Grayville is paradise on the Wabash River
By Patrick Seil
Part I – Paradise Found
Paradise was what they discovered, these first few settlers of European descent, when they came upon the location of present-day Grayville.
Abundant game. Endless hardwood forests. Fertile soil. And a natural port upon a major waterway, elevated upon hills situated where the Bonpas Creek joined the deep hairpin bend of the Wabash River. It was all conducive to settlement.Thomas Gray of Virginia came to White County in 1809 and the following year established residence in Bonpas, a hamlet a short distance south of the creek mouth. Within a few years, three tiny settlements sprang up in the vicinity of present-day Grayville: Florence, at the creek mouth proper; Oxford, upon the bluff that now bears its name; and Bonpas, the remains of which were unearthed a few years ago in the excavation for the new sewage treatment plant on Grayville’s south side.
The river provided a port perched high above the river’s frequent floods, and made the city an early transportation hub for settlers and early commerce.
Grayville itself is named for James Gray, who erected the first business house in the community with his brother-in-law, Robert Walden, in 1830. The centennial history of Grayville, written by Janet Walker and published in 1955, says it was a small building at what is now the northwest corner of Main and North Streets. Their main business was trading goods for venison hams, deer, coon and mink pelts, Walker wrote.
“At this time, all except land cleared immediately around the homesteads was heavily wooded westward on the hills and extending even to the water’s edge. The cleared area was about two acres. A boat landing was built upon the waterfront, and people and merchandise arrived by flatboat poled up or down the river. Boats used the mouth of the Bonpas Creek for winter quarters.”
In June of 1831, the river served as a backdrop for the first wedding recorded in the area. United in marriage were Edward Feverson of Edwards County and Sallie Kelly, daughter of Jacob Kelly. The land across from Grayville was claimed by Kelly and to this day is referred to as “Kelly’s Kingdom,” or simply, “The Kingdom.”
To quote from the White County history published in 1883: “Miss Sallie was his oldest child, a sweet maid of 18. On the day the wedding took place, the groom with his escort from Edwards appeared on the west bank of the river in the valley south of Oxford hill with Elder Charles Whiting, the clergyman. Two well-laden canoes shot out from ‘Kelly’s Kingdom’ with the bride and her attendants on board. A landing was effected without accident. The beautiful Sallie ascended the bank with unfaltering step and walked straight to the mark. In the presence of a large concourse of people, Elder Whiting joined the young couple in the holy bonds of matrimony. Immediately after the closing ceremony, Jacob Kelly announced, ‘Everybody cross the river to my house, where you will find plenty of whiskey and something to eat.’ The canoes were kept busy transporting the large crowd from the Illinois to the Indiana shore. While this was in progress, a foot-race was run for a prize of two gallons of rum. Robert Williams and Sam Potter were the contestants. The ground selected was the sand bar opposite George Webb’s farm, 100 yards distant, to start at the drop of a hat. At the starting time it was about 12 o’clock, and the sun came down on the sand bar with a fearful heat. They put their backs to the sun and ran to the north. When these two gladiators stripped for the contest, I was delighted with their giant forms and manly bearings. At the drop of the hat off they shot like two mighty race horses. Sam Potter came out 4 feet ahead. It seemed that he owed his success to retaining his shoes, while Williams ran in his bare feet and consequently sank deeper into the soft sand. By the time the race was over the rum was on hand, having been brought from Gray and Walden’s store. We all took a drink and passed over the river to dinner. A general good time was had in that cane-break that afternoon. A platform was laid with plank in the yard. Steve Hering was there with his fiddle. It would have delighted anyone to witness Zack Boultinghouse, Robert Walden, Soloman Charles, Major Stephenson, Sam’l. Potter, Robt. Coulter, Noah David, John Webb, James Calvin, stepping time to the music with their partners in a mazy dance. I shall not personate any of the ladies who took part in that dance. Suffice it to say their spotless fame stands out in bold relief as a rich legacy to the present generations.”
Also from the White County history of 1883, we have this account of travel on the Wabash, from the Hon. Samuel Martin.
