*Originally posted on November 4, 2017*
This week for #SmallTownSaturday, we’re visiting Centralia, IL (pop. 13,000)!
With an abundance of deer, bears, and elk, the region is thought to have been the hunting territory of the indigenous Tamaroa people prior to white settlement. It wasn’t until 1816 that settlers began to make their homes in the area.
Centralians were focused on agriculture in the early 19th century. Farmers suffered from a persistent problem: a lack of transportation of goods to market that petrified the Central Illinois economy. Advocating the construction of a new railway, Stephen Douglas secured a grant of 2.5 million acres of Federal land from Congress and Pres. Fillmore in 1850.
Chartered in 1851, the new Illinois Central (IC) railroad proved to be an economic boom for the area. The town itself was formally established in 1853 and named after the railroad. Transformed into a center for transportation, Centralia saw waves of new residents – including George McClellan as IC chief engineer – and new businesses like hotels and rail shops.
IC engines were initially powered by wood, but supply ran low so trains switched to coal. In 1874, coal deposits were uncovered south of town and a mine was opened, bringing job-seeking immigrants. By 1907, a fifth mine – Centralia No. 5 – had been established.
The state received complaints over the years that the mines were not well-maintained and were filling with dangerous coal dust. Still, little was done to rectify these issues. On March 25, 1947, the consequences were felt: dynamite was detonated deep in Centralia No. 5 in an effort to blast coal from the mine’s faces, trapping 142 men underground. After days of rescue attempts, 111 perished. The disaster inspired tributes like Woody Guthrie’s “The Dying Miner,” but by 1951 little progress had been made to amend the old mining laws from the early 1900s.
There’s so much more to learn about Centralia than we can discuss here! Stop by the IHLC to explore the history of this small town.