East Main Street, Meredosia, 1865 Illustration in the Meredosia Bicentennial Book
In 1816 travelers to the area reported that a French priest by the name of Antoine D'Osia was living in a cabin near a Native American village just north of the present Meredosia township. Settlers soon arrived; the town was surveyed in 1832, and named for the priest, adding the French word mere for lake.
According to the Meredosia Bicentennial book, Daniel and J.E.Waldo built the first general store in 1831. A cholera epidemic decimated Morgan County in 1833. In 1835 the Waldo brothers built a whiskey distillery and blacksmith forge. The year 1837 marked the authorization for the first strip of railroad built in Illinois -- the twelve miles between Meredosia and Morgan City. The long-term purpose for this railway was for finding a faster and easier way for Illinois settlers to ship their fur pelts, crops, and goods to market in the east. By river, everything had to be shipped down the Illinois to the Mississippi River and into St. Louis.
Ground was broken in 1837 to build the Northern Cross Railroad. A local sawmill provided the ties, while other materials, including the locomotive, were brought in pieces from New Orleans and New Jersey by packet boat up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. The engine arrived with an engineer to assemble it and to teach a local man how to run and maintain it. The line opened in 1838 and was followed in 1841 by a line from Springfield to Jacksonville. The line was sold in 1848. This lone Illinois line struggled because of lack of funds until more rail lines were completed, connecting Indiana to Springfield.
Commodities such as coonskins, beeswax, and honey were used instead of currency until the banks arrived in 1837. Between 1838 and 1858 several sawmills were started and white pine was shipped in to construct the houses of the growing town. A grist mill and a lumber yard were among the early businesses. "Midway House", a tavern and seventy-five room hotel, was built by the owner of the stage line in the 1840s. Grain became a major product for the town. It was shipped on the river by dealers Keener and Pike, who owned the steamer Calhoun. An elevator stored grain for shipping. A wagon and farm implement manufacturer opened in 1849, along with a coffin-maker, a drug store, a boat store, a shoe shop, and a saloon.
Census data of 1860 show Meredosia had a population of 414 people settled in seventy-eight houses. Occupations mentioned included two ferrymen, two boatmen, and two river engineers. There were two locomotive engineers and two conductors. No mention was made of fishermen. There were also six blacksmiths, two hoteliers, one teacher, twelve carpenters, and five doctors.
With the discovery and harvesting of mussel beds in the 1890s came four button factories in Meredosia. Mayes and Mullen's ran from 1912 to 1930. John Glick Edlen and Wilbur E. Boyd started another in 1927, which employed thirty-four residents and became "a source of great financial benefit to the community," according to the 1906 history of Morgan County. After the mussel beds were depleted here and in other Midwest riverbeds and plastic buttons became cheaply available, Meredosia lost this industry and its financial benefits. In 1948 the last button factory, Boyd's, closed.
Four fish markets (Meredosia Fish Company
, Main Street Fish Company
, Bridge Fisheries, and Hall's Fish Market) thrived from 1900 until the 1930s, when fishing began to suffer the consequences of the polluted waters. John Edlen, owner of the Meredosia Fish Company, once shipped two "live cars" (train cars with water tanks) of carp (60,000 pounds) in one day. In 1931, a record 500,000 pounds of fish were caught in just five seine hauls. Today, Hall's Fish Market is the only survivor.
Meredosia Island and Hunting
Meredosia Island is a tract of woodland north of town that becomes water-bound when the river runs high. Many families resided there and made a living of the river there prior to 1920 by trapping furs and hunting fowl. In the early 1920s, The Chicago-Meredosia Gun Club
was formed on part of the island. It sold memberships to wealthy Midwesterners. One of the owners, James R. Anderson of Kenosha, Wisconsin eventually bought out his partners and owned the club until his death in 1971. Anderson planted acres of millet, corn, and other feed to attract waterfowl to the area. Water was also pumped into the various lakes and ponds of the island to ensure habitat. His employees included John Edlen, boat pilot, Mr. and Mrs. L.B. Lucas, and Mr. and Mrs. L. G. Van Deventer, who moved into the Anderson house as caretakers in 1943.