“Our first stoppage was at the mouth of the Kentucky River where we landed in Carrollton, a little town in Gallatin County and entered the waters of the beautiful Ohio River. We reached Jeffersonville where the women and children disembarked and walked to New Albany, a distance of two and a half miles, while the men took on a falls pilot and descended the Ohio River over the falls. Supplies were purchased in Louisville, then quite a city, containing at least 10,000 souls. On the trip down the Ohio, we passed many small towns with Mt. Vernon making the best appearance of all towns between Louisville and the mouth of the Wabash River which we entered on October first.”
“While the men poled the boat upstream, the women and children footed through the cane or walked sandbars. Our progress was slow and New Harmony was reached, it being the first town on the Wabash of much importance. It had been the headquarters of Rappe and his community, but had become peopled by the Owens and their followers. From New Harmony we proceeded on our way, arriving at the town of Bonpas, which was then a village comprising about a dozen families. George Webb Sr. was the postmaster, Edmund Covington, Abram Payne, Jesse Coulter, and Mr. Finney resided in the place with their families. Captain Robert Coulter lived on a farm adjoining the town.”
“After a two or three day visit, we again started for our intended destination – Palestine, Crawford County, Illinois, but were unable to cross the Grand Rapids forcing the boat back downriver to Mt. Carmel. Here, dissension set in. One family wanted to hire horses and continue on to Palestine and the other family wanted to move downriver to the mouth of the Bonpas for winter quarters. The families split. The Martin family made the run to Bonpas Creek in two days time.”
“We found Grayville at that time (November 1830) to consist of the following: A small house standing on the site now occupied by the storehouse of Carey, Stewart and Lanterman, owned by James Gray and Robert Walden, and used as a storehouse. About five rods east was a log cabin. Just south, a small log cabin stood, occupied by Gray and Walden’s Negroes. John Bell had a cooper shop on the site now occupied by Mike Smith’s saloon. Gray and Walden’s principle trade was exchanging their goods that had been brought upriver for venison, hams, deer, coon and mink skins. The only road leading to this point was from Albion. It terminated at the mouth of the Bonpas. We abandoned our boat and lived in a vacant log cabin until spring.”
“Their first winter in Bonpas in 1830-31 was one of the hardest ever experienced. Snow was deep, and a crust on top so strong a man could walk on it. The ground was frozen to a depth of three feet. When spring opened we became the tenants of Robert Coulter to put in a crop with a team of oxen.”
Mr. Martin said this of the depression of 1840:
“Throughout the entire Union, every branch of business was depressed. At Grayville, it looked as though a cyclone had passed over the place with fearful force. On the shelves of all the business houses, enough dry goods could not be found to wad a shotgun, and worst of all, the dram-shops went clean dry. A man had to go to the distillery in New Harmony or to Carmi to wet his whistle.”
“By 1844, the dead town of Grayville showed some life in business. The farmers were making money; there were two dry-goods stores, a grocery store, and a liquor shop where a square drink of whiskey could be purchased for five cents. Down by the river a steam sawmill was turning our large quantities of lumber. The town was taking new life and bid fair to regain her lost laurels in the business world.”
The late Grayville historian Herschel Groff relates this story he found in a 1914 issue of The Grayville Independent concerning a horrific boat ride:
“Back in the spring of 1835, Robert Dale Owen, John Jenkin and George Hugo bought a steamboat named the ‘Amity’ and brought it to New Harmony, Ind., where it was to used to haul passengers and freight on the Wabash River. Steam boating was new to this area in 1835 and the boat was quite an attraction to the settlers who lived in this area.
“The first trip for the ‘Amity’ was to go upriver to Grayville, 15 miles upstream, pick up some freight, and return the same day. As a gesture of goodwill, the owners invited people of New Harmony to ride along free of charge. The invitations were eagerly accepted by several men, women and children.
“Since it was to be a short, one day, pleasure cruise, no provisions were made for food or drink. The boat left New Harmony at 9 a.m. and was supposed to be back before supper. Little did they know what was in store for them.
“The boat ran upstream making good time and everybody was enjoying the thrill of a powered boat ride. They had covered four miles in two hours’ time when the engine stopped suddenly. The boiler had gone dry and it was discovered that the water pump wasn’t working. Unable to fix it, the boiler had to be filled by dipping water out of the river and dumping it in the top of the boiler. This took four long hours.
