History of the Southern District of Illinois

Compiled and prepared by Deloris Shockley, former Court Historian.

East St. Louis | Courthouse | Rededication | Redistricting | Melvin Price Courthouse | Library Resources | A History of Benton | East St. Louis Library


When St. Louis, Missouri was a mere trading post on the west bank of the Mississippi River and Cahokia, Illinois was considered to be a major city, Captain James Piggott laid the foundations for the establishment of the present day City of East St. Louis. In 1783, Captain Piggott remained in the western territories after serving under General Clark in the Virginia Militia, which had been stationed on the frontier during the revolutionary war. The captain showed great foresight in recognizing the future importance of St. Louis when, in 1795, he located a 100-acre militia claim directly across the river from the Missouri Village. By 1797, he had created the first ferry system across the river.

Captain Piggott's claim was adjacent to land owned by Etienne Pinconeau. For $150,000, Pinconeau purchased this tract with the intent of founding a new town, which he called "Jacksonville." The deed of record which first mentions this lot is dated March 17, 1815. Ten months later, Pinconeau sold all of his holdings on the Cahokia creek, including Jacksonville, to St. Louis merchants and land operators, McKnight and Brady. They plotted the "Town of Illinois" upon the Jacksonville site. Before selling lots in Illinoistown, McKnight and Brady relocated the public square, widened the streets, increased the size of the lots and put the plot on record.

The town began to grow. In 1836, a six-mile railroad line was constructed between Illinoistown and the area now known as Pittsburg. This was the first railroad in Illinois, and it was built to serve in the transportation of coal from Pittsburg, where it was cropped, to the St. Louis market. The first schoolhouse in the area was built in 1840, and five years later the first church was established.

Illinoistown's growth was paralleled by the increase in transportation routes across the Mississippi River. Captain Piggott's initial ferry service was comprised of canoes, lashed together, over which a platform was constructed. These primitive vessels were propelled by means of paddles or sweeps. Samuel Wiggins, who obtained the entire ferry operation in 1818, improved the system. First, he built larger ferryboats which ran on horsepower, and then in 1828, the "St. Clair," a steam-powered ferryboat, was launched upon the river. Another boat, the "Ibex," was added to the service in 1832. Owing to the increase of business, and therefore a demand for capital, Mr. Wiggins sold shares of the concern to several parties and formed a joint-stock company. The growth and prosperity of East St. Louis [or Illinoistown] was in large part due to the success of this enterprise.

Ferry business was a vital part of East St. Louis' economy; however, it diminished with the completion of the Eads Bridge, the span which links St. Louis with East St. Louis. Construction began in the spring of 1869; the bridge was completed five years later and was formally dedicated on July 4, 1874.

East St. Louis, or Illinoistown, was washed by floods repeatedly since Captain Piggott first laid stakes in the territory. The first flood to wreak havoc on the town occurred in 1826. Malaria fever followed and nearly depopulated the village. The town managed to survive and grew considerably when, in 1844, it was hit by the most devastating flood in its history. Most of the houses were covered with water, and there was no dry land for miles eastward toward Pittsburg. It took over 125 years for the area to recover completely, and that was a result of the general centralizing of the railroads in the middle of the Twentieth Century.

In 1849, St. Louis was granted the authority to build cross and wing-dikes upon its opposite shore in Illinois as a means of protecting and securing its own harbor. In the ensuing two years, work on the dike moved ahead quickly. By the spring of 1851, all but the road on the embankment was completed. But despite its strong masonry construction, most of the structure was swept away by another flood that same year. Immediately following this disaster, the construction of a new dike was proposed.

The new dike was sited one-fourth of a mile north of, and nearly parallel to, its predecessor. Completed in 1856 at a cost of $175,000, the dike diverts the east side of the river from its course and has re-established the pier of St. Louis. Floods followed in 1858 and 1862 as did the erection of additional dikes, which made the city comparatively safe from inundation.

By the 1880s, East St. Louis began to develop as the western terminus of the large eastern rail lines and as such became a major trans-shipment point on the Mississippi River for points west. Manufacturing followed improved transportation and the National Stock Yards, which continue to function, became one of the largest live stock centers in the United States. Continued flooding of downtown was a serious detriment to growth, however, and in 1887, Melbern M. Stephens, an alderman, introduced an ordinance to raise all streets 14 ft. to 20 ft. in East St. Louis. The work was begun, and when the project was half completed in the early 1890s, a great real estate boom ensued that catapulted East St. Louis to the forefront of developing urban areas in the United States for about 15 years. Indeed, its population increased from approximately 15,000 to 55,000 in a decade. It is during this period that the United States Courthouse and Post Office was conceived and constructed between 1904 and 1910.

In 1904, programming was begun by the Supervising Architect of the U.S. Treasury Department. Inquiries were directed to federal agencies interested in space in East St. Louis. The two largest potential users were the U.S. Post Office and the Federal Court System. The Internal Revenue Service and the Agriculture Department also requested space. The new structure was variously referred to as the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse and the Federal Building. Construction was completed in 1910.

East St. Louis was a center of immigration. Blacks moving from the South arriving simultaneously with a flood of white European immigrants. This melting pot was to boil over and some of the worst race riots ever to occur in the United States happened there in 1917. Although both sides were involved, blacks received the worst beatings. Newspaper accounts of the riots and ensuing court trials earned East St. Louis a reputation from which it never fully recovered. With the advent of the depression in the 1930s, East St. Louis began a rapid economic decline which persists today. (History of East St. Louis by Holabird & Root, Architects Engineers Planners, Chicago.)
East St. Louis Railyard in the 1930's

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The Declaration of Independence by action of the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, was the promise and The Constitution of the United States approved by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, was the fulfillment. Article III of the Constitution established the federal judiciary: "The judicial Power of the United States shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."

In 1819, Congress organized Illinois as one judicial district and authorized one judgeship for the district court with two sessions to be held at Springfield annually. In 1855, the state was divided into a Northern District, centered in and around Chicago, and a Southern District, embracing the rest of the state. Terms of court were held in Chicago and Springfield, respectively. As the population of Illinois and the activities of the court increased, Congress authorized additional sites for holding court—Quincy in 1886, Danville in 1890, Cairo in 1868.

By 1900, the need for a permanent federal facility in East St. Louis had become apparent. In March 1905, Congress established the Eastern District dividing Illinois into three judicial districts—Northern, Eastern and Southern with court sessions at Danville, Cairo and East St. Louis.

The first session of the Federal Court for the Eastern District was held in the federal courtroom in the Metropolitan building in East St. Louis on May 15, 1905. Judge F. M. Wright presided and Daniel Hogan was Clerk of Court. A year later, Congress authorized $300,000 for site acquisition and construction of a new courthouse, post office and revenue office in East St. Louis. In January 1907, a site was selected for the new federal building— fronting 300 feet on Missouri Avenue, extending from Seventh to Eighth Street, with a depth of 170 feet, at a cost of $52,500. Two years later— July 23, 1908—the first significant event on the site was the laying of the cornerstone by Illinois Governor Charles S. Deneen.

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On October 25, 1909, a remarkable dedication was held at the East St. Louis Courthouse and one not accorded many federal building projects. The appearance of the President of the United States, William H. Taft, was hailed in later years as the most important event ever to have happened there. The entourage assembled for the occasion was hailed as the largest ever to congregate outside Washington, D.C. Other distinguished guests were: Vice-President James S. Sherman; Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from Illinois Joseph G. Cannon; Congressman William A. Rodenberg, 22nd Congressional District; Governor Charles S. Deneen; Mayor Silas Cook plus eight foreign statesmen, all from Central America and the Caribbean, the governors of 32 states, the Speaker of the House, 137 members of the House, and 20 Senators. President Taft had arrived in St. Louis on Sunday, October 24, 1909, to great fanfare. He made a number of speeches, which was difficult for him since he had lost his voice in Texas several days before, and had not fully recovered.

Festivities began at 10:00 a.m. with a parade containing 80 floats before an estimated crowd of 30,000 people and ended with a grand fireworks display on Ninth Street at 8:00 p.m. The distinguished guests enjoyed a reception and luncheon beginning at 11:30 a.m. at the Federal Building. The program began promptly at 2:00 p.m. with addresses from speakers: Mayor Silas Cook, Congressman W. A. Rodenberg, Vice-President James S. Sherman, Governor Charles S. Deneen, Speaker of House Joseph G. Cannon and U. S. District Judge Francis M. Wright. President William H. Taft's address was at 3:45 p.m. He was entirely out of voice by the time he reached the East St. Louis platform and attempted only a few remarks. "I have been on a long journey, and now I am here in the commonwealth of Illinois to express my congratulations to you of this great state and city, upon the evidences of your progress, your prosperity and greatness as a state and city. I am not going to detain you long, because I could not if I would. I have nowhere in the country addressed a more satisfactory audience than this, and I don't think that anywhere they gave me a more respectful hearing than you are doing. Wherever I have spoken I have always been listened to with courtesy. I don't think they all agreed with me, but I believe they thought I told them what I thought. In my swing of thousands of miles around the country, I have been more and more impressed with the greatness of the republic. My friends, I am bursting with American enthusiasm. It is nothing but my voice that deserts me. Everywhere I have been the thought has come to me that we in America have taken in millions of foreigners and have amalgamated them all, and have produced a type that we may call American. It differs from any other, from the German and the English and form all European countries. That type of the ‘American' is marked by the characteristics that we all admire."

Some background is essential to appreciate Taft's presence in East St. Louis. The Lakes-to-the-Gulf Association, an assemblage of states in the Mississippi, Ohio and Missouri River Basins, was very interested in deep-water access to the Gulf of Mexico. A convention on this subject was organized in New Orleans to discuss harbor improvements and deepening of the Mississippi Waterway and to convince Congress of the necessity of the project.

The St. Louis Businessmen's League arranged for a large flotilla to float down to Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans to inspect the waterway in October 1909. To help "kick-off" waterway improvements, a levee in East St. Louis and barge canal improvements were to be dedicated by President Taft. The occasion was also used to dedicate the new courthouse in East St. Louis.

Four years after the dedication, in 1915, an additional $95,000 was authorized for courthouse extension in East St. Louis. In 1937, Congress provided for a term of court at Benton, approximately 90 miles southeast of East St. Louis. Other cities holding court in the Eastern District at that time were Danville and Cairo. The Alton court was established in 1961 for the Southern Division of the Southern District, as well as Quincy and Springfield.

In December 1973, a press release was issued by U.S. Congressman Kenneth J. Gray, 24th District, Illinois, Washington Office, in which he and Congressman Melvin Price, D-East St. Louis, called on the General Services Administration in Washington to make an immediate space needs survey of the antiquated federal court building in East St. Louis, pointing out that the courthouse was built in 1910 resulting in malfunction for present day needs, very expensive to maintain as well as inadequate parking facilities. Therefore, if a new court building is constructed, additional space for these and other agencies can be accommodated. Congressman Gray, who is retiring after this term, said, "With the completion of new federal buildings in Benton, a new Eastern District courthouse in East St. Louis will give Southern Illinois a well-balanced building program comprising modern structures that are functional for the needs of the approximately one million citizens who reside in the two Congressional Districts affected."

The $5,365,000 funding for the new construction of the East St. Louis Courthouse and Federal Building was authorized by Congress under the General Services Administration Federal Buildings Fund three years later in July 1976. By 1979, the United States Postal Service vacated the premises, leaving the building exclusively for Federal Court use. It was evident even at this time that the historic Federal Building would be inadequate to house the federal agencies needing additional space. After careful consideration and urging by Chief Judge James L. Foreman, it was decided to build an addition to the old federal courthouse and join the two buildings to form a complete courthouse complex including an atrium within its core.

In 1980, Holabird & Root began designing a proposed addition to the original Federal Building. This addition would contain two new courtrooms and office space for various federal agencies. The construction contract for the new addition was awarded to Altman-Charger Construction, Inc., in January 1986, and in 1988, another contract to renovate the historic Federal Building was awarded to Korte Construction Company.

The building was drastically remodeled to accommodate the U.S. District and Bankruptcy Courts and space for the U.S. Attorney. Although this remodeling was extensive, careful attention in maintaining the building's historic structure was paramount.

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Since 1905, the State of Illinois had been divided into three judicial districts, the northern, eastern and southern districts. Because of changing demographic and economic patterns, the existing judicial structure had not kept pace with present needs. As now divided, the Federal judicial structure in Illinois contained several major defects. In 1975, Senator Charles H. Percy requested that a committee be organized to study the needs of the existing system and make recommendations for change. John R. Mackay, of Wheaton, a former president of the Illinois State Bar Association agreed to chair the committee.

Judge James L. Foreman, of the Eastern District, actively supported the Mackay Committee by speaking at their public hearings throughout the District. At the public hearing held at the East St. Louis Courthouse on December 12, 1975, Judge Foreman suggested that a new federal courthouse proposed for construction in East St. Louis might better serve the district if it were built near Belleville. Noting what he called its "awkward site," Judge Foreman said the Southern District runs 300 miles in length north and south and 200 miles in width encompassing virtually one-half of the total land area in the State of Illinois from Kankakee on the north to Metropolis and Cairo on the Ohio River, from East St. Louis on the west to Lawrenceville and Mt. Carmel on the east. It includes 45 counties and has a total population of approximately one and one-half million people. Two judges serving this District: Honorable Henry S. Wise, with his official duty station at Danville, and Judge Foreman's official duty station at East St. Louis—220 miles apart—with Benton as the only other place for holding court. Cairo was the fourth designated court city but was recently abandoned.

In April 1976, the Mackay committee issued its findings and recommendations identifying several defects in the existing system. The Committee's conclusions met with widespread approval by bar, civic, and political representatives, and on April 5, 1978, Senator Percy and Senator Adlai E. Stevenson co-sponsored the legislation incorporating those recommendations, and on October 2, 1978, the Federal District Court Organization Act was approved by Congress realigning the three judicial districts in the State of Illinois—replacing the existing Eastern and Southern Districts with new Central and Southern Districts.

The principal benefits achieved from this realignment were that the two downstate Illinois districts became more compact and cohesive benefiting jurors, litigants, lawyers, witnesses and judges who would travel shorter distances to federal court. Moreover, it more accurately reflected the traditional east-west flow of business in downstate Illinois.

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On October 26, 1990, fourteen years after the appropriation of funds by Congress, the Dedication Ceremony and Open House was held for the historic Melvin Price Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse, 750 Missouri Avenue, East St. Louis, Illinois. Hon. James L. Foreman, Chief Judge, Master of Ceremonies; welcoming remarks by Hon. Jerry F. Costello, U.S. Congressman; introduction of distinguished guests by District Judge William L. Beatty; remarks and presentation to Melvin Price Family by Richard G. Austin, Administrator, General Services Administration, Washington, D.C.; and Hon. Kenneth Gray, Retired U.S. Congressman. Hon. Harlington Wood, Jr., Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, was the keynote speaker.

The new Courthouse was a three story, plus basement, structure containing 78,700 gross square feet. The facility's modern design compliments the design of the historic Federal Building it adjoins. The completion of the new courthouse and the renovation of the historic Federal Building form a fully inter-connected complex which houses the U.S. District Court, U.S. bankruptcy Court, U.S. Attorney's Office, U.S. Probation Office, U.S. Federal Public Defender and U.S. Marshal Service.

In the June 1991 issue of Buildings Magazine, GSA was honored as recipient of their coveted Building Modernization Excellence Award in recognition of the renovation and expansion of the Old Courthouse in East St. Louis. Harry Weese Associates, Architects and Planners.

In May 2001, the GSA Art Award for 2000 was awarded at a ceremony in Washington, D.C. for "Jurisprudents," by Ralph Helmick and Stuart Schechter honoring their unique sculpture of small heads suspended from the atrium ceiling of the East St. Louis Courthouse, entitled Jury Comment: "The notion of jurors conferring with one another makes the work an even more inventive, creative statement, one that speaks to the environment of a courthouse that invites discourse among the citizenry. The design of the sculpture complements a modernist building with classical origins." Judge William D. Stiehl was the District Court representative on the Community Arts Panel who developed this project.

Since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, and the Pentagon at Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, security measures remain enforced at both East St. Louis and Benton courthouses on a 24/7 schedule.

In 2009, the East St. Louis courthouse celebrated its Centennial. Articles, displays and memorabilia from the ceremony are archived in the library.

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The following materials are available in the East St. Louis library office:
Archive of Attorney Admissions - 1905 - 1955
Legislative History of the Southern District of Illinois as of 2001: Including the Judges of the Eastern and Southern Districts of Illinois - Compiled by Deloris Shockley
The Planning and Structuring of the Redistricting of Illinois to Northern, Central and Southern District and The Planning and Development of the New Courthouse in East St. Louis - Compiled by Deloris Shockley, 2 vols.
In Remembrance of William L. Beatty 1925-2001
The Oral History of Judge William L. Beatty
The Oral History of Judge William D. Stiehl
The Oral History of Judge James L. Foreman
The Oral History of Judge G. Patrick Murphy
The Oral History of Judge J. Phil Gilbert
The Oral History of Judge Kenneth J. Meyers
Alton Courthouse Historical Data 1961-2002 - Compiled by Deloris Shockley
Made in the USA: East St. Louis - (KETC Documentary. Based on the book by Andrew J. Theising)
U.S. Naturalization Ceremonies, DVD
Letter from Senator Durbin on the Centennial | Letter from Senator Costello on the Centennial | GSA Factsheet on the Centennial

Other Resources:
Wikipedia - East St. Louis History , Historic Tornado, East St. Louis Riot - Timeline of East St. Louis History