Historic Edwardsville

The City of Edwardsville, the seat of Madison County, third oldest city in Illinois, and also known as the ‘Land of Goshen’, has a story to tell.

The City of Edwardsville, the seat of Madison County, third oldest city in Illinois, and also known as the ‘Land of Goshen’, has a story to tell.

Early Edwardsville

Edwardsville started as a rural settlement in 1805 and was named after early Illinois Governor Ninian Edwards. The first European settler to put down roots in the region was Thomas Kirkpatrick, originally from North Carolina. Kirkpatrick obtained 100 acres along Cahokia Creek from Frenchman Pierre Lejoy and built a cabin approximately 300 yards from North Main Street at the north end of O Street.

In 1809, Ninian Edwards was appointed the territorial Governor of Illinois when the Illinois Territory was established. President James Madison announced the formation of Madison County in 1812. Edwards built a house in 1819-1820 at the corner of Fillmore and East Vandalia Streets in Edwardsville- the current location of St. Boniface Catholic Church- and served as Governor of Illinois from 1826-1830.

The City of Edwardsville continued to grow as the young nation’s citizens began to trek west for better prospects. The city’s first public square was located in the 1200 block of North Main Street and by 1814 was the site of the first county jail and the first courthouse, a log structure built in 1817.

The Edwards Trace, a key frontier trail was created by Native Americans tribes as early as 1492. It was a crucial link in the formation of Euro-American settlements in central Illinois and used Edwardsville as a northwards launching point between Cahokia in the south and Peoria in the north. Edwardsville became an important supply depot as travelers dispersed across the new state and gathered supplies to make the trek during America’s 19th century westward expansion.

Edwardsville grew considerably and, by the end of the Civil War in the mid 1800’s, Edwardsville had reached a population of over 2,000 with a local newspaper, The Intelligencer- which still serves the community- a modern courthouse, beer breweries, a furniture factory, and multiple industrial businesses which prospered from Edwardsville’s proximity to the Mississippi River system and vital trade routes.

Leclaire Park in Edwardsville -- one of the most well known parks and neighborhoods in the city.

Leclaire Neighborhood Historic District

Arguably Edwardsville’s most well-known neighborhood, the Leclaire Neighborhood Historic District was developed in 1890 by St. Louis industrialist N.O. Nelson. Nelson chose a tract of land just south of Edwardsville to build plumbing factories and a worker’s cooperative village called Leclaire- named after the French economist Edme-Jean Leclaire. Nelson offered his workers fair wages, reasonable working hours for the period, shares of company profits, and educational and recreational opportunities for workers and their families that were financially accessible.

The worker’s village was incorporated into the City of Edwardsville in 1934 and includes a large number of residential homes, a lake and park, a baseball field, the Edwardsville Children’s Museum, Edwardsville Nickel Plate Station, and N.O. Nelson Lewis and Clark Community College Campus.

Edwardsville Children's Museum -- the former Rudolph D. Specht memorial schoolhouse.

The Edwardsville Children’s Museum is located in the former Rudolph D. Specht memorial schoolhouse and the Edwardsville Lewis and Clark Community College Campus is named after Nelson and located in a restored group of the industrialist’s former factory buildings.

The Leclaire Neighborhood Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places- many of the homes in the district are original construction and some of the oldest homes in the city. The Friends of Leclaire group hosts Leclaire Parkfest every year on the third Sunday inOctober which celebrates the city and neighborhood with food, live music, historic displays and tours, children’s activities, and more.

St. Louis Street Historic District

Another Edwardsville neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places is the residential St. Louis Street Historic District. With a history dating back to 1809, the St. Louis Street District is comprised of historic homes from the middle 19th century and early 20th century on a mile-long street.

Fifty-nine homes contribute to St. Louis Street’s historic character- once home to some of the city’s wealthiest residents. The first house on the street was built by John Lusk in 1809 and was a simple log cabin. In 1883, Judge Joseph Gillespie sold off the land on the north side of the street and divided the parcel into smaller lots which built homes closer together. The homes were designed in the popular architectural styles of the 1800’s- predominantly in the Queen-Anne Victorian, Italianate, Chateauesque, and Classical Revival style.

Approximately 100 years after Judge Gillespie sold off the north side of the street, the National Registry of Historic Places admitted St. Louis Street in 1983.
Brick Street District

An image of the Edwardsville Brick Street District Brick Layers courtesy of the Madison County Historical Society.

Brick Street District

Edwardsville’s Brick Street District is comprised of a series of brick roads that were laid in Edwardsville under Mayor H.P. Hotz from 1902-1910. The district contains Johnson Street from West Park to West Vandalia, West High Street from 2nd Street to 4th Street, Clay Street from Commercial Street in its entire length, and North Fillmore Street. The brick streets stretch over approximately 1.4 miles of current Edwardsville streets and are flanked my multiple historic homes and properties.

It was apparent in the early 20th century that something had to be done about the state of the streets in Edwardsville. Rain made the dirt streets mud pits that bogged down wagons, created filthy conditions with standing water, and made traversing the streets by foot a miserable task-especially for women in their heavy dresses.

