I am involved in various historical pursuits during any given week, and one that I completed some time back was a transcription of the old Vandalia Minute Book for the years 1839-47.
This was a very interesting time in Vandalia’s history, because the capital of the state had been moved to Springfield and the building that housed the state offices was given to Fayette County for use as a county courthouse. Provision was made in the gift that room be provided for the Vandalia Trustees and also that space be set aside for a school.
What Vandalia did with its part of the building is recorded in these early minutes of the meetings of Vandalia’s president and trustees.
Along with these interesting bits of history are events of day-to-day life among Vandalia’s inhabitants. Men worked three days on the roads to pay their poll tax, and citizens were paid for removing dead animal carcasses from within the city limits; at first, they just threw them in the Kaskaskia River.
By 1839, most of the major roads that led to Vandalia, such as the National Road and the Shelbyville to Vandalia Road, had long since been platted.
During the year 1842, William C. Greenup, who served as commissioner in building the portion of the National Road through Illinois, was president of the board and also the secretary. Another time, the city treasurer was sued by the board for money collected and owed to the city. His personal effects were identified, then offered for sale to meet the debt.
There are many interesting items in the minutes, including bid lettings for work on the bridges east of town, and that is the subject of this column.
Of course, we have heard about the massive 160-foot-long covered bridge that spanned the Kaskaskia River. According to the actions of the trustees on July 2, 1843, the city must have had trouble with some high-spirited individuals, because two new ordinances were placed on the books assessing fines for “Any person(s) who shall ride or drive any horse or other animal along the sidewalks of the Bridge across the Kaskaskia River on the National Road, shall on conviction be fined five dollars.”
The same fine was placed on those convicted of marking any “Obscene figures or indicent (sic) inscriptions or writing on the Bridge aforesaid, or upon any house within the Corporation.”
Did you know there were at least two more covered bridges east of Vandalia on the National Road through the river bottom?
The first bridge, a toll bridge, was built across a waterway after the traveler had entered the river bottom from the east and was identified as the “red bridge.” A second covered bridge crossed a smaller stream in the middle of the river bottom and the third, and longer bridge, spanned the Kaskaskia River.
At both toll stations, a large chain stretched across the road,which the toll keeper would open when the toll was paid of 15 cents for a team, 7 l/2 cents for a horseman, 10 cents for a buggy and 25 cents for a team from out of the county passed. These tolls were collected into the early 1870s. William Shelton was a toll-keeper, as was John Wilson.
I remember hearing a story of a Sefton Township family that was starving on their farm. Packing their wagon with their worldly goods, they set out on the National Road headed west. When they reached the toll bridge, they were unable to pay the toll and were forced to turn around and return to their failing farm.
In the minutes for May 12, 1847, the board president ordered that a notice be placed in public places that on May 22, a bid for “repairing of the National Road east of the bridge across the Kaskaskia as far as the slope goes and for filling up the hole east and near the red bridge.”
The hole in discussion could well have been the old “Dollar Hole” spoken of by early residents, who told that a team of oxen could cool off in the “Dollar Hole” at the same time. Around this time, the federal government, out of money, turned over the upkeep of National Road to the individual states.
In 1851, a franchise was granted to the Okaw Bottom Plank Road Co. by the legislature to take care of the upkeep on this portion of the road in Fayette County. Some of the principals of the company were Daniel Clark, Wilson Campbell, Charles Humpeler and George Steinhauer. Anyone who owned two shares of stock in the company was allowed to cross without paying a toll.
The collection of tolls came to a screeching halt when George Steinhauer’s hired hand was not allowed to cross the bridge without paying the toll. Upon reporting to his boss of the situation, Mr. Steinhauer, with axe in hand, returned to the bridge and chopped down the pole to which the chain was attached.
Litigation followed and the end result was the demise of the Okaw Bottom Plank Road Co. and a free road for one and all.