Grafton, Illinois – The History of a Resilient Town

Pere Marquette State Park Lodge in the late 1930’s

We recently spent five days in Grafton, Illinois camping at Pere Marquette State Park.  While there my brother Ken and my sister-in-law Ann came for a visit.

We were reminiscing about our childhood in Grafton and talked about the things we remembered.

These nostalgic remembrances made me think about what it was like coming back to Grafton.

The photo on the left is the old lodge at Pere Marquette State Park. I’m not totally sure but I think the lady serving the couple in the photo is my Grandmother, Eva Austin. She cooked and served in the Lodge.

For me coming to Grafton is coming home. My maternal Grandmother and my paternal Grandfather both had houses there. My Granny lived full time in Grafton and my Grandfather lived in Grafton during the summers. 

My parents began bringing us to this river town when I was very young and we were there most every weekend that didn’t find my family camping. My maternal Grandfather died when I was four but I remember him just the same. I remember his gruff tone and his face. My Dad and I used to watch “Friday Fights” with him on his television with a tiny screen (one of the first TVs). I’d get a foot in the back with a hard nudge and the words “change the channel boy.”  I was the remote control. My maternal Grandmother and my Mom and one of her sisters would always be talking in the kitchen.

My Grandpa Ketchum had a summer house in Grafton on the corner of main and Route 100. I don’t remember much about his house but I remember that he had a pet chicken. The chicken roamed freely around the property and inside house.  It was booted out in the evening to live in a hollowed tree. “Gal” was the chicken’s name.

When I was little I had many big adventures in Grafton with my cousins. I remember that we kids were given more access to roaming away from our Grandparents houses while in Grafton. We had a lot more freedom than back home in Florissant.  We used our freedom playing with our cousins and and an endless game hide and seek and exploring the hill behind Granny’s house.

Grafton is a place where I remember the feeling of home. Being there made me want to do the research to find out what made Grafton what it is today. What follows is a written history of this tenacious place at the confluence of two great rivers.

Defining Grafton

I have always been fascinated by the history of Grafton.  The town finds itself at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. It has a history that is fascinating and terrifying at the same time. It became important for may reasons but it’s principal fame came from the many boats and visitors that stopped there en-route to their final destinations.  It was an important port town where paddleboat crews and travelers stopped for fuel, they on and offloaded cargo, got something to eat, got supplies and had a shot or five of whisky.

The Steamboat “Alton” plied the waters up and down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers
The Town Layout
The town is thirty seven miles north of St. Louis. Grafton was the first settlement in Jersey County, and occupies the southern part of Quarry Township.  The township derives its name from the outcropping of  limestone which was quarried since the establishment of Grafton.
Extending north up steep hills from Main Street are roads through the hollows that link Grafton with the surrounding farm lands and the Jersey County Seat, Jerseyville.  The hollows also link the back roads to the Mississippi River communities east of Grafton.

Grafton has six “hollows” that run generally north from the town’s mainstreet. 

“Simms Hollow”, the easternmost, was named for an early land holder.

“Baby Hollow” was named for the prolific characteristics of the families who lived there.

“Jerseyville Hollow” was the principal route to Jerseyville, and now serves as Illinois Route Three.

Prior to the building of Highway three, it was known as “Cork Hollow,” in honor of the many Irish who came from Cork County, Ireland and settled this section of the city.

“Distillery Hollow” reflects an early Irish business.

“Mason Hollow” was the location of Paris Mason’s landing. Mason was the brother of the town’s founder James Mason.

“Daggett Hollow” which is just inside the western city limits, and is only a couple of blocks long. I remember my Dad referring to these places but never knew where they were until I was much older. 