In 1902 a plea was sent to the city by Edwardsville citizens to do something about the mess and in 1903 the first brick streets began to be laid. Most of the bricks in the streets of the district were made locally by the Banner Brick Company and used local bricklayers for labor.

A movement to restore brick streets in Illinois was made in the 1980’s and the brick streets of Edwardsville were submitted to be historically preserved as a district around that time. Today the streets lay in various states of repair, but you can still hop in your car and rumble down several.

Historic Sites And Buildings

1820 Col. Benjamin Stephenson House

When the United States Land Grant Office opened in 1816, Benjamin Stephenson was appointed the “receiver of public moneys” and became a Sub-Agent of Indian Affairs for the Illinois Territory in 1817. Stephenson served in the War of 1812 and reached the rank of Colonel before returning to Edwardsville. Stephenson’s Federal-style home, now known as the Colonel Benjamin Stephenson House, was built in 1820 and is the oldest brick house in the city.

Dr. John Weir House

The Dr. John Weir House was built in 1836 and is the second oldest brick building to be constructed in Edwardsville- the first being Pgue Store which only has one remaining wall left that can be seen inside Rusty’s Restaurant. The Dr. John Weir house is the current home to the Madison County Historical Museum and Archives.

Edwardsville City Park

Bordered by East Park Street, Kansas, South Buchanan Street, and East Vandalia Street, Edwardsville’s City Park is the city’s most central and important park. City Park is heavily utilized for many city events and festivals, home to the Cleaon Etzkorn bandstand where Edwardsville’s Municipal Band and Community Symphony perform, and the site of the Madison County Centennial Monument.

Madison County Centennial Monument

The Madison County Centennial Monument, gifted to the people of Madison County in recognition of the county’s 100th anniversary in 1912, stands proud as the centerpiece of City Park. The monument is 16 ft. high and is constructed of 30 tons of Georgia white marble and was designed by renowned sculptor Charles Mulligan. It features four female figures representing Justice to the north, Virtue to the east, Plenty to the south, and Wisdom to the west. The monument was restored and rededicated in 2012 to celebrate Edwardsville’s Bicentennial.

Edwardsville Public Library

Less than a year after Illinois became a state in 1818, the City of Edwardsville already had a free public library. The first library, preceding the current Carnegie library by almost 100 years, was chartered in 1823 and consisted of only 121 items and a single librarian, Mr. John H. Randle. The city’s original library catalog has been preserved and is still viewable today.

In 1879 the library was rechartered. The original library only lasted a short time but was maintained by a dedicated group of women including Sarah Coventry who served as head librarian from 1891-1937 and, with support from the community, continued to grow the library’s collections.
In 1903 Edwardsville resident Charles Boeschenstein, publisher of The Intelligencer and former mayor, wrote to Scottish steel magnate Andrew Carnegie to request funds to build a new library building. Edwardsville received $12,500 from Carnegie and the city donated a parcel of land in City Park for the library’s construction.

The Edwardsville Public Library was dedicated on June 28, 1906- library membership at the time only cost 10 cents a month for access to 500 books. The Children’s Room was built in 1926 and the library was renovated in 1953. Just two years later, as renovations were drawing to a close, a fire broke out from an overheated stone hearth which quickly consumed the contents of the library. The stone walls survived the fire and the city began repairs on the structure immediately, reopening in 1957.

The Edwardsville Public Library has taken on a myriad of renovations since its reopening and now houses the Madison County Genealogical Society collections, a Children’s Room, the Gates Computer Lab, the Carnegie Café, and more. The library is utilized for many public functions serving the city and area residents with educational and recreational activities.

Edwardsville Public Library

Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville

In 1926, the American Interstate Highway System linked Edwardsville still further to the rest of the county with the first alignment of famed Route 66. The highway system promoted growth across every town in its path and, as businesses grew, an increased demand for educated workers did also. In 1955, parents and business leaders from the Edwardsville/Glen Carbon Chamber of Commerce, founded in 1924, began a campaign to form a public university in the Metro East.

By 1957, Southern Illinois University opened two residence centers in East St. Louis and the City of Alton- the latter now the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine. Enrollment for the school became so high in 1959 that new facilities needed to be built to accommodate students.
In 1960 a vote was held to help fund the new facilities on a suitable tract of land near Edwardsville and was passed with overwhelming approval. The groundbreaking for the new Edwardsville campus was held in 1963 with the Peck Classroom Building and Lovejoy Library opening in 1965 on 2,660 acres of previously undeveloped countryside.

SIUE campus is one of the largest college campuses in the country and serves the largest population concentration in Illinois outside of Chicago. The campus is linked to the Madison County Transit Trails system and maintains extensive ecological habitats through The Gardens at SIUE.

The campus of SIUE

About the Author

Kayla Howland

Kayla Howland is a local writer and artist who lives in Alton, IL with her Cairn Terrier, Ripley. She enjoys fiction and non-fiction writing, graphic design, painting, drawing and photography. Kayla is a graduate of Southwestern High School and Lewis & Clark Community College. She has worked doing freelance graphic design, photography and commissioned paintings since 2012.