FORT DE CHARTRES PARK – THE FIRST 100 YEARS
As I started to write this I realized a few things right off. Perhaps the first was I am no researcher. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a researcher as “someone whose job is to study a subject carefully, especially in order to discover new information or understand the subject better”. I am studying a subject and trying to discover new information and understand it better, but it isn’t my job, so I’m no researcher. Another thing I discovered early on was, I was no historian. Merriam Webster defines a historian as “a student or writer of history; especially one who produces a scholarly synthesis”. One of the definitions of a student is “a person who takes an interest in a particular subject”, well at least I am a student, but I am not going to produce a scholarly synthesis, so nope, not an historian either. I really had no illusions about my abilities or qualifications going into this, but it did bring home to me how much we should respect and appreciate the efforts of all the “real” historians and researchers who help us to understand the past. And lastly, I realized I’m no writer, usually someone who writes articles, books, prose etc. as a job, but it can also mean “a person who has written something or who writes in a particular way.” Ah, well I have written things, probably in a particular way, but that particular way is not particularly good, in fact at best amateurish and uninteresting, grammercally incorrect and often incoherent. So nope, strike three not a writer either. I’ve said all this to prepare you for what you’re about to read, lowering your expectations as it were. This is not a scholarly, well researched, authoritative and documented history of the subject by a qualified academic able to relate the facts in an understandable and enjoyable way. It is a summary of what I have been able to find out about the history of the first 100 years of Fort de Chartres State Historic Site with the limited resources and skills at my disposal.
In its heyday Fort de Chartres was described as the “Versailles of the West” and it was said “all roads lead to Fort de Chartres”. People of course spoke glowingly of the French Fort in its early days, it was built to impress and it did exactly that. But even after it was abandoned and the walls had fallen and become overgrown with brush and trees it was described as a “noble ruin”, “picturesque and venerable” and “an object of antiquarian curiosity”. The accounts of the Fort’s appearance and condition as the 19th century progressed become much more sporadic and less detailed. Even into the 20th century after the Fort had been purchased by the State of Illinois and turned into a State Park information or images of the early park are hard to come by.
I first came to visit Fort de Chartres in the early 1970’s and immediately fell in love with the place much like the folks that had fallen in love with it in its heyday or as a ruin. On my first visit it appeared pretty much like it does today with the notable exception being the rebuilding of some of the outside wall and the latest restoration of the powder magazine and of course there were significant changes after the flood of 1993. I guess I never thought what it must of looked like before the 1970’s, but about 10 years ago I stumbled onto a picture of the inside of the Fort taken ca. 1930. I was amazed at the image I was looking at. The Gate was completely different and was basically two stone columns quickly angling down to the short wall foundations, there was a flag pole almost in the center of the grounds, a wooden well house a la Little House on the Prairie and folks dressed in their ca. 1930 best. Finding that picture inspired me to find out more of the Fort’s history in the early 20th century, I guess I became obsessed with learning more about the early days of the Fort as a Park. Thanks to the preserving of the French Military and Church records and British Military records the history of the 18th century of Fort de Chartres is well known and has been written about by scholars and historians in many books. With a very few exceptions though hardly anything has been written about the Fort’s history of being a State Park.
1913 is the year that is most often cited as the year the Park was started. A sign attached to the original gate of the 1920’s says the site was purchased in 1913 and so do the bronze plaques that were placed on the new gate donated by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1936. I think this is a misconception and comes from an appropriation approved by the legislature of the State of Illinois and signed by Governor Dunne in 1913 which provided the bulk of the money to purchase the site. However the site wasn’t purchased in 1913. The year the site actually became a State Park is ambiguous at best.
We know a group of like minded people came together and started to express interest in purchasing and preserving the site of Fort de Chartres in the early 1900’s. Several groups were formed and actively petitioned the State of Illinois to appropriate funds to purchase and preserve the site, most notably the Fort Chartres Association. In 1913 the Fort Chartres Association was organized by William A. Meese and others for the purpose of improving and aiding in the restoration of Fort Chartres and was incorporated under the laws of the State of Illinois the same year. Another group involved in the early restoration efforts was the Old Settlers Historical Association of Randolph County. Founded in 1892 it eventually evolved into the Randolph County Historical Society and is still active today.
In 1903, through the efforts of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 24 acres were purchased by the state and on Nov. 5, 1908, Fort Massac was officially dedicated as Illinois’ first state park. Three years later in 1911 a temporary Illinois Park Commission was established to study the establishment of both Starved Rock State Park and a state park system which would soon include the site of Fort de Chartres. The permanent Illinois Park Commission, 1911-1917, was comprised of three gubernatorial appointees charged with state park administration and system expansion planning. When the commission was abolished in 1917, its duties were passed to the Dept. of Public Works and Buildings, which remained in charge of the state park system until the Dept. of Conservation assumed this responsibility in 1951. The Illinois Historic Preservation Agency was created in 1985 and took over the administration of Fort de Chartres and was replaced in that obligation by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Historic Sites Division in 2017.
H. C. Voris the editor of a Waterloo Illinois newspaper “The Republican”, still being published as the Republic-Times, was always interested in local history and made numerous trips to the site of Fort de Chartres and these visits convinced him that the historical site should become a State Park. In Jan. 1911 in an editorial Voris urged his readers to contact the State Legislature asking them to support legislation for restoring the Fort. There was in fact a Bill introduced and passed in 1911 but because of some legal flaw in the wording it was vetoed by then Gov. Charles Deneen.
There was even an attempt to get the Federal Government to provide the money. In 1911 the Old Settlers Historical Association of Randolph County formed a committee to follow up on a resolution to petition the Congress of the United States to purchase, beautify and preserve the site of Fort de Chartres but I have found no evidence they were successful.
Finally in 1913 Governor Dunne signed an appropriation bill for $4000.00 to provide the funds and plans to purchase the site progressed in earnest. In 1788, the Continental Congress had established a one-mile square military reserve around the old fort site, the Fort Chartres Reservation, preventing the purchasing of, and settlement upon, the land. In 1849 the land in this reservation went up for public sale. The land where the Fort sat was bought and then subdivided and resold. This subdivision of land split the fort site in half with a line running between the two gates, each with a separate buyer.
Armed with a load of tax payer dollars the newly formed Park Commission met with the land owners at the site the afternoon of April 18, 1914. The parties involved couldn’t get together on a price, the Park commissioners thought the owners placed a value on their property they would not be justified in paying so a meeting was scheduled that evening in Prairie du Rocher to have the land appraised. Three respected residents of Prairie du Rocher Killian Coerner, M. H. Palmier and Thomas J. Connor were chosen and approved as appraisers. J. A. James, A. Richards and Thomas Dahill the park commissioners were present as well as R. L. Murray a Notary Public. Also in attendance were the land owners Frederick Bremmer and George J. Seitz. In an attempt to come up with a fair market value four uninterested parties who were familiar with the current value of real estate in the area were questioned in additition to the land owners. After extensive questioning of all those present the Park Commissioners offered each land owner the sum of $775.00 for his tract and both owners accepted.
In reading the minutes of that meeting I found it funny that all four outside witnesses were asked “Would you place any additional value upon this land because of its historical association? Do you believe that anything should be added to the price of this tract because of the presence of this powder magazine on it?” and all of them answered “No”. The powder magazine, which has been described as the oldest non-native building in Illinois and today is the crown jewel of the reconstructed site held no value either personally or commercially to any of them. Its excellent construction which made it a useful building even 100 years after it was built is probably the only reason it managed to survive. Thank goodness it made a good pig sty, or we would be looking at a modern reconstruction today instead of the original building.
