state, notably in Chicago.
Gallatin envisioned New Geneva as an industrial town and regional center. It is located at the mouth of Georges Creek, once proposed as part of a route for a transportation system over the Alleghenies from Cumberland, Maryland. It is now a historic district noted for its architecture and remembered for its historic gun, hand-blown glass, and salt-glazed pottery industries. New Geneva was a dream unfulfilled for Gallatin, though he only lived there for relatively short times, including a retirement stint at his home, Friendship Hill. Like Old Shawneetown, it has thrived and declined, but has its memories.
Over an omelet and coffee at Rudy’s, my thoughts return to New Geneva because I’d just read about the Marquis de LaFayette’s visit to Old Shawneetown. The general, who cemented French relationships with the rebelling colonies and led troops under George Washington against the British during the Revolution, returned to this country in 1824 and 1825. He also visited Gallatin in New Geneva at Friendship Hill in what is now Fayette County, Pennsylvania.
The tour took Lafayette across 24 states from New England to the Deep South. His upriver return travel from Louisiana eventually found him going up the Ohio to Old Shawneetown and then up the Monongahela to New Geneva in the spring of 1825. The route took him across the rapidly growing Old Northwest Territory that included the new state of Illinois. In Old Shawneetown, he was apparently feted in grand style, repeating celebrations that had been held across the country. Unfortunately, the hotel where he stayed burned in a major fire that took out 11 buildings in 1904.
Even as the U.S. was pushing westward against the frontier, Lafayette, heading back to the East Coast, traced in reverse a major path of westward migration through an area rich in French influence, including New Orleans and St. Louis on the Mississippi and Pittsburgh (once named Fort DuQuesne by French trappers and soldiers) at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers.
Two seemingly disconnected villages nearly a thousand miles apart remind me that America is partly a story of restless movement, opportunity seeking, and the growth and decline of places. This transformative ferment has all but erased connections that once bound distant towns together in a developing nation.
Here is my moment of serendipity. A visit to a town in Illinois reminds me of a town where I once lived in Pennsylvania. Present blends with biographical past and then historic past, a connection I’ve never made before.
Old Shawneetown and New Geneva are typical of so many small towns. Their rich history is past, their futures uncertain, despite investments to keep them alive, at least as museums.
The histories of two villages, largely forgotten, are not trivial. They tell us much about our connectedness, who we have been, who we are, and who we can be. Memories of places are reminders of greatness and decline – of change.
Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.