Harvesting the River
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Thomas Beard
Founder of Beardstown (1774-1849)

Photograph courtesy Verlin Perry
Beardstown, Illinois.
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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 Go to image of 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 Go to image of a
Steamboat such as the Farragut were built at Beardstown at Captain Ebaugh's boatyard.

A plank 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 Rockford, 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 Go to image of the
Beardstown rail road yard was built in 1882 for repair of engines. The line employed and supported several hundred local men and their families.

Beardstown Industry
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, draining lakes. Go to audio of the History
of Beardstowns river area

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 pearls.

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 1970.

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.

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