by Norman V Kelly

When 1860 began there were editorials and comments from everyone that ever picked up a newspaper here in Peoria, Illinois that it looked like the United States was going to have a Civil War. The local newspapers who were always at each other’s throats seemed to think there was no way out of it. If you think we have political battles now you should sit down and read our old newspapers. I did for thirty-three years. I wrote twelve books and hundreds of articles from the information I gleaned from all those articles and historical records and I followed our very early history for well over three decades.

It is astounding how the folks that settled here molded this little town and in my opinion made it one of the most fascinating, cosmopolitan, sophisticated small towns in all of America. Of course the gangster fans living in Peoria today have only one subject they wanted me to talk about during my hundreds of lectures and that of course was our pet gangster Bernie Shelton. As gangsters go he was a joke. I have those stories on line and in my books so if you want to waste your time learning about him then you go right ahead. I wrote the historical facts about our bawdy, gambling so-called gangster past. So at least you will be reading history… not myth.

Peoria was a little trading shack out in the prairie along side the beautiful Illinois River when our local leaders went through the paper work to make us an official town in 1835, then we became a city in 1845. I will jump to 1860 since the Civil War is coming down the Pike and see if I can paint a picture for you as to what was going on here before, during and right after The Civil War. Our city limits were just barely over a one square mile laid out partially by William Hamilton when Peoria became a town. We were fortunate to have a handful of forward looking men and by 1845 we became a city. Men like John Warner and Dr. Rudolphus Rouse and other men of the prairie decided to build their homes and businesses here and by 1860 we had a population of 14,045. Beer and whiskey played an important and immediate role in our growth and by 1860 and beyond we were known as The Alcohol Capital of the World. Of course those businesses attracted people and new businesses. The population was diversified and believe it or not by 1860 we had close to 1,200 kids living here of all ages. That brought schools, teachers, doctors, lawyers and hard working men and women to our little city and folks thrived.


The steamboats and packet boats and the paddle wheelers were as significant to the growth of Peoria as the very air we breathed. Would you believe that during a typical year we had 1,500 dockings and departures of those beautiful boats, and some of them were called River Palaces. Of course many of them just went as far as Saint Louis and back to Peoria; really no different than a bus route. They were huge floating hotels and gambling casinos as well as cargo and just plain hardworking boats that brought thousand of people and hundreds of tons of products in and out of the city.

Professions of all kinds, including the oldest kind in mankind’s history flaunted their trade here, which brought the building of hotels and gambling palaces on our shores, especially Water Street. We had saloon after saloon, dives, dumps, taverns, bars and yes, even a ‘drug den’ or two and this my friends all before the Civil War. By the end of 1860 Peoria had up and running 9 distilleries and 6 breweries along with liquor dealers and gaming halls. We had a famous building called Rouse Hall and at least 4 other halls that brought entertainment from all over the world to Peoria. Most of the acts started down in New Orleans and worked their way up the Mississippi and the Illinois to the sweetest little town you would ever want to visit. As Mr. Lincoln became more and more convinced the Civil War was inevitable he began to set up a tax structure to fund it. Believe me he looked to Peoria, Illinois where Whiskey was $2.25 per gallon and even then the taxes were $1.10 per gallon. Of course they were about to be raised… that is for certain. It was taxes of that nature that financed well over 80% of the war effort. Not just Peoria, of course, all the distilleries and breweries under the authority of Lincoln quickly understood that this was going to be a very expensive war and they would be the ones financing most of it.

The President, long before the war began set up a network of telegraphs and railroad hubs and believe me Peoria folks played a major role in all of that activity. We had some heavy industry here and men flocked to our town to get a job. Between the beer and the booze, the trains and the boats and the overland stagecoaches Peoria was a hub of activity. Peoria had a long list of decent, honest mayors and this town grew like no other. I think there were 33 cities that sprung up along the Illinois River, well towns, villages, whatever they called them, but none thrived and grew like Peoria, Illinois. It was sparked by the talk of a Civil War, and I really do not know of a city in Illinois that gained more from all that talk and activity than Peoria, Illinois. We seemed to be a magnet for new people and jobs and that meant prosperity for most everyone. Remember we were out in the prairie almost in the middle of nowhere. There was Saint Louis to our south and Chicago to our north and not a hell of a lot of anything substantial in between.

Peoria was always building a church of one kind or the other. In fact, at one time long after WW1 we eventually had 102 of them located all over the city and of all denominations. We built a lot of schools, a couple of colleges and high schools and a ton of Parochial schools as well. I think Peoria Central High School is the oldest or very nearly the oldest in Illinois, so our parents’ way back before the Civil War cared about the kid’s education and they proved it.

