Saturday, April 9, 2011

“G” Is for Gallatin County

Old Shawneetown Marker, photo by Theresa Leschmann

 Gallatin County in southeastern Illinois was formed in 1812. I have visited the area many times and am touched by the history and beauty of the region. From the historic buildings and markers to the scenic views of the Ohio River and the Shawnee National Forest, I am never at a loss for something to marvel at.

The primary industry at that time of Gallatin County’s founding and for years prior was salt production. Native Americans and French settlers had used the salt works before its value was noted and the salt works were taken over.

The county seat of Gallatin is Shawneetown. At one time, it was in what is now known as Old Shawneetown. Old Shawneetown is a small town that doesn’t see much activity these days but was once a major trading post and thriving community. The first known settler was Michael Sprinkle, a blacksmith and gunsmith who settled in the area of Shawneetown. His cabin became a trading post for Indians and traders from four states. The first ferry was created in Shawneetown in 1802. Lewis and Clark stopped here on their way to Fort Massac further down the river. There is a marker here remembering their visit like 20 other markers throughout southern Illinois highlighting their trip. Later, a fort was erected in 1810 to provide protection from Native Americans.

Old Shawnee town’s claim to fame is that it is the oldest town in Illinois. Very few buildings are left from its early days but what you’ll want to see as you drive through is the Bank of Illinois built in the classic Greek Revival architectural style. It was built between 1839 and 1841 and is currently owned by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Old Shawneetown was also home to the first bank built in Illinois in 1812. It was operated in the third oldest brick building in all of Illinois, the 1808 John Marshall House. Only remnants of its original foundation remain and a museum now sits on part of the site. Local legend says that two bankers made a trip on horseback from the fledgling town of Chicago to ask for a loan. The Shawneetown Bank turned them down because they weren’t located on a major waterway and figured such a town was doomed to fail.

Spend some time enjoying this historic site, reading the markers that explain its significance and then wander across the street and up the levee for a splendid view of the river. The sunlit photo of the bank building was taken from this vantage point. Take a casual drive through some of the streets and you’ll find some beautiful old buildings still being used and lived in though very few have any markers. Much of the town moved further west in 1937 following a series of floods to what is now known as just Shawneetown as opposed to Old Shawneetown.

Leaving Old Shawneetown, heading west as you follow the byway and for the first half of the trip, you’ll find yourself travelling through the Shawnee National Forest, 280,000 acres of forest designated as a national park in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Most of it was depleted farmland restored by Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.

Head west out of Old Shawneetown. You’ll see Shawneetown and eventually arrive at the town of Equality. Equality sprang up as a result of the salt licks found in the area. Native Americans made salt here before the French settlers came in 1735. The salt springs were given to the U.S. government as part of a treaty in 1803 and were then run by a series of men who used exceptions to Illinois’ anti-slavery laws to put slaves to work in the salt mines. More than 200 slaves were counted in Gallatin County’s census in 1820.

The Ohio River Visitor Center on the corner of Lane and Calhoun is open from April through October. Aside from maps, directions and information, they also have artifacts and local artwork on display.

Another site visible from the road in Equality is the Crenshaw House, sometimes called the Slave House. The site is owned by the state of Illinois but remains closed to the public. A sign at the entrance to the driveway declares trespassers will be fined and prosecuted so do not enter. The Crenshaw house sits atop Hickory Hill and belonged to John Crenshaw who designed and built it in the late 1830’s. The third floor was reportedly used to house slaves. Photos of it can be found on the web and in books reveal narrowly partitioned “rooms” and places where chains were once mounted to the walls. These slaves were used in the salt mines that Crenshaw ran for a number of years. The house sits on the west side of Illinois Route 1 just seven-tenths of a mile or so south of Illinois Route 13.

The Old Slave House, photo by Theresa Leschmann


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