Like many Altamont residents, I grew up looking out the window while sitting in the back seat of my family’s car, passing the hills, moss-covered cemeteries, and towering trees lining Route 40 on the way to Effingham.
It’s hard to imagine below the paved road, was a muddy trail that was the backbone of America, a major path for settlers headed west.
The old National Trail, proposed by President Thomas Jefferson and his advisors was authorized in 1806. The rugged trail started in Cumberland, Maryland and snaked through the Appalachian Mountains, the woodlands of Ohio, the soggy prairies of Indiana and eastern Illinois, and ultimately the new capital, Vandalia.
In 1828, Joseph Shriver began the initial survey for Illinois land. On his way to Vandalia, he encountered Native Americans and large swaths of wilderness. Only a few white settlers lived in Effingham County before the landscape was cleared for road construction in the winter of 1830. These names including Griffin Tipsword, Effingham County’s first white settler, have become part of Effingham County folklore.
Griffin Tipsword ventured to Effingham County across the mountains from his birthplace of either North Carolina or Virginia. Like many pioneers, there are multiple theories about why he fled western civilization. But none can be certain.
He hunted and fished with the local Kickapoo tribe. He spent time among the villages and his first-born son married into the tribe. According to fanciful accounts, from the 1885 Effingham County History book, he was known for his healing powers and ability to initiate thunderstorms.
Griffin later intervened in Kickapoo/white settler relations. The Kickapoo were startled by the incoming wagons of white settlers. (The settlers also brought diseases that were taking a toll on the tribes). A few elder tribe members suggested killing all settlers from Terre Haute to Vandalia. Griffin warned the tribe if they massacred white settlers, the U.S. Government would deploy regiments to massacre the tribe. This ended the discussion.
Construction, supervised by William C. Greenup, reached Effingham County in 1830. Greenup, who later co-founded Greenup, Illinois, was responsible for paying his workers in gold and according to legend, stashed it under his bed until payday, to hide it from the laborers.
Laborers toiled daily, digging up prairie soil from the old buffalo hunting trails. They tossed the soil onto the middle of the path creating a raised platform. They hacked down trees and the trunks were laid down on the side of the trail, and in some sections of the trail, the leftover stumps jutted out of the dirt.
Workers slogged through layers of mud during rainy seasons, while the occasional mudslide injured or killed a few workers. The laborers suffered through devastatingly cold temperatures in the winter, with some workers freezing to death.
Out of the project, the villages of Freemanton and Ewington were created.
Ewington, the first county seat of Effingham County was built near the west bank of the Little Wabash River, near the present-day Effingham Country Club.
The town had a small courthouse, where Abraham Lincoln, later during his circuit court years, defended a few cases.
Multiple attempts were made to build a permanent bridge near Ewington. Even the sturdiest bridge structures were crushed by the Little Wabash River. A ford service, led wagons across the river for a few decades.
Freemanton sprouted up near present-day Dexter road. (The village cemetery can still be seen on the south side of Route. 40. It has some of the oldest marked graves in Effingham County, and the indent snaking through the cemetery is a remnant of the old national trail.
Both towns were known for their rowdiness, especially Freemanton. Taverns lined the national trail, while early settlers drank whiskey like water, leading to drunken bar fights and violent murders. Most settlers were armed, especially since bandits hid out near Freemanton and Moundville (near Altamont) waiting to rob the passing wagons.
Life in the area fit stereotypical, Oregon trail-esque image of pioneer life.
Pioneers brought their families out east in Conestoga wagons. Conestogas were designed to carry heavy freight over the Allegheny Mountains. These wagons were brightly painted with red running gears, Prussian blue bodies and white canvas coverings. A Conestoga wagon on the trail averaged 15 miles a day. Many traveling parties stopped and settled in Effingham County, others kept traveling west.
Disease ran rampant. Families often lost a family member along the trail. Not wanting to venture far from the trail, the travelers buried their loved ones on the side of the path.
Settlers in the area were prone to cholera, a disease caused by bacteria from contaminated water. Freemanton had multiple cholera epidemics, with the victims’ graves still occupying the cemetery.
Without the steel plow (invented decades later) it was impossible to plow the prairie for farmland. The prairie grass, which rose taller than the wagons, spread across the countryside. During wet months the prairie held mosquito-infested water. During the dry months, the brush was susceptible to brush fires.
Settlers built their homes near the timberline, away from the unforgiving prairie. While, Bears, wolves, and cougars roamed the woodlands.
Rambling preachers offered solace to those that would listen, eventually building ramshackle churches. According to eyewitness accounts, the new churches helped tame the rowdy settlers.
Country doctors spent their days ducking under tree branches on horseback while visiting homesteads throughout Effingham County. (Charles M. Wright, whose residence was the Wright House in Altamont, was one of the doctors.)
It could take a whole day to ride to Ewington and back to Freemanton.
Despite the harsh conditions, the Effingham County population continued to grow.
The railroads came in the latter half of the 19th century, while the county seat moved to Effingham, a location more centrally located in the county.
Pioneers yearned for the comfortable train instead of slogging through the mud in a wagon. With the decline of traffic, the trail became a vague memory of the past. The residents of Freemanton moved closer to the railroad at Dexter. Ewington residents moved to Effingham, and the taverns and inns lining the trail were abandoned and eventually used for scrap.
An article in Harper’s Magazine in November 1879, declared, “The national turnpike that led over the Alleghenies from the East to the West is a glory departed…Octogenarians who participated in the traffic will tell an enquirer that never before were there such landlords, such taverns, such dinners, such whiskey…or such an endless calvacades of coaches and wagons.” A poet lamented “We hear no more the clanging hoof and the stagecoach rattling by, for the steam king rules the traveled world, and the Old Pike is left to die.”
However, by the 1910’s and 20’s, automobiles gave the trail a new lease on life. Route 40, a national highway, sprawling from Atlantic City, New Jersey to San Francisco, CA (it now ends in Utah) was built over the remnants of the trail.
The highway nicknamed the “Main Street of America” brought new opportunities to the area and brought the communities of Effingham County closer.
Even with Interstate 70 dominating the landscape, Route 40 is still a major passageway through Effingham County, as it has been since the 1830’s. But like all aspects of life, situations and places change.
The wolf and the deer are seen no more.
Among the woods along the shore
And where was heard the panther’s scream,
The farmer drives his jocund team
Where once the Indian wigwam stood,
Upon the border of the wood,
The stately mansion is now seen,
Amid broad fields and pastures green.
(A poem from Effingham County History Book 1880’s)
(Effingham County History Book 1880’s)