This article corresponds to the Jersey County Fair Agriculture Education Center's 200 Years of Jersey County Agriculture Exhibit, highlighting several of the major periods of change and development for the agriculture industry in the county.
Infrastructure like paved roads, bridges, canals, and railroads are critical for market access and essential for agriculture. With reliable means to get goods to market, there is more incentive to produce a surplus of those goods to exchange. Most folks in pioneering Illinois were subsistence farmers, producing just enough for themselves and their families. Before settlement increased, local markets were scarce, and accessing other markets outside one's immediate area was a considerable challenge. Over time, steamboats, railroads,
and improved roads began to make markets more accessible, coupled with infrastructure projects undertaken by local, state, and federal governments.
Jersey County has historically held unique advantages given its river access and proximity to St. Louis, Alton, and other prominent cities in the region. In early Illinois, the most efficient way to travel was by water. Farmers who produced enough goods for the market were often found accompanying their products on flatboats and keelboats all the way down to New Orleans. Returning home upriver was a challenge, though, as battling the current of the Mighty Mississippi was difficult.
The steamboat was introduced to Illinois waters in the 1810s, improving market accessibility by providing a more efficient process for getting goods to market. The steamboat also made interstate commerce between western and eastern states more doable and reliable. Steamboat activity began around our immediate area in the late 1820s, just before towns started emerging in present-day Jersey County. Our proximity to St. Louis, where the steamboat first appeared in August 1817, was also a big help (Davidson and Stuve, 1877).
Steamboat activity likely increased around Jersey County with the opening of the Illinois and Michigan Canal in April 1848. It immediately connected Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River through the Illinois River, providing a navigable pathway to the Gulf of Mexico that had to pass by Jersey County. By then, the Great Lakes were already connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the Erie Canal, so broader global market accessibility opened to area farmers quickly. Chicago was already showing signs of solid growth by 1848 thanks to its strategic location on the Great Lakes. One central figure in American agriculture, Cyrus
McCormick, removed his manufacturing operations from Virginia to Chicago in 1847. Unsurprisingly, McCormick's handrake reaper and other implements began entering Jersey County shortly after the canal opened. County historian Oscar Hamilton wrote in his History of Jersey County, Illinois, that the reaper was introduced to the county in 1849 when it was unloaded off a canal boat in Grafton (Hamilton, 1919). The I & M Canal continued to impact regional and global markets for many years, but fast on its heels was the
infrastructural improvement of the century: the railroad.
Attempts to construct railroads in Illinois began as early as the 1830s, but were largely unsuccessful due to economic depression and poor state policy. Still, the very late 1840s and 1850s saw the rapid construction of railroads all over the state. In fact, Illinois boasted the longest railroad stretch in the world when the Illinois Central Railroad was completed in September 1856 (Emery, 2017). Eventually, railroads found themselves in every county except Calhoun County. They contributed to developing niche markets, particularly in the dairy and fruit industries. Chicago rose to its reputation as the nation's "Second City"
thanks mainly to the railroad's influence, as the states railroad network centralized in the city. In the early 1800s, the economic center of Illinois was Shawneetown. With the power of the steamboat, that center shifted to Alton by the 1820s. In the end, Chicago would reign not only as the economic powerhouse of the state but one of the premier cities of the nation, thanks to the railroad.
Railroad development began in the lower southeastern corner of Jersey County in 1854 when "...a portion of the original Alton and Chicago Railroad, running in a northeasterly direction from Alton, by way of Godfrey…" passed through Brighton (Hamilton, 1919). The second railroad in Jersey County passed through the county's northeastern corner. Hamilton wrote it "...was that portion of the Rock Island Railroad running southeast from White Hall, in Greene County, past [Greenfield] and Rockbridge, and entering Ruyle
Township, and from there running in a southeastwardly direction through Kemper, to Medora in Macoupin County" (Hamilton, 1919). Another railroad in Jersey County developed later in the century: the Chicago, Peoria, and St. Louis Railroad. "It entered Jersey County east of Fidelity and ran southwest to Jerseyville, where a large depot was located on the east side of town. In Jerseyville, the tracks swung south, traveling through McClusky, Dow, Newbern, and Beltrees on its way to Lockhaven. At Lockhaven, the track split. One branch (the Bluff Line) served Elsah, Chautauqua, and Grafton. The other ran to Alton. The line…became defunct in 1940," (Jersey County Historical Society, n.d.).
