Photograph courtesy Verlin Perry Beardstown, Illinois.
Beardstown was founded by Thomas Beard, originally from Granville, New York,
when he started a ferry service crossing the Illinois River in 1826. In 1829
the town along the river's edge was laid out three blocks deep and twenty-one blocks
long. By 1834 it was a growing port that shipped grain, hogs,
and provisions to the interior of the state and downriver to markets.
Beardstown became known as "Porkopolis" because of its stockyards and
slaughterhouses, where more than 50,000 hogs were processed annually.
Beard's Ferry and Other Beardstown Transportation
Beard's license authorized him to charge $.75 for a wagon and four
horses (or oxen), $.37 1/2 for a cart and horse, $.05 per head of
cattle, and $.06 1/4 for a pedestrian, among other tolls. The ferry
ran until 1888, when a private wooden toll bridge was built. In
1898 the city built a steel toll bridge that afforded the town
revenue until 1955, when the state built a bridge a mile south.
In the mid-nineteenth century steamboats
such as the Farragut were built at Beardstown at Captain
road was built between Beardstown and Bluff Springs to the east,
to cover a swampy area that impeded wagon trade over the otherwise
clay surface of the area.
The railroad came to Beardstown in 1869 with the laying of the
Rock Island, and St. Louis Railroad track. Beardstown was an
important division point where engines and crews changed on the
Galesburg to East St. Louis run and where the branch, or "jack," line
to Centralia merged. A roundhouse
was built in 1882 for repair of engines. The line employed and
supported several hundred local men and their families.
At the turn of the century, the Beardstown Fish Company
frequently reported catches of between 50,000 and 100,000 pounds of
fish. Black bass, carp, buffalo, crappie, eel, catfish,
frogs, and turtles were caught, sold, and shipped from Beardstown.
Fishing became less
bountiful as the river became polluted and levees were built,
Another short-lived industry was mussel and freshwater pearl
fishing. Button factories opened along the Illinois and
Mississippi Rivers in the 1890s. Hundreds in the Beardstown area
were given employment shelling mussels and selling their shells and pearls
to commercial buyers. Prices as high as $1,500 for a large pearl
were not unusual. Irregularly shaped pearls, called "slugs," sold for
as much as a hundred dollars. By 1909 local shell beds had been played
out. They were rejuvenated by the 1970s, when prices per ton were
high enough for a few shellers to work the beds again. The shells
are sold to Japan, to be ground up into "seeds" for oyster
A third industry, ice
cutting, was prosperous until 1909, when the first plant making
artificial ice was installed. Ice was packed in sawdust and stored
in large icehouses to be sold locally in the summer months, and it
was also shipped out by the train-carload.
Decline and Recovery
The Illinois River had a history of flooding seasons and low water
seasons. Lucien Edlen compiled a record of high water stages from
previous records starting in 1769 to contemporary ones through
Many of the industries were affected by the siltation of the
river at the mouth of the Sangamon River after the levees were
built. Dredging became too expensive, and the town actually lost its
access to the river. Recently, however, it has been discovered that
the Sangamon is naturally returning to its natural route. This will
solve much of the siltation problem at the mouth.