In 1985 a title search was done at the Randolph County Courthouse of the property. This deed search shows the Fort site was actually purchased in two different years 1914 and 1915. It seems the sale with Mr. Bremmer went quickly and smoothly being recorded at the Courthouse only six weeks after the meeting in Prairie du Rocher, but evidently there were problems with the Seitz transaction, as the attorney representing the State of Illinois found defects in the abstract leading to the sale not being finalized until late 1915. Lot T.S.S. R. 10 M Section 24, East 1/2 was purchased from Fred Bremmer on May 24, 1914 for $775 and Lot T.S.S. R. 10 M. Section 24, West 1/2 was purchased from Mary E. Seitz on Nov. 19, 1915 also for $775.
So now the historic site was owned by the State of Illinois and plans were made to preserve and beautify the site. Today sitting smugly in our position of hind sight we look aghast at the damage that was done in an attempt to beautify and preserve, but we have to remember that these folks were not archaeologists and they were making a park out of an abandoned and overgrown ruin that barely had a road leading to it. Without the work they did we would not have the park we have today and the professional archaeological work that has been done in the last 100 years would never have happened at all.
So, after the finalizing of the real estate transactions work progressed very quickly. The Park Commission requested the Fort Chartres Association to prepare plans and specifications for the excavation and restoration of Fort Chartres and the repairing of the powder magazine and other improvements. A notice to bid on the job was published and there was one bidder, W. Harry Conner who won the contract for $2217.08. Seems like almost nothing today but it was in 1915 and the total cost of buying the 10 acres the site sat on was $1827.29 and that included the cost of the land, abstracts, court costs, surveys etc., so it was a substantial amount of money.
The contract called for Mr. Conner to grub all bushes and trees growing on or near the outside wall and building foundations, excavate the dirt and loose stones around the outer wall and the building foundations and to place any stone suitable for restoring the walls in convenient piles. Mr. Conner was also supposed to point all the joints and replace the loose stones in the powder magazine. The contract specifies in great detail how to mix the sand, cement and water and that he should point the inside of the magazine first then the outside should be cleared of all growth and dirt so that “it shall present as nearly its original appearance as is possible”. He was supposed to put a suitable door frame and door in the magazine and construct a substantial frame shelter on the foundation of the commandants house. Mr. Conner was then to construct a serviceable toilet for both ladies and gentlemen and he had to clean out and point up both wells and build the walls of them up to a height of four feet. And finally it was part of the contract that all relics of whatever nature uncovered in the progress of the work shall be given over to the Secretary of the Fort Chartres Association for safe keeping.
Mr. Conner evidently went right to work and in early April 1916 John Johnson assistant state engineer presented a report to the park commission stating that the specifications were being followed very closely and that the work was being done in a very satisfactory manner. Engineer Johnson reported that almost all the work had been completed with the exception of some more grading that needed to be done in front of the Fort, around the magazine and on the driveway leading from the main road to the Fort. Also because of the high level of the river the wells had not been cleaned out or the walls around them built up. Even though they were well satisfied with Mr. Conner’s work, like most of these kinds of jobs they were starting to run out of money. The shelter hadn’t been built so they told Mr. Conner to hold up on that and finish repairing the powder magazine and that could be used as a shelter if a sudden storm came up, and to finish the wells and the grading. His report also stated “A number of interesting relics have been unearthed, including cannon balls, grape shot, pieces of shells and old bayonets, a table fork and several skeletons, some of which had rings encircling the finger bone. All relics have been placed in the hands of the Secretary of the Fort Chartres Association with the expectation of placing them in a museum sometime in the future.”
Mr. Conner must have continued his work and finished in 1916 or early 1917. As soon as the funds from the 1913 appropriation were used the Association directed its efforts to securing another appropriation and the 1917 Legislature passed a bill allocating $12,500.00 for use at Fort de Chartres State Park. It has been suggested nothing was really done in the years of 1917 and 1918 because of WWI which the United States entered in April of 1917. The war ended in Nov. of 1918 and it can be assumed that work on the park started again. There is a photograph from a private collection dated sometime in 1917 of three cars parked in front of the powder magazine that is evidently a early automobile road trip or tour. It shows that the grounds had been neglected for some time as the area around the magazine is overgrown knee high with weeds and there are weeds and trees sprouting on the roof of the recently restored magazine.
