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The Early History of East Alton

Madison County ILGenWeb Coordinator - Beverly Bauser

 

A small Indian village was once located in future East Alton. This land later became the Reuter farm when William and Annie Reuter, natives of Germany, settled there sometime before 1862. This large tract of the land became the site of the East Gate Shopping Center.

Settlers from the town of Milton, located on the west side of the Wood River Creek, fled the area in 1806 when an epidemic of malaria occurred, believed to be caused by the damming of the waters of the Wood River Creek for mill purposes. Some of those who survived moved only as far as the east side of the Wood River Creek to establish new homes for themselves.

A small fort was constructed in 1811 by James Beeman - who's wife was Nancy Moore, sister of Abel Moore of the Wood River Massacre. Beeman’s Fort was located in Section 21 of Wood River Township, about one mile south of the old town of Milton. During the War of 1812, the fort provided protection from hostile Indians.

In 1821, a large area of land which later became East Alton was deeded by U. S. President James Madison to Solomon Preuitt, son of Martin Preuitt, one of the earlier settlers in Milton. Land east of the Big Four Railroad tracks was deeded by the government to Zephaniah B. Jon in 1856, and for a time, a small community was known as “Job.”

In 1852, the Belleville and Illinoistown Railroad Company was authorized to construct a road from East St. Louis (then called Illinoistown) to Belleville, and to extend a road in the direction of Alton. In February 1854, this railroad and the Terre Haute and Alton Railroad (incorporated in 1851, with its principal promotor Captain Simeon Ryder of Alton) were consolidated by a special act. The whole line was not put into operation and opened to traffic until October 1856. The stations along this line in Madison County were Venice, Kinder, Nameoki, Long Lake, Edwardsville Crossing, Alton Junction (East Alton), Bethalto, Moro, and Dorsey stations. From Alton Junction, a branch extended to Alton.

The Chicago and Alton Railroad Company (the first railroad built in Madison County according to The History of Madison County, 1882, by W. R. Brink), chartered in 1847 with its promotor being Captain Benjamin Godfrey, had a “cut off” near Alton Junction to a point above Godfrey. Alton Junction served as an important stopping point for transporting goods and people.

In 1853, George and Sally Smith, George A. Smith, and George W. Carr purchased 180 acres in what would be the future East Alton. On October 26, 1854, George and Sally Smith sold their interest to George A. Smith and George W. Carr, who in 1858, platted a town just south of the Alton Junction. The plat was recorded July 14, 1858, and the town named Emerald (possibly by the Irish immigrants who came to the area). Many people, however, including the railroad, continue to refer to the area as Alton Junction. Lots in Emerald were sold to John Delno on June 27, 1859, and on March 23, 1860, Jeremiah Danaan purchased lots. These two men were the first permanent settlers of the village of Emerald.

A school was opened in 1867 in a one-room building at the corner of Shamrock and Main Streets. It was heated by an open fireplace. Not only children, but adults enrolled to learn to read and write. The floor, benches, and furniture were made of split logs. This school was abandoned in 1870, when it was replaced by the Blackjack School (also known as Emerald School), built on the site of the future Washington School. The land for Blackjack School was donated by Zephaniah Silver.

Wann JunctionAt some point in time, the depot at Alton Junction became known as Wann Station, probably so named by the railroad, or because of the Wann Hotel nearby. On January 21, 1893, the worst railroad disaster in Illinois occurred at Wann. The Southwestern Limited 109 was running late going into Wann and came upon an open switch. The train crashed into a freight train, whose cars were loaded with oil, causing a huge explosion and fire. Residents rushed to give aide to the injured, but when the oil cars exploded, burning oil rained down upon them, causing 41 to lose their lives, and at least 75 were injured. A new church was in the process of construction when the disaster struck, and a temporary floor was quickly laid so that funeral services might be conducted in an official house of worship. As a result of the tragedy, each member of the church contributed one dollar for a memorial bell to be moulded and hung in the church, in memory of those who perished. Among them was Harry Wiegand, a church deacon, in whose memory the bell was dedicated. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE OF THE WANN DISASTER.

East Alton was incorporated as a village on September 4, 1893.  D. G. Tomlinson was the first president of the board of trustees, with James Luddike as clerk. The first postmaster was William Evergum, who was also station agent. In March 1895, the names of Alton Junction, Wann Station, and East Alton were all combined to simplify things and to end confusion. The village hall was completed and dedicated in May 1898, with Dr. C. M. Pence as Mayor, and Zephaniah B. Job delivering the dedicatory address.

The first church established in East Alton was named Wann Baptist, which was organized on July 2, 1891.
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THE COMMUNITIES OF NIAGARA, SILVER RIDGE, AND BLINN

Niagara, East Alton
Niagara was a community founded by Zephaniah B. Job in 1904, and was located on the east side of the Wood River Creek, directly across from the old town of Milton.  Job named the area Niagara, in honor of the falls in the Wood River Creek over the Powder Mill dam.  There were 35 lots in the tract, and were surveyed by Messrs. Long and Swift.

 

 
Silver Ridge and Blinn

 

 

 

Silver Ridge was founded in 1909 by Zephaniah Silver. It was annexed to East Alton in 1910.  Among those who built homes there, were Charles Chessen, Ed Doerr, Ed Walls, Frank Eudy, Lee Bracken, and Jesse Jones.

Blinn was also founded by H. J. Bowman in 1910. It was located east of the Silver Ridge addition, and was part of the Job estate.  Joseph Heins acted as realtor to sell the lots.  Charles Glass was one of the first to buy property in Blinn and build a house.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 EARLY BUSINESSES IN EAST ALTON

Four Mile House
Four Mile House – so named because it was four miles from the Alton City Hall - was a tavern located on West St. Louis Avenue (where the Ritz Theater would later be constructed). This tavern served as a post office and stage coach stop.

Hotel Wann

The Hotel Wann was owned by George Y Smith. In January 1886, the hotel caught fire and was totally destroyed. The flames originated from the flue. The hotel was a two-story, brick and frame building.

Otis Cruse Blacksmith Shop
Otis Cruse Blacksmith Shop, East Alton

 

Otis Cruse established a blacksmith shop in 1882 on the corner of St. Louis Street and Goulding Avenue. Cruse’s business flourished in the 1890s, but was a victim of progress, when autos became the norm. Later, the Ritz Theater was built on the site.

 

 John Jones Grocery
The John Jones Grocery was located at the corner of West Main Street and West St. Louis Avenue. It was operated by John Jones and his nephew, Earl Jones.

Hale Barber Shop and Hardware and Lumber Store
Prominent business men in the early days of East Alton included Lawrence and Clarence Hale, twin brothers who first operated a barber shop, and in 1915 joined their brother, Walter, in a hardware store and lumber business, buying out Fred Crandall.

Silver Ridge Market
The Silver Ridge Market was established in 1899, and was ran by H. Frank Yoder Sr. The business was later moved to 636 Broadway, where Silver Ridge was located. In 1949, Robert Dunn purchased the business.

Vanpreter Drygoods
Thomas Vanpreter, who served as mayor for three terms, opened his dry goods store in East Alton in 1906, and the business continued 55 consecutive years in the same building on West St. Louis Avenue. The structure was razed in 1961, to accommodate the expansion of the Illinois State Bank. Mrs. Vanpreter was associated in business with her husband, and she later became proprietor of a variety store next door to the original building, which continued until March 30, 1961, when the building was destroyed by a fire.

Charles Vanpreter followed in his father’s footsteps, both as a leading merchant and as mayor, where he served 18 consecutive years until 1949, and after an absence of one term, was returned to office in 1953.

Ringering Grocery Store
The Ringering Grocery Store was established in 1920 by George H. Ringering at 628 West St. Louis Avenue.

Werges Harness Shop
The Werges Harness Shop was established by Herman W. Werges at the corner of West St. Louis Avenue and Smith Street.

Community Coal and Ice
The Community Coal and Ice was established in the early 1920s. It was located at North Shamrock and Main Streets.

The Big Five Saloon and Hotel
The Big Five Saloon and Hotel was established by Joe Heiens at Shamrock and East Main. The business included a lunch room. Prohibition put the Big Five out of business in the 1920s.

J. B. Vanpreter & Son Auto Dealership

J. B. Vanpreter & Son Auto Dealership
The J. B. Vanpreter & Son Auto Dealership was established in 1917. They sold Willys-Knight and Overland cars. The business was located on West St. Louis Avenue.

 


Illinois State Bank
The Illinois State Bank was established in 1904, and was located on West St. Louis Avenue. In the 1920s, the bank was moved to the corner of West St. Louis Avenue and West Main Street, replacing the John Jones Grocery.

Stoneware Pipe CompanyThe Stoneware Pipe Company
The Stoneware Pipe Company was founded in East Alton in 1870 by Alfred F. Foster. This company, located on what would become Powder Mill Road, produced clay products made from minerals found in the local clay mine, which ran eastward from East Alton. The clay in the ground was 8 to 9 feet thick. Alfred Foster was the first man in the west to produce 32-inch tile, and was the second man in the United States. He died in 1902 at the age of 65 and is buried in the Alton City Cemetery. The company remained in business until the late 1930s, when the property was purchased by the Olin Corporation.

Equitable Powder Company, Western Cartridge Company, and Union Cap and Chemical
In May 1892, the Equitable Powder Company was organized by Franklin W. Olin and business associates from the east, Clarence F. and A. W. McMurray and John J. Nef. These friends became officers and board Ed James, Franklin W. Olin, and Fred Wallingmembers of the new company. On July 9, 1892, Olin took possession of the land bordering the Wood River Creek at East Alton. Olin and Ed James and Fred Walling walked the land with the deed tothe tract in his pocket. James and Walling were employed by Olin to assist him in launching the company. Two parcels of land were purchased, totaling 67.8 acres. He paid $2,000 to Zephaniah Silver for 34.25 acres, and $1,342 to Zephaniah B. Job and his wife, Amanda, for 33.55 acres. The first production of powder from the new Equitable Powder Manufacturing Company was in October 1892, and the mill was in full production by early 1893. The plant produced black powder, primarily for use in coal mines. In November 1894, the powder mill board of directors authorized Olin to equip his factory to manufacture “sporting powder,” for use in ammunition. In 1895, Olin began working on plans for a machine to load shotgun shells. Some of the more important parts of the loading machine were manufactured by his cousin, Olin Scott, in Vermont. Early in 1898, Olin unveiled his new shot shell loading machine at a meeting of the Equitable Powder board of directors in East Alton. Western Cartridge Company was organized on the spot, on February 11, 1898, capitalized at $100,000, with Franklin W. Olin and C. F. McMurray as the principal stockholders. The same year, Olin bought a target manufacturing Western Cartridge Companyconcern in New Jersey, moved the company’s equipment to East Alton, and started still another business – the Western Trap and Target Company. This company was in the target business until the end of 1978, when it sold it, along with the well-known “White Flyer” name, to Reagent Chemical Company. The company manufactured traps for throwing targets for more than 90 years. In 1899, the Western Cartridge Company burned down, but was rebuilt. In 1900, the office building for the Equitable Powder and Western Cartridge burned down, and was replaced by a new brick building.

Business competition was intense and unregulated, and both Equitable Powder and Western Cartridge were in business battles from the beginning. A powder mill (Phoenix) was constructed in Belleville shortly after Olin founded Equitable Powder Mill in East Alton. A bitter price war resulted, eventually won by the Equitable Mill. Eventually Olin was persuaded to take over the Phoenix Company. He closed the Phoenix office and moved it to St. Louis, where he successfully managed it and his own companies for six years.

DuPont was a formidable rival in the industry, and it had been buying up shares of Equitable Powder stock almost from the time Franklin Olin founded the company. In 1896, Eugene DuPont was seated on the board of directors of Equitable Powder. In 1902 Eugene was succeeded by T. C. Coleman DuPont, who in 1903 became a Vice-President of Equitable.

Competition was equally intense in the ammunition business. When Western Cartridge went into the ammunition production business, it was classified as a loading operation by the trade. The company bought all its components except gun powder in the open market – most of them from Winchester and Union Metallic Cartridge Company. At the turn of the century, both Winchester and Union Metallic discontinued the sale of components. Therefore, Western had to obtain components from small jobbers, resulting in lack of uniformity and quality. Consequently, Western Cartridge Company was forced into growth. Franklin Olin resigned from the presidency of Phoenix in 1903 to devote greater efforts to his own ammunition and other businesses. Eventually, he withdrew his companies from the Gunpowder Trade Association, thus escaping antitrust litigation.

