Chester, Illinois - Home of Popeye

History of Chester


The town of Chester, the county seat of Randolph County, is a river town in the proudest sense of the word. The Mighty Mississippi has played an important part in its history.

The area was considered a suitable place to settle and the earliest entry of land on the site was made by John McFerron who, on September 30, 1816, purchased from the government, fractional section 25, containing upwards of 47 acres. This is a triangular tract embracing the ferry landing and the old depot site and extending up the river as far as Hancock Street.

McFerron operated a ferry and was a Judge for the Court of Common Pleas at Kaskaskia. Later he represented the area as State Senator in the first Legislature that convened after the admission of the State of Illinois into the Union.

To Samuel Smith, however, belongs the honor of being the founder of Chester, originally known as Smith’s Landing. In the summer of 1829 he erected a dwelling, established a ferry and began construction of a mill. His wife was a native of Chester, England, and her name was Jane Thomas. She came to Illinois with the Swanwick family and bestowed the name of her home town on the new settlement. Smith kept a hotel and ferried passengers across the river on a flatboat.

Early Chester’s chief commodity was castor oil which was used as a lubricant. It lost its importance as the petroleum industry was developed and flourished. There were castor bean presses in other area towns, however, Chester had the advantage over the others because of river transportation. Shipments were made to St. Louis, New Orleans, and as far away as England. In 1830, the settlement increased and along the river front were an iron foundry, machine shop and several large stores. The old wood-burning steamboats did a brisk business at Chester.

In 1837, Nathan Cole began operating a small sawmill with a corn-grinding attachment. A few years later he converted this enterprise into a flour mill which became the Cole Milling Company, now Con Agra. The Cole Milling Company installed an electric generator using the surplus power for street lights. Thus, Chester was one of the first towns to have electric street lights. The generator used is now in the Ford Museum at Dearborn, Michigan.

The first brick house in Chester was built by Amzi Andrews in 1834. During the flood of 1844, the Bellair, a steamboat, ran against it as well as demolished the city jail. The same boat knocked a corner out of the stone, Holmes and Swanwick Mill, then under construction.

The area residents solved the problem of transportation by utilizing the river as their highway. The William Garvin plied the Mississippi as a regular tri-weekly packer between Chester and St. Louis.

Chester was a favorite stopping place for the river men and boat passengers. Charles Dickens and his wife stayed here on April 11, 1842. Mark Twain was a pilot on the Mississippi from 1857 to the Civil War and supposedly on several occasions stopped at Chester at the Cliff House, which was a fine river hostelry.

In 1832-33, there was a cholera epidemic which took many lives. South of the present site of the Con Agra Mill a few stones on the hillside mark the burying place of those who died on steamboats and were buried there.

Illinois State Penitentiary at Menard had its beginning during the Civil War when it was a repository for Confederate troops being taken to the Federal Prison in Alton. The original brick building is still standing inside the yards.

When the county seat was moved from Kaskaskia to Chester in 1844, records were stored in a school house which was the temporary court house until the new one was completed in 1848.The stone annex, now the Archives Building, was built in 1863 and is today a museum.

The old buildings that were part of the original town along the river have been razed. However, a number of the old homes which stood on the bluffs above the town overlooking the river still give evidence of the wealth and the architectural style of that day.

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