Rock Island County, Illinois Genealogy Trails

Port Byron Township

PORT BYRON: EARLY BOOM TOWN

Newspaper Clipping Monday, Nov. 4, 1963
Submitted by Mary Lou Schaechter

Port Byron - The state of Illinois was just 10 years old when the first settlers came to Port Byron in 1828, Dr. Iverne Dowie, professor of history at Augustana College, said in the first in a series of lectures on the history of the community yesterday.

Port Byron's location just above the Rapids made it a good stopping point for boats, he said.

The village, which was laid out in 1836, grew rapidly until it had 1,500 residents in 1875-a level equal to the population today.

Dr. Dowie said his study of the village's history shows that in 1875 the village had four dry goods stores, five grocery stores, three drug stores, the stove and tin shops, two lumber yards, three skilled stone masons, two butchers, two tailors, two harnessmakers, one photographer, two jewelers, four carpenters and two banks. Among the first pioneers in the area were Archibald Allen, George Keek and Robert and Thomas Syms, Dowie said.

The Syms brothers started first business in this area in l926-32 when they began cutting wood to sell as steamboat fuel.

Another promotor named Kinney began to cut wood near Rapids City, Dr. Dowie said, and established a stock pile near Port Byron and began to undersell the Syms brothers.

One night, Dowie said, the Kinney woodpile was burned shortly after the Syms' cabin was destroyed by fire.

One of the Syms brothers was arrested and was taken to Alton for imprisonment, since there was no jail here.

On the way to Alton, however the prisoner escaped and when the constable returned to Port Byron, he found his prisoner had beat him back. No further action was taken; however, Dowie said, so Port Byron's first known crime went unpunished.

Other firsts in the village's history included Col. George Davenport bringing the first steamboat up the river through the rapids in 1823. This trip from Ft. Armstrong took three days, Dowie said.

Archibald Allen started the county's first post office at Cannon, about a mile from here, in 1833, the speaker said. Later the post office was moved to Port Byron.

The village's first school, a log cabin, was opened in 1838, Dowie said. Curious Indians gathered to peek in the windows in such numbers that the teacher, William Kelly, had to chase them away.

The first brick school was constructed in 1843. It also served as a Sunday school and community center. The river served as a community laundry where women gathered to heat water in cast iron kettles to boil their clothes, Doxie said. The clothes were hung on trees on the river bank to dry.

In the 1840s and 1850s little communities along the river had really begun to flourish - Port Byron along with the others. Residents of the town, anxious to be located on a railroad line running from Port Byron to Sterling and Chicago, invested $20,000 of their own money to promote the project. They lost it all when the railroad decided against the project.

The name of the village is believed to have originated with settlers who were familiar with the words of the English poet, Lord Byron, Dowie said.

Dr. Dowie also related the history of the village to the rest of the county.

A steamer provided river transportation between Port Byron and Rock Island in early days. The river served as a connecting link for the whole county which drew its strength and growth from the river.

Thousands of settlers were attracted to the area by the growth in farm industry, lumber, glass, and coal, he said.

The area attracted the attention of Daniel Webster, who borrowed $60,000 in the 1830's to invest in a "paper town" located on the site of Black Hawk's burned out village, near the present site of Milan. Many such towns were developed on paper, and this was to be called Rock Island City. The "paper town" project was ended by the panic of 1837, however, Dr. Dowie said.

"It was the nature of the American frontier to be a blend of success and disaster," Dr. Dowie said. He related stories of men who came to the area and found their "gold on the banks of the Mississippi while others passed through on their way to search for gold in Colorado and California.

Many enterprising individuals who understood the great future which lay ahead for the communities took chances which sometimes resulted in success and sometimes were devastating.

"Controls have taken all of the romance out of both business and the river," Dowie said. One hundred years ago, both business enterprise and the river were free and adventurous. Now both are controlled to make them safe.

Dowie said that old history sources, which include scrapbooks, church records, graveyards, and newspapers, are confusing, controversial and charming. Many things are omitted or records differ. Names are misspelled or left out.

Dowie said he foresees difficulty for the historians of the future because of the vast amounts of knowledge being accumulated. Another difficulty is the large number of decisions made by telephone which makes it difficult to obtain a complete record.

Dr. Dowie's lecture was the first in the series on the history of the community sponsored by the Messiah Lutheran Church for the purpose of "helping residents understand and appreciate more fully the community God has given us."

Dean Betsey Brodahl will speak at 9 next Sunday morning on "The Indian Settlement of Rock Island County."

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