“Finally, they were on their way and steamed another four miles when the engine ran out of steam again. They would have to fill the boiler by hand again. By this time, it was getting late in the day and the passengers were hungry and wanted to return to New Harmony. The pleasure trip wasn’t much of a pleasure anymore.
“But, the owners were determined to reach Grayville and pressed on. They finally arrived at their destination about midnight, cold, hungry and thirsty for something to drink besides Wabash river water.
“Some of the men picked their way, in the dark, up the hill to Grayville’s main street, avoiding huge gullies on both sides of the path. They went from one log cabin to another asking for food, but were turned down everywhere. The settlers all reported that they had no food to spare. You must remember that this was back in 1835 and Grayville wasn’t much of a village. People didn’t respond kindly to a knock on the door in the middle of the night. But the men did find a corncrib, filled their arms with ears of corn, and took it back to the boat where they parched it on a stove and devoured it eagerly.
“While hunting for food, one of the passengers, a man named John Preaus, a young Prussian lately arrived in this country, got lost, fell into a deep gully, and couldn’t get out. He began to holler, the men finally located him and had to get a rope from the boat to pull him out. Although he was a well-known, gallant officer in the Mexican War, his ordeal in Grayville scared him to death. It was reported that he left for Louisiana immediately after the boat got back to New Harmony.
“The passengers and crew spent a miserable night on the “Amity” and eagerly awaited daylight when they were able to fix the water pump, load the freight, and start downstream.
“The trip back home turned into a blast. Some of the passengers discovered that several kegs of beer from the Cooper and Elliot Brewery in Albion were part of the freight that had been picked up in Grayville. They immediately broke open a keg and helped themselves.
“It was reported that it was quite a party going back and that the beer ran out just as the boat tied up in New Harmony.
“The “short pleasure cruise” had lasted 27 hours.”
Not all was paradise.
Part II – Paradise Gained
The little community on the west bank of the Wabash persevered during hard times, enduring a depression in 1842 that nearly wiped it out, and periodic epidemics. But the town rebounded, and hotels sprang up to acomodate river travelers and mills and lumber yards were founded to take advantage of Grayville’s strategic location.
Herschel Groff’s research tells us this about the era of steamboating on the Wabash:
The next write up that could be found about steamboats coming to Grayville was the White Rose that was built in Cincinnati in 1847. It had an unhappy ending when it burned at Cairo on July 24, 1848. Then, in an article dated October 20, 1855 the Grayville Herald newspaper reported, “The steamer Blackhawk arrived from Ohio well loaded. She discharged freight for Prunty and Woodward, Martin and Coulter, Steele and Hearsom, and left for ports upriver.” The newspaper also reported that 6380 hogs were gathered at the river for shipment downriver.
Ice jams and freezes caused a lot of damage to steamboats back in those days. The Tennessee Belle started business in December 1855 and on her first voyage she was frozen in ice. The Grayville Independent newspaper reported that the Wabash River was closed for seven weeks due to an ice jam. Merchants ran out of goods to sell and nobody could leave town. It was a dreadful winter. At other times, many boats were destroyed by fire and boiler explosions. In 1856 the David White caught fire near Shawneetown. A nearby boat, the Niagra, came alongside and took off the passengers but the boat was destroyed.
Wrecks sunk a lot of boats. The most famous in this area was when the Captain of the Kate Sarchet tried to go across the top of the Mt. Carmel dam to avoid paying a fee to go through the lock. The boat ripped her hull on the top of the dam and sank at a loss of $7000. All the passengers were saved although a bit wet from the experience. That happened on June 25, 1858. The boat was later raised, towed to Evansville, and rebuilt. A boat in this area, named the Hunter, was built in 1865, and sunk in 1874. The Ada Heilman was another local boat, built in 1871, and was active on the Wabash River. The Eugene was built here in 1883 to haul corn downriver on the Wabash. It sunk in 1894. The James Gray was built in Grayville in 1863, weighed 64 tons and worked on the Wabash, Ohio and Green Rivers. It was dismantled at Pittsburgh in 1892.
Many of the boats were chartered for special trips and other boats ran excursions. On one occasion in 1874, the fleet steamer Wild Deer took a load of Grayville citizens, including the Grayville Band Boys, down to New Harmony to see a play, then returned late at night. The paper reported that the passengers were all pleased. Some of the larger boats, such as the Crescent City, with a home port of Evansville, could only come to Grayville when the river was high, mostly in the spring. Boats like these ran excursions all over the middle west. People in Grayville could go to far-away places like St. Louis and Cincinnati.