Shaped by Industry and Rife with Natural and Manmade Disasters

Because river transportation, commerce and industry, and survival are all hallmarks of this town, It is a surety that Grafton will continue into the future as it has persevered in the past. Through the years numerous events have defined and shaped Grafton.  There was the flood of 1844 when the town was just eight years old, A black powder plant that blew up continuously. A tornado in 1883 that destroyed part of the city. Numerous fires throughout the years and the worst of all was the 1993 flood.  Throughout, Grafton’s greatest significance is the historic tenacity of its citizens and the determination to keep re-inventing itself that has enabled it to move into the future as a viable place of commerce and recreation.
Grafton Main Street during a Flood
Grafton Main Street (Note the Ruebel Hotel in the Left Foreground, it remains today)
Historical Significance 
The area was explored by Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet during in the year of 1673. They were in hopes of finding a route to the “Vermillion Sea” and on to India and the Pacific Ocean. The group passed the mouths of the Illinois, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers, and upon reaching the Arkansas River, were able to determine that the Mississippi would not lead them as they had hoped, but emptied instead into the Gulf of Mexico.
This expedition became the first contact with Native American lands, therefore leaving us with our first written record of history in the Grafton area. The supposed site of the group’s entrance into the Illinois River to return to Lake Michigan is marked with a limestone cross just west of the city. 
Later in history the members of LaSalle’s expedition were the next to discover the Grafton area. Father Hennepin, another priest/explorer and a member of LaSalle’s party, departed from Fort Creve Coeur near Peoria in early March 1680.
Their intention was to explore the Mississippi River. Winter ice forced him to wait at the location which is now Grafton ten days until he was able to ascend the river. Two years later, LaSalle himself with another expedition party including several Native Americans encamped near Grafton, staying there a week until the Mississippi River became navigable.  
After Lasalle only small handfuls of settlers investigated the area near Grafton.
The War of 1812 and Grafton
After the breakout of war in 1812 the Governor of the Illinois Territories “Ninian Edwards” dispatched troops to the strategic location at the confluence of the rivers. He tasked Captain John Whiteside and his troops to build semi-permanent log block houses to establish residency and in defense of the area. This was the first (semi) permanent settlement in what is now known as Jersey County.
Slow Growth
In 1817 the rights to ten million acres of land, including the present counties of Greene and Jersey, were purchased from the Kickapoo Indians. This opened the lands for Anglo-European settlement.
But, settlement was still slow to occur.

Anglo-Europeans slowly continued to settle in the area under the threats of raging prairie fires and and hostilities with the area’s Native Americans were common in this era. . In 1819, five veterans of the U.S. Army (George Finney, David Gilbert, Sanford Hughes, John Stafford, and a man whose last name was Copeland) settled in Quarry Township and erected several log cabins. Finney went on to eventually plat the town of “Camden” (Camden was just north of Grafton by a mile) in 1821.

The Early River Era
In years between 1830 -1865 the development of Grafton became linked to the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers. Transportation, commerce and industry became synonymous with the proximity of the rivers. The area of the two rivers provided a source of power (wood) and a means of distribution of goods and materials.

Residential, commercial, industrial and transportation were the hallmarks on which the city was founded upon. There was a powerful attraction for a town at the confluence of the two rivers and eventually ended in the initial lands for the city to be purchased at the end of the Civil War.

Post Civil War Grafton, Main Street
Further Delay in Development
Earlier settlement of the community which became Grafton still did not fully develop until the early 1830s when James Mason became the community’s founder. In 1819, a land office was established in Edwardsville, Illinois, with a man named Edward Coles. Coles was appointed as receiver and James Mason appointed an officer. Mason was well connected and had numerous personal and financial connections. His biggest business asset and eventual financial partner  was Henry Von Phul, Von Phul was an extremely prominent businessman in St. Louis. Together Mason and Von Phul managed numerous purchases of land in Grafton, Edwardsville, Bloomington, Quincy and Springfield. 
Start of a Boom
There were numerous opportunities to establish a thriving river trade. In a plan to assist St. Louis in overtaking its industrial rival Alton, Illinois in river trade, James Mason and Von Phul purchased the lands where Grafton is located to establish a ferry across the Mississippi which would facilitate trade with St. Louis.