Arguably, the most crucial railroad that passed through Jersey County was built during the Civil War. It was another branch of the Chicago and Alton Railroad. Completed in 1864, it passed through Carrollton, Kane, Jerseyville, and Delhi and still exists today (History of Greene and Jersey Counties, 1885). Depots were established in all three communities, but in Jerseyville, they contributed significantly to the development of agribusiness in the form of elevators that continue to line the tracks to this day.
By 1870, robust market access existed for county and regional farmers. Railroads and steamers, coupled with improved technology in agricultural machinery, incentivized crop and livestock production, transitioning local farmers from subsistence-based to commercial-based agrarian producers.
Despite the infrastructural advancements in riverine and overland transportation, one piece of the interconnected network that continued to be of concern was that of roads. In the early 1800s, riverine transportation was critical because it was the best way to get around. That was one of several reasons early pioneers carved out their settlements near rivers and navigable creeks. Though they built roads, they were designed to connect neighbors rather than facilitate commerce. One of the most critical early roads in Jersey County was the road that connected Alton to Jacksonville. There was a push to build a road to combine these two early important cities after Alton constructed its state penitentiary in 1833, and that
road passed right in front of early residences like the Little Red House, now the Cheney Mansion, in Jerseyville. The stagecoach was a common sight on this road until the introduction of the railroad to Jerseyville caused its demise. Another significant project immediately affected county pioneers: the county road connected to Grafton. William Shephard, whose home was the former 518 Restaurant in Jerseyville, was one of Jersey County's most influential citizens. He came to the county around 1839-1840 as a
contractor for the state. He oversaw excavating a section of the bluffs above Grafton in preparation for constructing a county road to pass through it. Until the Great Flood of 1844, Grafton was the economic center of Jersey County, so access to this area was necessary in the early years.
The construction of these early roads and the many others throughout the county were one thing, but being able to use them was another. In rainy or snowy weather, these roads were barely passable. One of the ways that folks tried to counteract this was by building plank roads, also known as corduroy roads. These roads were blanketed with planks of wood that required constant maintenance and were known to cause injury to vehicles and horses. Their use was short-lived and far from extensive. However, evidence for them is found
in several locations around the county. In fact, in the 1980s, road work on Mitchell Creek Road near Delhi uncovered the remnants of a plank road. A piece of plank from that discovery is now housed in the Jersey County Historical Society museum. In Jerseyville, the early 1900s saw the construction of brick roads throughout the city, evidence of which still exists today.
As the 1900s dawned, a push to build hard-paved roads began to gain traction. Though met with resistance initially (even from farmers), the growing affordability and use of the automobile increased the demand for hard-paved roads. By the end of the 1920s, Illinois had more miles of hard-paved roadway than any other state. Even though many country roads would only be paved later in the century, hard roads were found connecting county seats and significant communities so that farmers weren't always an incredible distance
from them. The growth and development of hard roads throughout the state provided better facilitation of agricultural products from the farm to local communities and means of transportation elsewhere. In fact,hard roads are critical in Jersey County, as shown by the transport methods of the Jersey County Grain Company in receiving and shipping grain from its Jerseyville and Hardin facilities. "In Jerseyville, although located next to the railroad track, most grain is either shipped by trucks into St. Louis, Mo. facilities, or relocated to Hardin. Almost all grain from the facility in Hardin is loaded onto barges," (McGlasson, 2017).
Today, hard-paved roads, railroads, and river barges continue to impact market accessibility for agricultural producers both in and around Jersey County. Since settlement in the county began over 200 years ago, both local and state infrastructural improvements have woven together to create a network of passable roads that allow farmers to carry grain, livestock, and other produce to market with much more ease, impacting community growth, economic development, and other vital factors that have sustained the county for over two centuries.
Davidson, A., & Stuvé, B. (1874). A Complete History of Illinois from 1673 to 1873. D.L. Phillips.
Emery, T. (2017). The History of Illinois. History In Print.
Hamilton, O. B. (1919). History of Jersey County, Illinois. Munsell Publishing Company.
History of Greene and Jersey counties, Illinois. (1885). . Continental Historical Company.
Jersey County Historical Society. (n.d.). Transportation Room. Jerseyville, Illinois; Jersey County Historical Society Museum. Displayed in the Transportation Room at the Jersey County Historical Society Museum. Exhibit developed by Beth McGlasson.
McGlasson, R. (2017). Skyscrapers of the prairie. Two Rivers Farm Living, Spring(2017), 4–5. Published by Campbell Publications.