All steamboats were not made for freight and passengers. Along came the showboats to entertain folks up and down the rivers. Some had stages built inside the boat. The smaller boats pushed a barge up in front that was converted into a stage. Customers sat on the riverbanks to watch old time melodramas and minstrel shows. These boats all had calliopes – an organ powered by steam that made a distinctive kind of music. You could hear one all over town.
Many boat captains became famous and well known. A Grayville man was one of the best known of all boat owners and captains in the middle west. Samuel D. Blair was born in Pope County, Ill., on November 28, 1838 and moved to Grayville with his parents in 1854. He farmed with his dad and made several trips downriver on flatboats on the long trek home and decided that steamboating was the future for him. During his lifetime, he owned and operated several steamboats, used mostly on the Wabash but some on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. This was at a time when steamboating was in its glory and good money could be made. He became a wealthy man.
Captain Blair was also involved in other activities. He owned a sawmill, owned 500 acres of farmland in Gibson County Ind., and served six terms on the City Council. He built one of the finest houses in Grayville, which was located on the highest hill in Grayville – where the water tower is now. You could see the Wabash River from the second story of the house, and the story is, since every boat whistle had its own distinctive sound, the family could hear the whistle and watch for his boat, and know the Captain was coming home. You have to remember that this was back before any of the tall buildings were built downtown.
The Blair family name was well known in this area. Members of the family were active in the community and social events. And, it was a large family. There were 23 people named Blair who were buried in Oak Grove Cemetery. Pat Seil, publisher of the Navigator, has ancestry going back to the Blair family. His great-grandfather, W.J. Seil, married Anna Blair in 1893 – in the famous Blair House.
And, that’s the story about steamboats and the Blair family. There isn’t anybody by the name of Blair listed in the phonebook that lives in Grayville today and the steamboats are all gone. The Blair family members have moved or died and the railroads ran the steamboats out of business. But it was a grand and glorious time in the history of Grayville. The newspapers reported that as many as six steamboats were tied up at the Grayville riverbank at one time. The area was full of sawmills, grain mills, flourmills and furniture manufacturing plants. All of that merchandise had to be shipped by riverboat. And Grayville was the hub for shipments of goods not only to the merchants in Grayville, but also to companies in both Albion and Carmi.
And, as is the case with any “river town,” Grayville acquired more than its share of shady characters.
The most noted of them all was saloonkeeper Mike Smith. Herschel Groff researched his life:
“Michael Smith was born Dec. 7, 1838, in Vanderburgh County, Ind. Mike left home when he was only eight years old to make his own way in life. His first jobs were on riverboats and he eventually ended up in Grayville when he was 12 where he was taken in by a saddler who taught him the business of working with leather to make saddles and harnesses for horses. He was a quick learner and went into business for himself when he was 16. He soon had a profitable saddle business, taught himself to read and write, and studied law. He was a sharp businessman who became a land speculator and he had already made a lot of money by the time the Civil War broke out.
“Mike Smith must have also been very patriotic because he walked away from all of his affairs in Grayville and enlisted in an Illinois Infantry division on August 13, 1862 at the age of 24. He spent nearly three years in the service and was discharged June 16, 1865. He returned to Grayville and started what was to become the most notorious saloon in the history of the town. He must have picked up some bad habits in the service because his place not only served some of the best whiskey in town; it also provided several other forms of entertainment, including gambling. Mike was soon making money “hand over fist.”
“Mike’s saloon was located on the southeast corner of South Main and East South Street where the government housing is located today. The saloon faced the west, onto Main Street and Mike built a fine home just east of his place and soon owned all of the land from Main Street down to the railroad. During the next few years he acquired over 700 acres of farmland plus valuable city property. He became civic minded and served one term as treasurer of the city and was president of the council in 1868. But things began to change in the 1870’s when the Anti-Saloon League tired of the all-night drinking and illegal gambling going on in Mike Smith’s Saloon.
“Mike never could obey the law. He never closed his place of business as required by law and there was always an illegal big-stakes poker game going on with Mike doing most of the winning. When the town voted DRY, it didn’t slow him down. He put a CLOSED sign on the door but a thirsty patron could always find a drink inside. Mike probably made more money selling illegal whiskey than he could the other kind. It all tasted the same.
An anti-saloon city council was elected in 1878 and again in 1880. Never bothered Mike a bit. He couldn’t buy city liquor licenses but went right on operating. Evidently he was so popular and so prominent in town that the police left him alone. In February 1881, he was sued by the City of Grayville for not having a liquor license, lost the case, and had to pay a fine of $1,000.00. But, he evidently went right on operating the roughest, toughest place in town. However, some of the local citizens had enough of Mike, and if the law couldn’t put him out of business, maybe a torch could. His business burned to the ground in December 1881. Read what was printed in the December 22, 1881 issue of the Grayville Independent newspaper about the fire:
“THREE MAIN STREET BUILDINGS DESTROYED”
“’About 1:30 o’clock Monday morning our citizens were aroused by the cry of “fire” and the saloon building of Michael Smith, on the corner of Main and South Streets, was discovered to be in flames, and under such headway that nothing could be done to save it. The flames quickly extended to the adjoining two-story frame occupied by Vertrees and Calvin as a saloon and billiard hall and only by the most heroic work were the elegant residence of Michael Smith on the east, and William Carother’s building on the north saved. Had the latter caught, nothing could have saved the two blocks from Smith’s to Coles livery stable.”
“’How the fire originated will probably remain a mystery though it is thought to be the work of an incendiary. It was discovered in Mr. Smith’s middle building used as a wareroom, for the storage of barrels of liquor.”
“’The flames spread rapidly and soon reached a keg of powder that exploded with terrific force tearing the south side and the east end of the building out, and making it impossible to save a single thing from his stock (which was always large) he estimates at $5,000 upon which there is no insurance.”
“’Most of Vertrees and Calvin’s stock was saved and their loss is not more than $200 or $300, but the building which belonged to Thomas Clark, of Calvin, one of the heirs to the Driggers Estate, was entirely destroyed but it was not worth much, probably $400, with no insurance.”
“’In Mr. Smith’s building was an old style, fire-proof safe in which there was money, notes, and bonds valued at $30,000, and it was thought they were destroyed, but on opening it on Tuesday, everything was found to be in good condition.”
“’We hope to see Mr. Smith build an elegant building on the burned district or on his vacant lots on the opposite side of the street, and as he is abundantly able to do it, we presume he will.”
Herschel Groff followed the story of Mike Smith to its inevitable end, only to find a tangle of loose ends:
“And now for the mystery in this story. Mike Smith fades into obscurity after 1884, when he went off to jail, and no one seems to know his fate. Records show that he had married a woman named Pauline who died soon after, and then Mike married her half-sister, Whelmina, who was much younger. Pauline and Whelmina are buried on the Smith plot, side by side, in Oak Grove Cemetery with nice tombstones showing their dates of birth and death. Pauline died in 1879 and Whelmina in 1946. But what happened to Mike?
“Although cemetery records show that Mike Smith is buried on the Smith plot, there is no record of his date of death and no tombstone. Also, after serving three years in the Civil War, there is a slab of concrete that measures about four feet by nine feet and is only six inches high, that does not have any markings – no name and no dates. Is Mike Smith buried under that cold, unmarked slab? If so, why is his grave unmarked? What other secrets are buried there?”
The railroads came to Grayville in the 1870s, and for a time the community was fortunate enough to be a railroad and river transportation capital. The railroads brought their own colorful characters, who blended with the river types. Herschel’s got a story there, as well.
In May 1800, engineers arrived in town to make surveys and lay out the tracks. But, P.D. & E. had problems — they had to build a bridge across the Wabash River. They finally decided it would have to be built about two miles south of town just north of the ferry. That summer, they brought carpenters and stonemasons to town and hired local labor to start construction. Since there wasn’t enough room in the boarding houses and hotels in town to house the workers, a fellow named Ben Scott, brought in a floating Boarding House and Saloon, and tied it up near the ferry to provide room and board for the workers.
