Early Peorians Had a Dream
by Norm Kelly
Way back before 1845 the little trading village of Peoria, Illinois had some strong frontiersmen coming and going. Our early history was a bit tumultuous which included some attacks by Indians. We had the French, the British and Spanish influence here, but throughout it all it was the American Pioneer and local folks that had a dream for this beautiful little place along the Illinois River.
It was initially just one square mile and in 1835 it was called a town. By 1828 the steamboats listed Peoria as one of its destination and by 1845 the local folks took a giant step. Among the mixed inhabitants of 1,619 hearty souls who carved out their daily existence were some very talented men. On a bright, sunny morning, April 21, 1845, 197 of those folks gathered throughout the day to cast their votes to decide if the little town of Peoria, Illinois should be come a city. Who was eligible to vote and how all that was decided is not within our recorded history. Who knows, maybe 197 folks was a large number based on those qualifications to vote that the locals set down. I do know that there were at least a dozen men of prominence within the city limits and it was through their leadership that Peoria managed to expand beginning with the idea to have a city-wide election.
Of the 197 that voted thirty-five voted NO and 162 voted YES. Why would someone want to vote yes…or no? Sure would be interesting to know what was behind those votes. So once the vote was in there was paper work to be filed and from that day on the little village that could began to grow. Just to give you a perspective, by 1910 the population of Peoria, Illinois was 66,950 within the city limits which gradually grew as well. Wow!
On 4-28-1845 the first election was held and William Hale was voted in as our first Mayor. Actually for a time there they were called presidents. Four Aldermen were elected along with a City Clerk. The first business from our founding fathers was to make sure that the landing area for the Steamboat was adequate because those men knew that if Peoria was to grow the steamboat would be at the center of all that activity…and they were right.
Remember there was a vast wilderness and immense prairie between us and Saint Louis to the South and the same thing between us and Chicago. The magnificent Illinois River could get a person down to Saint Louis and New Orleans and the traffic on our river was massive during our struggling early years.
In 1848, Block Six in ‘downtown Peoria’ was purchased by the city for $300.00 and a city hall was built. As close as I can figure out that would be pretty close to what is now the Caterpillar Headquarters. Wow, a city building, Peoria was on its way. By 1858, over on Madison and Fulton, the cite where our current city hall still stands, construction began on a new city hall that was very impressive. It costs $10,000.00 and it always made me wonder where did they get that kind of money? Of course there was growth in the city by then and when I tell you that we grew up on the shoulders of booze and beer, I am not kidding you.
The two story brick building housed a council room and office for the mayor and other city officials. It included a fire station and a ‘Calaboose.’ It was dedicated in 1859 and certainly the pride of our new city folks. It was not until 1898 that the present City hall was built and thank goodness it still stands as it did way back there when the costs to build it was $234,592. Seems we got a bargain when they built that building wouldn’t you say? Adjacent to that building the city also owned what they called a Market House.
I have written a lot about Mayor Edward Nelson Woodruff, but he was not even elected here in Peoria until 1903. So just look back from 1845 to the turn of the century and think about those years and who among us became our guiding lights? Who were those men that had a vision for this little trading village way back when there were multiple threats from foreign countries and a few Indians as well? They were pioneers, valiant, hard-working settlers that came here and were stunned by the beauty of this marvelous valley and the magnificent Illinois River. Our very existence was cemented by the breweries and the distilleries that were built and maintained by forward looking business men. Among our early buildings were the dry good stores and dozens of other early business men that took a chance on the fledgling little city. Our early days produced great leaders like Mayor John Warner. He was a man among men that guided folks to make this area the ‘Gem along the Illinois,’ ‘The Pearl of the Prairie,’ which became the true ‘Heart of Illinois.’ It all started from that handful of hearty men and women of the land, all gathered here to live the dreams they had for themselves and their families. By 1940 that tiny village had grown to 105,187 people and 9.12 square miles that provided for its inhabitants like no other city in the history of America. How are we doing today?
Editor’ Note: Norm is a Peoria Historian and author. firstname.lastname@example.org