So here we were; a prosperous, vibrant community just as busy as bees with the cloud of war over our heads. Now, not all Peorians were for the war, nor were all of them for the North. Every day reports came from a hundred different sources about what was coming our way. Of course no one and I mean no one could even imagine what was heading our way in the form of fear, pain and death; but the mood here was still up beat. Of course the young men were very excited and many quotes in the newspaper really just showed how naïve and childish they really were. My favorite quote came from an eager young boy that lived in isolation out on the prairie. * “I sure hope the war lasts until I get there.” * Now there were Southern leaning people living here and they had their say as well. Neighbor was pitted against neighbor and to add to the unbearable heartache some of the sons of our city headed South to join the Confederate Army. It was a time of sadness and hatred, according to our local newspaper editors. I remind you that the 1860 election for president was also a source of distrust and hatred dividing at least half of America at the time. I wonder if you could name the candidates for president of the United States in 1860?

Today you can just use some smart phone and look it all up. Wish I had had that apparatus way back when I started my writing career. Abraham Lincoln was here in 1854 to debate Douglas and Lincoln and Douglas battled for many years on different subjects. In that 1860 election were candidates John Bell, John Breckenridge, Stephen Douglas and Abe Lincoln. * Historically Old Abe never had much luck getting elected by the folks here in Peoria, Illinois.*


As a historian finding the truth within a historical era would seem to be easy enough. Remember the first historian was really the newspaper reporter, the police officers, firemen and of course the coroner and the medical examiner. As a true crime writer that was always the source of everything or event I ever wrote about. I found that true when writing about the Civil War here in Peoria, Illinois. I know zero about the Civil War, the famous battles and the billions of words that were written about them. However, I know about Peoria and the Civil War and have written extensively about what went on here. I think the quotes that were printed in our local newspapers came closer to telling us what we wanted to know. The people living here basically came down on the side of Abraham Lincoln and his concept of what America should be. But…there were a few thousands living here that had some strong views about all the issues that the North and South battled over and believe me it was not always just Slavery. There are pretty accurate records of the numbers of Peorians that packed up and left for the south. There sons, in most cases went along with them, and once in the South joined the Confederate Army. That of course is the little secret behind the phrase used a lot in describing the war as “Brother against brother.”

The very day we heard of the start of the war, our Mayor Willard, set up his own recruitment center and began signing local men up to report to Camp Lyon. Another army camp called Camp Peoria was also very active here and was located on Mary Street in the North side of Peoria, Illinois.

It is natural to see soldiers patrolling on an army campground which occurred here as well. But you might not know that here they were walking on the outside of the camp to keep the soldiers IN…not there to keep people out. I Have no idea what was happening elsewhere but here in Peoria it was “The talk of the town.’ It took me some serious research but the answer to this guard duty question was the fact that when the draft started, the rules allowed a man to pay another man to take his place. The price went as low as $300 to over a thousand dollars for the draftees’ replacement. The problem was this: Once the man taking the place of the drafted soldier signed all the papers, received his money, it left the draftee off the hook and he went about his normal life. His replacement had to report to camp and the hell that was coming his way. The replacement reported for duty and when the time was right he simply walked off the camp site and took off. There are records that show that this man would often show up at another recruitment base and do it all over again. The army had to stop this type activity. The answer was simple for them. They began to post regular army troops OUTSIDE and around the camp. Their orders were to shoot to kill any man out side the camp tent area after ‘Lights Off.’ Here in Peoria I read of five such cases, none killed but seriously wounded. One of the wounded escapees told reporters this: “I wanted to get home to see my girlfriend.” Today we call that A.W.O.L. Camp Lyon managed to give about 7,500 newly recruited me their rudimentary training here before they were sent off to other camps by railroad and steamboat. There is a monument out there across from Glen Oak Park, once called Birkette’s Hollow on Prospect Road to that very army camp.

A typical Peorian’s life was impacted daily by all the war effort going on and the number of jobs that were created here in our town was in the thousands. Of course the breweries and distilleries thrived and more were added, boosting the economy and the welfare of all its citizens. Our railroad companies numbered fourteen and hundreds of jobs were created in the food industry and the manufacturing of all kinds of essential war products was immeasurable. Our notorious bordellos thrived and some of our restaurants, saloons and taverns stayed open virtually around the clock. Soldiers came and went, troop trains left and returned only to take off on another run carrying troops and equipment.

By now the distilleries and breweries were paying at least thirty-five million dollars a year in taxes and tariffs and Peoria, Illinois was critical to the Union Army. The sudden influx of all those people and the raw recruited soldier was a nightmare for the city’s small police department and trouble was often around the next corner or in the very next saloon. Fights, booze, beer, wild women and gambling kept the men occupied until the next crisis came along to catch their eye.
Speaking of gambling have you ever wondered what the pay scale was for the Union soldier. The sad fact is many of them did not get paid and as we know thousands died before they ever had a chance to spend any of it. Privates and two or three stripes were paid from $11.00 to $16.00. Lieutenants were granted $105.50 and Colonels and Generals were paid $212.00 to $315.00 and up based on number of stars.

I have hundreds of stories about Peoria and the Civil War but I think I will stop right here. I may get back to the Civil War, but we have a lot of history to cover and since I am closing in on age 84 ‘I best be gettin’ on with it,’ you think?

Editor’ Note: Norm Kelly is a published True Crime Writer, Peoria Historian and Author of 10 books available in our Libraries. Feel free to contact him at: