The Port of Beardstown is a small town on the Illinois River in Cass County, Illinois. The Port of Beardstown is a little over 100 kilometers (65 miles) southeast of the Port of Burlington in Iowa and more than 300 kilometers (188 miles) southwest of the Port of Chicago. Both the history and the economy of the Port of Beardstown are dependent on the Illinois River.
There are two grain terminals located on the Illinois River in the Port of Beardstown that are used to move farm products to barges for transport. The River is also important to recreation in the Port of Beardstown. Outdoor recreation, hunting, and fishing along the river also contribute greatly to the local economy. Part of the Illinois and Mississippi River Systems, the Port of Beardstown was home to over six thousand people in 2010.
In prehistoric times, the area around the future Port of Beardstown was inhabited by Mound Builders. A mound in Beardstown attests to that population. The Mascouten people, an Algonquian-speaking tribe, had a large settlement at what would become the Port of Beardstown.
The Mascouten were driven out of the area by the Algonquin and Iroquois Nations in the 1700s. After that occupation, the Kickapoo Nation invaded the area. It was the Kickapoo that white settlers met when they arrived in the area in the early 19th Century.
Thomas Beard first settled there in 1819 when he built a log cabin on the banks of the Illinois River. Beard traded with the local indigenous peoples and operated a ferry across the Illinois River. By 1829, the town was three blocks deep and 21 blocks long.
By 1934, the Port of Beardstown was growing rapidly. It shipped grain, hogs, and supplies for settlers in the interior and downriver. The Port of Beardstown had so many stockyards and slaughterhouses for pigs that it earned the nickname "Porkopolis," with over 50 thousand hogs being processed there each year.
Later, Beard constructed a two-story brick building that housed a store and an inn for 85 years. The Beard building was eventually demolished and replaced with a post office. The son of Thomas Beard, Edward "Red" Beard, was a well-known gambler and saloon-keeper. He died in 1873 in a gunfight with "Rowdy Joe" Lowe.
It is rumored that Abraham Lincoln visited the inn. William Henry Herndon, Lincoln's law partner in Springfield, claimed that he caught syphilis from a Port of Beardstown prostitute. Lincoln successfully defended the deceased Duff Armstrong on a murder charge in what became known as the "Almanac Trial." Lincoln used an almanac to prove that the only witness gave false evidence. The Port of Beardstown courthouse contains the only courtroom where Lincoln practiced, and it is still being used today.
In the mid-1800s, steamboats were constructed at Captain Ebaugh's boatyard in the Port of Beardstown. A plank road between Bluff Springs and Beardstown covered swamp that slowed wagons.
In 1869, the tracks for the Rockford, Rock Island, and St. Louis Railroad were laid, and the Port of Beardstown became an important stopping point for changing crews and engines. In 1882, a roundhouse was established where engines could be repaired. The railroad employed several hundred Port of Beardstown residents.
Thomas Beard's ferry operated until 1888 when a private toll bridge was constructed. In 1898, the city constructed a steel toll bridge that brought revenues until 1955.
As the Port of Beardstown entered the 20th Century, the local fish company was reporting catches up to 100 thousand pounds of black bass, crappie, carp, catfish, eels, turtles, and frogs. The Port of Beardstown shipped these catches to other markets. As the levees were built, lakes were drained, and pollution increased, river life became less abundant. The fishing industry, therefore, did not last long.
Like the fishing industry, gathering mussels and freshwater pearls was short-lived in the Port of Beardstown. Button factories that employed hundreds of Port of Beardstown residents had operated along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers in the 1890s. Some pearls brought as much as $1,500 in those golden days. But by 1909, the local beds were depleted. In the 1970s, the industry rebounded a bit when prices for mussel shells rose. Japanese businesses use the ground shells to seed oyster pearls.
Another industry that was prosperous was ice cutting. In 1909, however, a plant making artificial ice opened. While the ice cutting industry failed, plant-manufactured ice was stored for local consumption in the summer and shipped by train to nearby markets.
In modern times, siltation of the river has vastly decreased the Port of Beardstown's position as a river port. Dredging became prohibitively expensive, and the Port of Beardstown eventually lost access to the river. This situation may be changing, however, as the Sangamon River seems to be returning to its natural route.