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Old Shawneetown, Illinois

A river town always has its risks. A series of floods, or one bad flood, can devastate an entire community.

Main Street - Old Shawneetown. Hogdaddy's Saloon - an attraction for local motorcyclists that is now closed.

Old Shawneetown, Illinois is located on the north shore of the Ohio River in Southern Illinois and is the oldest town in the state.  Shawneetown dates to the original Northwest Territory; it was surveyed, platted, and chartered by the United States Government. The settlement served as a key government administrative outpost for the Northwest Territory.

Shawneetown's location on the Ohio River made it an important commerce center in the early 19th century. Shawneetown was where Illinois's first bank chartered in 1816.  The river helped Shawneetown grow to over 1800 residents by the early 20th century. But that same river would unfortunately lead to its demise.

Damage to Shawneetown after the Great Flood of 1937. Of the 400 buildings that were in the town limits, only 20 were still habitable after the floodwaters receded. (Russell Lee - Library of Congress)

Three major floods between 1884 and 1913 impacted the town. But it was the Great Flood of 1937 that would ultimately change Shawneetown.  The floodwaters submerged nearly the entire community under 15 feet of water - residents who escaped the flooding would find their homes and businesses destroyed.

Shawneetown flood refugees lived in a nearby tent city. Many of these residents would relocate to the new Shawneetown - located four miles west - in the upcoming years. (Russell Lee - Library of Congress)

The damage initiated a relocation of most of the town. Four miles inland and west on Highway 13, a new Shawneetown was created.  With state and federal government funding, the new town was laid out. The Gallatin County Courthouse moved to the new Shawneetown, along with most of the community's residents and businesses.  By 1950, over three-quarters of Shawneetown had moved west.  The old town became 'Old Shawneetown.'

An old Texaco filling station in Old Shawneetown.

Since 1950, Old Shawneetown's population has continued to decline - only 113 residents as of the 2020 Census.  Slowly but surely, most of the town's homes were abandoned and eventually destroyed.  The town's once-bustling Main Street sits empty, with a few buildings remaining.  In 1955, the Shawneetown Bridge carrying Illinois Route 13 into Kentucky eliminated the former Ohio River ferry that had a landing in Old Shawneetown.  The absence of regular traffic served as another blow to the town.

The 1841 Bank of Illinois building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is an Illinois State Historic Site. It is an impressive landmark,

The former Bank of Illinois building is one of the few original Old Shawneetown structures standing. Finished in 1841, the magnificent five-column Greek Revival brick and limestone landmark is now a state historic site. The bank building housed several different banks until ending functional operation after the Great Flood.

Main Street - Old Shawneetown.  There once were numerous storefronts in the empty space between the two buildings.

Visiting Old Shawneetown today is quiet but not eerie.  As you stand on an empty main street, it is easy to imagine a bustling river community - the wide avenue filled with shops, cars, and pedestrians going about their day.  What remains of Old Shawneetown is a glimpse into the past - and our imagination fills in the rest.

All photos taken by post author - February 19, 2024 - unless otherwise noted.

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