To understand what happened at the new bridge site, you must know that in 1880, Grayville and the surrounding area was “dry.” That didn’t really bother the drinkers because, as the newspapers reported, the town was full of bootleggers. And, the river was full of floating saloons, which moved around when the law came near. Grayville, which was located at the juncture of three counties, was a popular spot for floating saloons. If, the saloon owners got word of a raid, they would move the boat across Bonpas Creek, and tie up in Wabash County, or, if things got really hot, they would move across the river to Indiana. With free rowboat transportation, the customers kept coming.
And there were other pleasures to be found on the floating saloons. As soon as the workers arrived to build the bridge, a fellow named Captain Bump moved his “Floating Palace of Sin” — named the White Swan — from Vincennes to Grayville and tied up down at the ferry. The men could now buy whisky and female companionship to soothe their pains after a hard day of working on the bridge. Things were running “wide open” with no law enforcement to bother anybody. What a wild time they had down there. But, as usual, when you mix men and women and whiskey together, things got out of hand and it ended up with a fight and a shooting.
The Dec. 9, 1800 issue of the Grayville Independent ran two stories that explain what happened. Following are the stories as they appeared in the paper.
Story number one: “BEN SCOTT, PROP. OF THE BOARDING HOUSE AND SALOON CHARGED WITH SHOOTING A WOMAN. A few nights ago, a crowd of men who are working on the P. D. & E. RR bridge at Webb’s Ferry boarded the White Swan — a boat of ill fame that came down here from Vincennes — and tore it to pieces, threw all of the furniture into the river, bruised up the men and ran the women off the boat, ridding the town of a great nuisance. This morning there is a rumor that one woman on the boat was shot and since died from the effects of the wound. But, after careful inquiry, we learn that the woman was shot, probably accidentally, by one of the inmates of the boat, but we were unable to trace the rumor of death to any reliable source or to find out who she is.”
Story number two: “Ben Scott, Prop. of a floating boarding house and saloon at Webb’s Ferry, called on us yesterday and desires me to state that he had nothing to do with injuring the women who were run off of the White Swan boat a few nights ago. He says the boat stopped near his boarding house and he loaded a shotgun with buckshot and ordered them to leave and they left. He says he did pound up the men, and sighs for more men to serve the same way, but he can’t stand being charged with injuring a woman. We cheerfully give Mr. Scott the benefit of the explanation.”
Evidently, after the women were run off, construction on the bridge continued at a faster pace. The stonemasons finished building the piers by the middle of December and carpenters were busy building the rest of the bridge. Tracks were within five miles of town. By Jan. 6, 1881, the railroad was completed from Peoria to Olney and tracks were only one mile from Grayville.
On Jan. 20, 1881, the first train on the P. D. & E. arrived in Grayville where it turned around and ran back to Peoria.
The P.D.&E took the initiative in launching one of Grayville’s best known entertainment emporiums. We turn to Brother Groff once again:
The Peoria, Decatur and Evansville Railroad Company was one of two companies running trains through Grayville back in 1895 and they came up with a plan to build an amusement park just south of Grayville to lure customers to ride the train and to also make money at the park. City businessmen were approached and they heartily endorsed the idea because it would bring travelers to town and would provide employment for the local citizens. It all fell together with a bang. The railroad bought several acres of land and spent over $3,700 building a pleasure park that attracted people by the thousands.
The May 29, 1895 Grayville Mercury newspaper described the park as follows: “The park is attracting large crowds, especially on Saturday and Sunday. The park has swings, bars, rings, ‘flying jennies,’ ‘teetering boards,’ and other rides that young and old can amuse themselves. There is a food stand and a dancing pavilion is moored to the bank and people can ‘trip the light fantastic’ or ride the merry-go-round.” The newspaper also told of swimming, fishing, and boat rides and reported that 400 people were there on the preceding Saturday with most customers arriving by train from out of town. The P. D. & E. Railroad was making money beyond expectations. They were hauling groups from Mattoon, Evansville, and from all over the Midwest to the park. The June 19 edition of the Mercury reported that, “a crowd estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000 were at the park on June 13 with several Lodge Clubs from Evansville in attendance.”
The Grayville Independent newspaper reported that the City of Grayville sold an unused gravel barge to the railroad and they had it towed down the river where it was moored to the riverbank and used for dancing. Live bands provided dance music. The jukebox hadn’t been invented.