By 1919 work for sure had begun again. The Collinsville Illinois newspaper “The Advertiser” for Saturday May 31, 1919 had an article titled Force of Men Are Now Working on Fort de Chartres Near Prairie du Rocher. It said, “the rebuilding of Fort de Chartres was begun Wednesday and a force of workmen will be kept on the job until parts of the smaller buildings are reproduced.” It also mentions the future construction of a “hard road” to the Fort, ” the assertion is made that Old Fort Chartres will draw about a hundred thousand visitors a year, and with a hard road system running near the Fort, visitors from all over the West will seek this historic old place.” With the approval of more funds the foundations of the walls and buildings were torn down and built up to an even height of eighteen inches and capped with concrete, the wells were finished and put in service, the powder magazine restored and the gate and a short section of the wall on each side of it was built up to its original height of eighteen feet and the park leveled off. Evidence of this restoration work is visible today inside the powder magazine. On the wall in the then wet mortar used to point the stone is scratched the names of two of the workmen, L. A. Boyer and P. J. Defrenne and the year 1919. Proud of the work they had done and wanting to leave a permanent record they signed their names in the wet mortar just as workmen have done for thousands of years.
It is my opinion that, at least so far, the best documentable date for Fort de Chartres being open as a State Park is October 10, 1919. We know that on that day the Illinois Society of the Colonial Dames presented a bronze plaque to the new State Park that was dedicated and attached to the powder magazine. It must have been quite the occasion, Mrs. Paul Blatchford, President of the Colonial Dames of Illinois made the presentation of the plaque and a historical address was made by C. W. Alvord. According to a letter written in 1920 by Jessie Palmer Weber the visiting party after having been entertained with an elaborate dinner at the Hotel in Prairie du Rocher crossed the river and went to Ste. Genevieve, Missouri where they were handsomely entertained by Father Van Tourenhout with a very pleasant reception at his home.
Through most of the 1920’s not much else seems to have happened but there must have been more money appropriated for reconstruction by 1928. I haven’t found any evidence of that fiscal appropriation bill but construction started on a museum and ranger’s headquarters sometime in 1928 or 1929. The building was built on the foundation of the Fort’s original government trading house and was used for the residence of the state employed ranger who cared for the site and also housed a museum for the artifacts found at the site which had been kept in the powder magazine. In the Transactions of the Illinois Historical Society published in 1928 we read “The State of Illinois has now taken it over as a State Park. The rubbish has been cleared away and from the original plans all the foundations have been restored. The old powder magazine stood in a fair state of preservation still practically as it was in those days with the exception of the heavy iron door. It has been repaired and in it are stored a fine collection of relics that tell their story without words, of those tragic days of our early history.”
Evidently the new building was completed in early 1930 because the July 16, 1930 edition of The Farmers Weekly Review Joliet Illinois reported this “August 31 has been set aside as a big day at Fort Chartres State park In Randolph county, near Prairie du Rocher. The Park Association has announced that it will dedicate the new museum and route 155 from Prairie du Rocher to Ruma. The museum was opened this spring and the hard road was opened on December 31 last. Speakers at the dedication will include Governor Emmerson and Director R. H. Cleveland of the department of public works and buildings. A representative of the French government Is to be named at a later date.” The same newspaper on July 9 had reported “during the month of May 16,000 persons signed the register at Fort Chartres near Prairie du Rocher in extreme southern Illinois”. This seems like an exaggeration at first but the park was almost brand new, the hard road certainly was new and cars had become more affordable and road trips for a day at the park had become common place. I have a feeling folks were more excited about the new hard road than the new park.
Also by 1930, a garage was built In the southwest bastion where the trading post building is now. Today inside this building is the other well from the 18th century fort, unused and covered up but I assume this was the source of water at the park and why the garage was built there in the 1930’s. I have read that the garage which was used to store the mowing equipment also housed the well pump and an electric generator.
In 1929 the Stock Market crashed and the Great Depression threw the economy into a downward spiral leaving millions unemployed. Facing a nation plagued with the hardships of massive unemployment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Americans a plan, which came to be known as the New Deal. As part of this initiative, an executive order under the Emergency Relief Act of 1935 created the Works Progress Administration, later Work Projects Administration or WPA. The resulting federally funded work programs provided relief to millions of the unemployed. Today many public buildings, parks, and roads remain as silent reminders of this work, including buildings at Fort de Chartres. WPA workers were engaged in a variety of tasks including remodeling exhibit cases, collecting specimens and preparing habitat groups for display, building historical dioramas, fabricating replicas and restoring structures and furnishings. Another important part of this program involved employing artists, writers, photographers and architects. The Historic American Buildings Survey, HABS began in December of 1933, when Charles Peterson of the National Park Service submitted a proposal for one thousand out-of-work architects to spend ten weeks documenting “America’s antique buildings.” Having operated under various administrative authorities for its first two years, HABS became a permanent program of the National Park Service in July 1934 and was formally authorized by Congress as part of the Historic Sites Act of 1935. A series of photographs of Fort de Chartres taken pre 1940 are now housed in the HABS collection in the Library of Congress.
The State of Illinois Tourist Guide for 1932 said “Fort de Chartres is in the midst of a State Park with spacious lawns and an air of trim neatness. A treasure chest within the Fort is filled with weapons, bones and jewelry discovered when the Fort was restored.”
The report of the Board of State Park Advisors issued December 30, 1932 contained recommendations for improvements in the State’s new parks including some ideas about Fort de Chartres. Some of those recommendations were, an investigation be made of the feasibility of acquiring some of the land between the Fort and the river for the purpose of having direct access to the Mississippi River. The board stated that through the assistance of the French Consulate in Chicago research was being made in Paris for the original plans of the Fort buildings. If discovered, restoration of the old barracks, officers quarters and works was urged. Arrangements are being made to obtain original cannon of the middle 18th century or an appropriate replica to be mounted at the fort. Pending such restoration the board advises that carefully worded tablets containing authentic information regarding the Fort be erected. It was also suggested that care should be taken in the museum to restrict exhibits to relics pertaining to local history or having an actual connection to the fort so that the collection be not cheapened by the addition of many less valuable articles. This last suggestion is probably an attempt to remedy a situation in the museum that had evidently gotten out of hand, namely objects and collections that had absolutely no historical significance to Fort de Chartres, or Illinois for that matter. In an address given before The State of Illinois Historical Society in 1936 Mr. Robert Kingery the Head of the Department of Public Works and Buildings said, “I remember a visit made to the Fort de Chartres Museum, when the first thing to greet the eye was a stuffed tiger, probably not native to Randolph County. There was a medical library of real value to someone, but not a proper part of the Fort de Chartres collection. There were butterflies, starfish and many other interesting historical objects, a few of which were appropriate to the fort.” The medical library may also have contained a human skull of unusual size. H. M. Brackenridge in an appendix to his book published in 1814 wrote “there was for a long time preserved at Fort de Chartres a skull of astonishing magnitude”. This was over a hundred years before there was a museum at the Fort but maybe it found its way into the collection of relics kept after the first restoration efforts. We will never know, but it is obvious that the museum in its first fifteen or so years had become a dump site for odd and “less valuable articles”. Also in the 1932 report it was suggested that more parking space for automobiles must be provided outside the walls and far enough away from the fort entrance to allow an appropriate approach. This can be well planned and protected by barriers and, a carefully designed planted scheme is necessary to provide shade for the many visitors and improve the appearance of the tract. The Division of Architecture has studied plans for a shelter house and comfort station for the convenience of visitors, and it was suggested that this structure be located outside of the Fort walls near the south-easterly side of the picnic grove. But the report went on to say, further study indicates the inadvisability of adding buildings to the scene which were not a part of the original plan. Comfort facilities can be provided within one of the restored buildings, and thus hasten another unit of the restoration. Dispensing of refreshments should be done in the original kitchen and mess hall restored and equipped as it was originally.