In 1832 Mason built four log cabins, and placed his brother Paris Mason in the community to take charge of the first general store and other businesses. James Mason settled in the unnamed community, and initiated operation of a horse-drawn ferry at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, the first ferry at Grafton. Another ferry operated across the Missouri River to provide direct access to St. Louis for the residents of what was then Greene County. (Jersey County was formed from part of Greene County in 1839.) The system of ferries greatly enhanced trade, with St. Louis just twenty miles via this route. After installing the ferries, conducting business in St. Louis necessitated only one day’s time.

In 1833 James Mason, Dr. Silas Hamilton, and others incorporated the Grafton Manufacturing Company, for the purpose of erecting grist, woolen, and cotton mills and conducting a general mercantile, manufacturing, trading, and shipping business in Grafton.

James Mason died on July 5, 1834 at the age of thirty-one; Silas Hamilton died on November 28 of that year and under the power of attorney from Sarah Mason, widow of James and guardian of their only child Martha Marie Mason, Paris Mason took charge of the Mason enterprises in Grafton. Paris

Mason surveyed, platted, and incorporated the city in 1836, with Sarah Mason naming the community Grafton in April 1836 in honor of her husband’s birthplace Grafton, Massachusetts. The first sale of lots occurred that year, and was so successful that in 1837 another sale of lots was conducted, with lots selling from $400 to $1,500 each. The first year of Grafton’s incorporation brought a short lived boom to the community.

While business enterprises opened rapidly in 1836 as a result of river trade, the increasing population had supplementary effects beyond the ensuing residential and commercial development. In 1837 a Methodist Church was built on the hill between Cedar and Vine streets behind the John Keyes home. A frame building, the church measured thirty by forty feet, and was the first church in Jersey County.

Paris Mason, in addition to serving as operator of the ferry and as postmaster, published a newspaper in 1837, the first newspaper in Greene and Jersey Counties. The Backwoodsmen was edited by John Russell, noted for his stories in the old McGuffy Readers. Russell was visited by his friend Charles Dickens when Dickens stopped in Grafton during his tour of the United States in 1842. Two other writers Edgar Allen Poe and Samuel Clemens were spotted frequently using Grafton for writing inspiration. 

Boom and Bust
1836 quarrying had begun and flourished at or near Grafton. In front of the bluffs east of Grafton were quarry caves complete with arched entrances and at Grafton and just north of Alton. Business boomed until the national “Panic of 1837” which was a financial crisis in the United States that touched off a major recession that lasted until the 1840’s.  At that time all but one business Grafton closed with the exception of one General Store owned by John Keyes. The once costly city lots had devalued quickly and considerably.
By 1837 the original river landing, established by James Mason, was reestablished the the principal locale for steamboat trade. Paris Mason’s Landing was at the foot of Springfield Street. The Cherokee Packet Company was the first shipping company to establish service in Grafton, operating as early as 1840 from the landing in Grafton. 
The Ice Industry
The ice industry in Grafton likely dates to around 1840, and continued for a substantial number of years. When the river ice got to about ten inches thick, it would be marked off in squares. A trough would be cut into the river’s ice leading from the squares to the river bank.

The ice was sawn into cakes, floated through the troughs to the river bank, and loaded onto wagons destined for the ice houses. The ice houses were constructed of stone, some with rear walls at the bluff wall. A space between the walls and the stored ice would be filled with sawdust, acting as an insulator from the outside heat of the warmer months, and helping to keep the ice from melting.

Sawdust was also placed on top of the ice. Apparently spontaneous combustion was a problem, and fire insurance companies would not insure the ice houses. One of the ice houses was located by an early saloon the Green Trees on Main Street, in the area of the landing. My own maternal Grandfather owned an ice house near the corner of Main Street and Route Three.

This scene is typical of ice cutting from the era however, I could not find one from the Grafton area.

In 1844, a great flood hit Grafton. The worst overflow of water since settlement on the Mississippi River, all of the lower bottoms of the city were flooded, driving merchants and residents from that part of the town or even driving some out of town. The shipping wharf was destroyed.

At the time of the 1844 flood, the Illinois River flowed into the Mississippi River one quarter mile above what was then Grafton, at the Camden Hollow area.  The confluence of the two rivers would have therefore been slightly west of the foot of Springfield Street, near Paris Mason’s Landing. (The confluence of the two rivers is now near the foot of Cherry Street).

The 1844 flood created a great depth of water between the areas still known as Distillery Hollow and Cork or Jerseyville Hollow, sufficient enough to allow steamboats to land far into the hollows.

Grafton and Flooding are Synonymous


In 1849 the Asiatic cholera which was epidemic among the river towns, reached Grafton, causing many deaths. The disease was reputedly so virulent that it would strike and kill people within a day.

A later epidemic of cholera in 1854 was not as severe in number of deaths. Grafton responded to diseases as did other communities, by constructing a community facility for the ill. In Grafton, this facility was a one room log cabin built north into Baby Hollow. Known as the “Pest House,” the ill would care for each other, with townspeople delivering supplies only half way up the Hollow. Hundreds of disease victims were buried in the hills of the Hollow.

Riverboats Galore
In 1849 a riverman William Shepard purchased a stern-wheel steamboat called the Allegheny Mail. operating it for one season in 1849 between Grafton and St. Louis in an attempt to increase commercial communication.46 While that operation was not profitable, another steamer, the Adelia. was put into operation until 1862, when it was taken over by the U.S. Army, forcing a break in communication with Missouri.
In 1852 the St. Louis and Keokuk Packet Company began having coal brought down the Illinois River in barges and delivered to their boats at Mason’s Landing around 1852. The coal was unloaded in two and one-half bushel boxes with handles at both ends. About the same time, a large business was developed in cutting cord wood for shipment to St. Louis.

Slaten, Brock & Camp a transportation company of Grafton were among the main operators in this field. Boats were floated down river with the cord wood, and were towed upstream by various steamers, including the Bon Acord. owned by brothers Thomas, Chettick, and John Mortland of Calhoun County Illinois.

The amount of river traffic during this time must have been staggering. The lack of railroads mandated the steamers, making them highly profitable. A daily line of boats operated from St. Louis to Keokuk to St. Paul on the Mississippi, also between St. Louis and Naples, and St. Louis and Peoria on the Illinois.  Interspersed between the main lines were the “tramp” boats, moving grain, livestock, and produce between landings, including Mason’s Landing and St. Louis. On the Mississippi River, the boats landed at West Point, Hastings, Beech’s, Brussels, Dog Town, Fruitland, Winnieburg, Calhoun and Royal Landings, then Grafton, Jersey Landing in Elsah, and Riehl’s Landing, loaded with fruit, grain, livestock, and fish, packed in ice or dried to sell in city markets. 
The linkages of the waterways allowed canal boats from Chicago, by way of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, to come down the Illinois River to deliver their products along the river. The boats were towed back to Ottawa. Rafts of pine logs and lumber from Wisconsin forests floated down the Illinois and often waited at Grafton for long periods before continuing south. Realizing the importance of Grafton as a transportation hub, the Eagle Packet Company of St. Louis operated several boats in Grafton, including a smaller model of one of their well-known packets, the Spread Eagle. The Streckfus Line, also operating in St. Louis and New Orleans, operated in Grafton as well.

The increasing diversity in ethnicity in Grafton during this era brought noticeable changes. Founded mainly by New Englanders of English descent, Grafton attracted the Irish through the city’s growing quarry industry. Germans also began to represent a distinctive component of the community’s population.

1920 Western Auto Store (not Grafton but it looked similar)

The Quarry Business

Quarrying became increasingly lucrative during Grafton’s growth, with St. Louisans Silas Farrington and John Loler establishing the largest quarry which opened at the east end of Main Street in 1857 . This endeavor marked the first time Grafton limestone had been quarried for purposes other than local construction. The Grafton limestone was demonstrated to be well qualified for building purposes and extremely durable. The quarry was at a bluff over eighty feet high, with the stone being covered by a loess soil, some forty feet deep. The soil was washed off with high-pressure streams of water from steam pumps and the rock was drilled with steam drills and blown off by explosive charges, including black powder in the early days. In addition to the fine quality of the limestone, Grafton’s location at the edge of the Mississippi River facilitated the transportation of the stone for construction use in St. Louis, including early buildings along Broadway, the Old Cathedral on the riverfront, and the old Lindell Hotel in St. Louis.

The peak years for the quarry industry in Grafton followed the Civil War, with as many as five quarries operating in or near Grafton from 1866 to the late 1800s, employing 2,000 people at the industry’s peak in 1866 and 1867.

Increasingly, the stone became used in other communities, particularly for public works. Captain James B. Eads thoroughly tested the Grafton stone before selecting it for use in the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge, later named the Eads Bridge, in St. Louis. Begun in 1867 and completed in 1874, the piers of the bridge are limestone faced in granite.

Among the other uses of Grafton stone are the Quincy Bridge, the St. Charles [Missouri] Bridge, and a government building at the Rock Island Arsenal.  The Grafton stone, however, continued to be an important local building material. In 1874, the Grafton School was erected, complete with an 800 pound brass bell inscribed “Buck-eye Bell Foundry – Cincinnati 1851. The massive two story rock-faced limestone building featured a steeply pitched truncated hip roof, a gable front pavilion, and tall, narrow Gothic arched windows. Demolished on August 5, 1967, the historic school was replaced by a modern brick version in 1969.

In 1869, the largest of the quarries, the Grafton Stone and Transportation Company, built a two story limestone headquarters building at a cost of $14,000. The second floor of the building was known as Armory Hall, measuring 30 by 70 feet, and was used for public purposes. (The building remains on the southeast corner of Main and Cherry Streets.) Charles Brainerd was appointed superintendent of the Grafton Stone and Transportation Company in 1866.

A native of Rome, Oneida County, New York, Charles Brainerd came to Grafton to work for the quarry, starting first as a clerk before becoming superintendent, a position which he occupied for thirty years. Brainerd was also a stockholder in the company, and served as Mayor of Grafton for several terms.

The company later changed to the Grafton Quarry Company, with James Black of St. Louis serving as president, and John S. Roper of Alton being secretary. The quarry industry in Grafton had substantially declined in volume by the late nineteenth century.

By 1885, the quarry industry employed only about one hundred people in Grafton. Within recent years, evidence of the quarry enterprises could reportedly be seen west of the Grafton School and on the west, lower bluff at Mason Hollow. Lumber continued to be readily available in Grafton, with the George Slaten Lumber Yard located on the south side of Main Street, between Mulberry and Elm streets in the late nineteenth century. W.L. Landon had a lumber yard on the southeast corner of Main and Oak streets at the turn of the century.

Grafton Stone and Transportation Company


In 1855, Irishman James A. Dempsey came to Grafton from Philadelphia and built a distillery in an area which continues to be know as “Distillery Hollow.” Completed in 1856 or 1857, the distillery was not particularly successful, changing ownership by 1863 with C.B. Eaton acquiring the business. 63 The distillery burned in 1863, and Eaton replaced it with the “River House Hotel.”

The “River House” Hotel aka: “The Bloody Bucket”

The River House gained a reputation as a rough place during the late Civil War years and afterwards. Infamous outlaw Jesse James and his gang frequented the River House repeatedly. Apparently the relatively short distance of the river’s width between Missouri and Illinois was appealing to outlaws who found Grafton’s vast wilderness of hills, islands, and caves appealing hide-outs.

The number of murders and the reputed gatherings of robbers, horse thieves, and bushwhackers resulted in the River House more frequently being referred to as the “Bloody Bucket.” Local Grafton historian Anna May Hopley reports in her 1967 local history entitled Blood, Sweat, and Grafton, that “Many senior citizens still remember seeing the blood stains about the building and the noose still hanging from the rafters upstairs.” (The building was razed in the early 1900s.) The corruption in Grafton resulted in the formation of the Self-Protection Society on August 17, 1864; the Society was organized for the “mutual protection of persons and property against any unauthorized raid, or threatened raid in said county, and against any thieves or lawless characters generally.

Grafton Mills

William Alien built the first grist mill at Grafton in 1854-55, using the same name of the incorporation issued to James Mason, his deceased father in-law, and Dr. Silas Hamilton-Grafton Manufacturing Company. It produced a high grade flour called “Allen’s Best,” and shipped to locations as distant as Boston.

The mill was a large frame building, 40 by 88 feet; it had a capacity of 125 barrels of flour per day. Operated by steam with patent roller machinery process, the mill reportedly cost about $30,000, The mill was operated by William Allen until 1869, when his son, James M. Allen, became manager. The mill was located on the south side of Main Street, between Cherry and Oak streets at the east end of town
 A flour mill was established at Mason’s Landing by Gregory McDaniel and “a man by the name of Schaff about 1856 or 1857, but never operated with much success. it was demolished in the late nineteenth century.

A starch mill was begun in 1856 by a man identified only as “Spence.”  Located two blocks up Market Street, the mill was supplied by a large spring northeast of the mill building. The operation was apparently quite successful.

Grafton Mills and Manufacturing Company
(Their flour brand was known by the name “Allen’s Extra”)
Boat Building

Grafton’s prime location at the confluence of the two rivers supported not only shipping, but also necessitated a boat construction industry. By the late 1850s, the manufacture of dredge boats had become widespread, having begun as early as the mid-1830s. The industry would continue to thrive in various forms into the early twentieth century.

Commercially, the boat manufacturing industry grew significantly during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Captain A.D. Fleak established the Fleak Ship Company in 1867, constructing a great number of barges which were shipped all over the Midwest and East.

In 1890, Peter “Pete” Freiman developed and constructed the first of the fishing boats that would make his name a byword among fishermen. Freiman’s prototype boat was built at the River House in what was then still Camden Hollow, but Freiman moved to a new residence and workshop built for him and his family at the southwest corner of Main and Church streets the following year.

The “Freiman Skiff or “Fisherman’s Special” measured about twenty-four feet in length, and had a pointed bow and square stern. The bottom was flat and tapered on each side, no more than three feet at its widest; the acute flare of the sides afforded a width of nearly six feet at the stout oak gunwales. These and the framing ribs were made of the finest white oak, plentiful to the area. The sides of the skiffs were single pieces of clear cypress.

Known to every fishing colony from Keokuk, Iowa, to New Orleans, Louisiana, the skiff was sought in greater numbers than Freiman could furnish. The skiff provided the capacity to transport a fisherman and a day’s catch as easily and safely as possible.

Other smaller boat works constructed square-bowed flatboats known as “John Boats.” While these were commonly employed, the majority of the local commercial fishermen whose livelihood and lives depended largely on the boat in which they spent their workdays, preferred the Freiman Skiff. Copies of Freiman’s skiff were attempted, but none was successful.

Frank, George, and Will Ripplyey came to Grafton from Boonville, Missouri and opened a grocery store, then a tin shop, and began to manufacture metal livestock feeders and feed cookers by 1890.

The Rippley’s metal works produced the “Rippley Roof,” the locally prevalent standing seam metal roof which continues to be prominent in town. The hardware store in which Frank was a partner was located on the southeast corner of Main and Oak streets. Not to be outdone in other business concerns, the Rippley’s incorporated the Rippley Boat Company, and foot of Oak Street on the river.

Their original boat company (under different ownerships) would gain prominence in the World War I era and later during WWII and then the Vietnam War. During WWI the company manufactured over 1000 large lifeboats, during WWII they manufactured a few prototype PT boats and finally during the Vietnam era they build Riverine-warfare boats (river gunboats).  The company also manufactured barges, fire boats, tugboats, ferry boats, skiffs, dredges, ocean going vessels and pleasure boats over the years.

The building still stands. It is now a popular bar and grill known as “The Loading Dock.”  This new enterprise from land or river.

The Freiman Skiff
The Boat Works Warehouse Today aka: “The Loading Dock”

Austin Powder Company

In December 1907, the Illinois Powder Manufacturing Company opened an explosives manufacturing plant in Babbs Hollow, one mile east of Grafton. Referred to locally as the “Powder Mill,” however this was not simply gunpowder, rather they made explosives that consisted of ammonia nitrate, nitroglycerine, and dynamite. The company was adjacent to the Chicago, Peoria & St. Louis Railroad, then operated by the Illinois Terminal, with the first products being shipped in boxcars.

Illinois Powder Manufacturing Company played an increasingly vital role in sustaining the Grafton economy by providing one of the few sources of employment. The company continued to use the convenient rail transportation, although one instance of the company using barge transportation was recorded in 1922. 135 The company owned several houses in town for workers, chemists, and superintendents. The company later became known as the American Cyanamide Company. In the early 1940s, the company employed 115 men.

The powder and specifically the dynamite business grew rapidly from 1902 through 1906. Eventually a dynamite and nitroglycerine plant were built in Grafton in Sherman Hollow. The plant was completed in 1908 and their products became known as “Gold Medal Dynamite” and also “Black Diamond Powder.” The company continued operation into the 1940’s.

Making Dynamite and Nitroglycerin was Risky Business

Over the course of manufacturing explosives in the area there were many accidents and incredible explosions. Some (most) were quite violent.  While reading about the plant Martha became interested and found old newspaper articles that provided incredible reading.

May 1908 – A train pulled into the plant to load up with product.  Some of the empty train cars started rolling and a Train Brakeman by the name of Al Murphy jumped on a car and started using the manual brakes to stop the cars. Reportedly the loose cars were headed into a siding of already loaded cars. The cars were of course loaded with explosives. The story in the paper stated that Mr. Murphy was able to stop the loose cars from hitting the loaded one but just barely. Apparently the loose cars hit the loaded ones but just gently enough to avoid an explosion. Later officials stated that if those loose cars had hit with force it would have leveled most of Grafton.

October 1916 – Three train cars loaded with dynamite exploded when three men on a handcar were making their way to continue loading train cars on the siding. Apparently the handcar crashed into the loaded train.  The explosion blew up 100,000 pounds of dynamite and was so violent that it leveled the entire thirty building complex at the plant.

It ripped a hole in the ground 20′ long and 20′ deep at the point of detonation. At the time of the explosion the paddle wheeler “Bald Eagle” was passing the plant on the river. They were an estimated quarter of mile from the plant.  The shock wave pushed the paddle wheeler off course and wrecked all of the births on the plant side of boat and caved in walls. It also broke all of the windows, china and glassware aboard.

The resulting blast shock wave was felt 35 miles away and broke windows as far away as St. Louis and Edwardsville, Illinois.

August 1918 – 200 pound’s of dynamite exploded in what was known as a “punch house.” Five buildings were destroyed three were killed four were injured and a horse was killed.

February 1923 –  7000 pound’s of dynamite and 1500 pound’s of Nitroglycerin exploded. There were five separate explosions that day in which five buildings were leveled. Three were killed and one was injured in the blast.

An entire train locomotive and loaded box cars were obliterated along with a quarter of a mile of track. The shock wave was felt all the way to St. Louis where it broke windows.

November 1930 – An disclosed amount of Nitroglycerin exploded and killed one person and one was injured. Glass broke in buildings as far away as 45 miles.

September 1941 – 6000 pound’s of Nitroglycerin exploded. One person was killed and over $50,000 worth of damages to the plant.

October 1945 – A violent explosion occurred. No amount of explosives was given but two were killed.  The resulting shock wave tore bricks off of buildings 20 miles away.

As bad as these explosions were the plant continued until the 1945 explosion. At that time it was deemed economically unreasonable to re-build the plant.


Fishing in Grafton

The fishing industry in Grafton continued to be important for a number of years, with the industry being so extensive that Grafton became known as the “Gloucester of Illinois.” For awhile in the late 1800s, Grafton was purportedly the largest fresh water fishing port on the Mississippi River. At the wharf, the fishermen’s catch would be placed in “holding tanks” created by nets in the river, keeping the fish alive until purchase. The Jersey Fish Market was opened in 1910, having moved from Havana, Illinois.