Not only was the railroad running special trains to the park, Captain Blair of Grayville was running his ferry up and down the river hauling passengers. And, there was no way of telling how many people walked, as it was only two miles from town. Word must have spread quickly about the fun that could be had and the crowds kept coming. What a day it must have been to ride the train to Edgewater Park and to spend the day playing games, riding the rides, swimming, boating, eating concession food or a picnic lunch, then listening to or dancing to a live band during the evening.
Another noted amusement area during the early 1920’s was a park at Pearl Beach, directly across from Grayville on the Indiana side. All the standard facilities were constructed, including a concrete dance floor.
As railways and highways were constructed, the days of steamboating on the Wabash were numbered. The death knell was sounded with the advent of deep-draft barges, which the shallow stream—still classified as “navigable” by the US Army Corps of Engineers—could not accomodate.
Flood control became a major issue along the river throughout the 20th Century, but lost steam as small bottomland homesteads became absorbed into larger operations and fewer residents and livestock were affected by the river’s rise and fall.
Efforts to make the Wabash navigable by modern commercial craft were advanced, primarily by the Wabash Valley Association and its stalwarts, but were thwarted by Corps studies showing a negative return on the dollar. The Wabash at Grayville became strictly a venue for pleasure boaters, but they were still valuable to the community through the dollars they spent on food, alcohol, gasoline and supplies. The American Legion during the 1960s served dinners to a packed house every Saturday night, many of the patrons coming from the riverfront where they had docked their boats.
Of course, all good things come to an end. The Legion no longer serves suppers. And the Wabash no longer flows by Grayville.
Part III – Paradise Lost
George “Tex” Craft, retired lineman for CIPS and an avid riverman, came by the old Mercury-Independent office one day in the fall of 1983.
He insisted the Wabash was cutting across the “Kingdom.” Intrigued, I boarded Tex’s boat with camera in hand and documented what we found.
A huge lagoon had been carved out in the shoreline upstream from Grayville. And a ravine as deep as a two-story building was etched through the center of the “Kingdom.”
Obviously, something bad was about to happen.
It was all outlined in a story and photographs in the Oct. 27, 1983 issue of The Mercury-Independent (one of the ancestors of The Navigator) entitled “Wandering Wabash: Shift threatens to leave Grayville without a river.”
The warning fell upon deaf ears. Following a substantial flood in the spring of 1985, Craft paid me another visit. Again we went out in his boat. This time, I took pictures of Craft piloting his boat through an entirely new channel of the Wabash.
Everything predicted in that 1983 article came to pass. The city was left on a stagnant, oxbow bend. It was being filled with outflow from the city’s sewage treatment plant, in addition to silt from Bonpas. It became a breeding ground for mosquitoes.
Congressman Terry Bruce, D-Olney, did his best for the city, obtaining authorization for up to $5 million in federal funds to restore the river to Grayville, but the bill stipulated “non-federal” interests would have to pick up 25 percent of the tab. The states of Indiana and Illinois both graciously declined, and the outlay was beyond Grayville’s bank account.
During the term of Mayor Dennis Campbell in the early 1990s, local oilman Vic Gallagher, Jr., advanced a plan to dredge the old bend and the idea picked up steam. State Sen. John O. Jones, R-Mt. Vernon, managed to obtain a $200,000 grant for the project, but due to a variety of obstacles it never took place.
Now, the oxbow cutoff at Grayville and resulting complications is again being examined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Mayor Henry Kijonka and city officials successfully lobbied U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Savoy, for a $96,000 grant to study the situation.
Grayville city officials are proposing erection of a low-water dam in front of the Interstate 64 bridges below the oxbow. This, according to Mayor Henry Kijonka, would limit protect the bridges and transform the stagnant oxbow into a lake.
The city has been forced to relocate its sewage treatment outflow and the Illinois Department of Transportation has buttressed the I-64 bridges against the new direction of the river and its resulting increased flow rate.
The city’s new $1.9 million sewage treatment system outflows at the nearby railroad bridge. The bridge lost a trestle in the last two years due to erosion from the new channel and the sewage facilities are now threatened, he added.
Ironically, the new plant was in part designed to address the problem of the city’s old plant outflowing into the stagnant bend.
Is the study a turning point? Maybe Chapter IV can be: Paradise Regained