In 1903, Olin and Almon Lent, president of the Austin Cartridge Company of Cleveland, established the Union Cap and Chemical Company to manufacture primers and .22-caliber ammunition in East Alton, for Western and the Austin company. Production began in a new building in a cornfield, across Wood River Creek from the Equitable Powder mill. In 1907, Western Cartridge bought Austin Cartridge and the Austin company’s interest in Union Cap and Chemical. A Western Cartridge sign went up on the side of the building in the East Alton cornfield. It was the first building the young ammunition company could call its own. Previously, it had shared quarters on the other side of the creek with Equitable Powder. In 1908, Lent became a member of the Western Cartridge board of directors, a member of the executive committee, and a vice-president of the company.

Franklin Olin had been able to overcome ammunition component problems faced by his company. He invented his own equipment for manufacturing paper shot shell tubes. Lead shot was bought at first from a shot tower in nearby Granite City. When that facility was sold, the cost of lead shot was hiked. But Olin was prepared for the increase. What had appeared to be a grain elevator built just months earlier on the property of Western Cartridge, actually was a shot tower he had built in anticipation of such a need.   The Western Cartridge Company showed a profit for the first time in 1906. Equitable Powder was profitable from its beginning.


Beall Shovel Company and Beall Tool Company
Beall Tool CompanyThe Beall family of Alton originally operated three factories – Beall Brothers, Beall Shovel, and Charles W. Beall Manufacturing. The three were united in 1905. Beall Tool Company was founded in 1905 by Charles W. Beall. This company was sold to Hubbard & Co., and later sold to Mark D. Speciale in 1984. It was then called Beall Manufacturing Inc. The East Alton plant was damaged by fire in 1910, but was repaired. A new steel rolling mill furnace was installed there in 1917. The Beall Shovel Company was erected in East Alton in 1904. In 1907, some of these shovels were used in digging the Panama Canal.


The Wood River Driving Park and Hotel (horse racing track in East Alton)
The Wood River Driving Park and hotel was located along the Wood River Creek in East Alton, approximately where the Circle K Gas Station is located at the “islands.” The park was owned by Zephaniah B. Job, and opened in 1872 as a horse race track. The Wood River Driving Park was considered one of the first harness racing tracks in Madison County. Also, at the park was a hotel, which was burned down by arsonists James Smith and William Clayton on May 4, 1874. The driving park was closed sometime in the 1880s.

The Bowman Stockyards
During WWI, H. J. Bowman was a buyer of horses for the French and Belgian governments and the U. S. Army. He fenced in part of his property, which was along the Big Four railroad, not too far from Wann Station, and cared for the horses there until they were shipped out. More than 250,000 horses were brought in to the stockyards. In June 1915, a large storm caused the 7,200 horses to stampede and escape from the stockyards. The horses caused quite a disturbance. Herman Wuestenfeldt, who was returning from Alton, sustained fractures of three ribs when the horses coming down the road encountered the auto in which Wuestenfeldt was driving. Inside the auto also were Nola, William, Gussie and Loretto Carstens. Trains were delayed because of the horses, and eight of them were killed by a fast freight train on the Chicago & Alton Railroad. Two were shot to permit the Midnight Special to pass on. Hundreds of horses were penned up by nearby property owners, who filed damage claims against the stockyards. The village of Wood River suffered heavily from damaged done to young trees which had been set out the previous year along the streets. Finally, the horses were rounded up and returned to the stockyards. A gang of one hundred men were put to work building more fences and barns.
                   Bowman Stockyards, East Alton, ILBowman Stockyard, East Alton, IL

EAST ALTON THEATERS

The Gem Airdome Theater, East Alton, IL

 


The Gem Airdome Theater

The Gem Airdome Theater in East Alton was located at St. Louis Avenue and Goulding Street in East Alton, and was established abt. 1918. The proprietor was T. L. VanPreter, and was managed by Frank R. Davis, who later managed the Gem Theater in Upper Alton.

 

 

 

 


The Ritz TheaterThe Ritz Theater, East Alton, IL
The Ritz Theater was founded by J. B. VanPreter in abt. 1932. He remodeled his garage on St. Louis Avenue and built an addition at the rear, with the intention of opening a theater with “talking” pictures. In addition, VanPreter planned to open a recreation and dance hall in the east section of the building. The new theater would bring into operation one of the most modern inventions – “talking pictures” – on a site that previously the Four Mile House, an old-time inn where stage coaches stopped, was located many years ago. The theater included a stage at the rear of his garage, and had a sloping floor and special walls to improve the acoustics of the auditorium. The theater operated through the early 1950s, and later became a furniture store.

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