Most commonly, the market stocked carp, buffalo, and catfish. Later, a pond was constructed where small fish and turtles were kept; turtles were shipped to Boston and other eastern cities. (In 1917 and 1918, river ice was severe, reaching depths of twenty inches and destroying the Jersey Fish Market, and other markets.


Musseling in Grafton

Around the early 1890s, Grafton discovered a demand for river mussel shells. The mussels were found in beds in gravel bars and scattered elsewhere along the rivers. Using crowfoot bars (long bars with four-pronged hooks at the ends of moorlands) and short lengths of fishing cord (two feet long), standards of notched board would be set vertically in the boat to hold the bars. The bars were lowered into the water, attached to a long line by a triangular bridle. The mussels react by opening and closing when something such as a hook touches them. A change in weight would indicate when the bar was ready to be brought out of the water. Cloth sails propelled the boats or “mules.” The shells were used to make buttons, in addition to pearls and “slugs” (imperfect pearls) being found. The Grafton Button Factory, located in the vicinity of Main and Mulberry streets, was among the buyers of the shells. The pearls were reportedly sold for $100 – $150.

Commercial Hunting
Commercial hunting was done up and down the Mississippi and Illinois. These hunters shot waterfowl by the dozens for sale to restaurants. The hunters used a boat called a “Punt.” The punt was armed with a very large gun was loaded with nuts, bolts, screws and bits of metal.  The boatman would maneuver his low slung punt into a backwater slough and positioned his boat for maximum kill.  They sometimes would take 30-50 birds in one shooting.

Showboats at Grafton

Calliopes were played before entering a town to attract attention and reportedly the excitement was so great that merchants would lock their shops to join the quickly gathering crowds. A famous calliope player known as “Calliope Red” once commented on the music: I turn loose with a grand melody of patriotic airs, march stuff and ragtime. They can’t resist it, and nobody could. It bring ’em out like the sunshine bring flowers. I simply stand up here like a big magnet and draw ’em to the boat.

Among the showboats landing in Grafton were The Cotton Blossom. French’s New Sensation. Golden Rod. Prices Water Queen, and Columbia. Excursion boats, equally as popular, included the Majestic. Ouincy. and Idlewild. Calliopes would continue to play for hours after the boat’s arrival, before the evening play, and before the excursion took a run down river in the moonlight.

Non-showboat Entertainment

“Entertainment” was not limited to the showboats and brass bands. The saloon business was a highly profitable enterprise in Grafton during this era, with as many as twenty-six saloons operating during the middle and late nineteenth century. The Ruebel Hotel and Saloon, operated by Michael Ruebel, was reportedly the largest and finest in Jersey County; it was built in 1879. The Grafton House, operated by Martin Flannigan, and the Valley House (Brower Brothers Saloon), operated by William S. Dempsey, were also among the better known saloons, but a number of drinking establishments simply operated out of basements in houses.

While Grafton had no theater for movies or plays, the second floor of the Grafton Stone & Transportation Company hosted motion pictures as early as 1914, the second floor space was showing “moving pictures,”


I hope you have enjoyed reading some of the history of my surrogate home town.  I certainly enjoyed doing the research. If you have anything to add to the rich and varied history of Grafton please take time to send me a comment and I would be happy to include it. Additionally, if you have in your possession any historic photos of Riverboats at the Grafton Landing I would love to beg copy’s of them.


United States Department of the Interior National Park Service National Register of Historic Places Multiple Property Documentation Form January 6, 1994  –

The Illinois Steward –

The Grafton Historical Society –

St. Louis Post Dispatch – Photos and stories relating the events of the “Powder Plant” were gleaned from their online archives.



  1. Sorry I took so long responding. For some reason I just received the email that you had posted. Grafton was/is a cheerful childhood memory and thus very important to me. Thanks for your comment.


  2. Very interesting! My mother grew up on a farm in nearby Jerseyville and I remember her talking about Grafton. We hope our RV travels will take us back to the area someday soon!


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