Another suggestion was, because of the incongruous appearance of the modern artillery of the World War Period which has been placed near the entrance to the Fort, these pieces must be removed. And removed they were, referring back to Mr. Robert Kingery’s address in 1936 he said, “And there were two captured war cannon, I believe of German make, out in front of the 1753 Fort de Chartres. With the cooperation of the American Legion the cannon were removed from the Park to the American Legion Post in the village of Prairie du Rocher. Into the Fort have been brought two copies of an old French cannon bearing the date 1743 which was found in the Rock Island Arsenal some months ago.”
Finally the report recommended an estimated budget of $16,900 for the biennium to cover the research, the preparation of plans, the beginning of the restoration, and to maintain the property satisfactorily.
During the 1930s, another restoration of the powder magazine was undertaken by the State of Illinois. This second restoration resulted in a variety of modifications to the building, including the restructuring of the doorway, and the rebuilding of the roof system by the addition of a wooden roof to cover the underlying masonry barrel vault. This roof which was based on no historical precedent was the first of the reconstructed roofs added to the structure and was photographed in ca. 1933 for the HABS project. This timber roof apparently didn’t last long and by 1945 had been replaced by a slab type log roof structure designed with research done at Fort Niagara in New York state. This timber roof system did not last for many years either and was removed shortly after, probably by 1950. Removal of this second wood frame roof again exhibited the distinctive round roof exterior surface of the barrel vault as it had been reconstructed in the 1910’s.
At the time of the 1930’s restoration, the State of Illinois conducted relatively extensive research on French building practices. The site that played a crucial role in the reconstruction of Fort de Chartres was Fort Niagara in New York State. As the State of Illinois’ Chief Architect Charles Herrick Hammond noted, “we have made a study of the fort at Niagara and our aim is to carry out in a general way a restoration at Fort Chartres modeled on that of Fort Niagara”. Speaking of the earlier reconstructed building, Hammond stated that “one building was erected by the state on the site of Fort Chartres some years ago. Little effort was made at that time to make an authentic restoration, the building being used for the custodian’s residence and for a Museum which contains many interesting relics of this period.” In contrast, Hammond stated “the work under way at present is being carefully carried out and as nearly as possible will represent a building of the period in which the original was erected. The building now being restored contains a chapel with quarters for the Priest, the Guard Room, Officers of the Guard Quarters, and a second story from which the cannons could be fired through the dormer windows.” Unfortunately, no archaeological investigations were conducted prior to the reconstruction of these buildings. Most if not all of these restoration and construction projects in the 1930’s were accomplished with workers supplied by the new Works Progress Administration. Sometime in the early 1930’s the second building reconstruction was completed. This stone building was built on the original foundation next to the foundation where the custodian’s house and museum had already been built and contained a guards’ room, gunners’ room, officers’ quarters, priest’s quarters, a chapel and an upstairs loft.
In 1936 a project got underway to replace the two columns which had served as the entrance gate since the original restoration began in the 1920’s with a more historically correct gateway. The National Society of the Daughters of the American Colonists financed the construction and presented and dedicated the new Gateway on October 13, 1936. NSDAC members are descendants of a man or woman who rendered patriotic or civil service to the American Colonies prior to the 4th of July 1776 and works to preserve our heritage and record our history for future generations while serving our communities through patriotic education, scholarships for students, marking historical sites, and serving our veterans. According to an article from the The Daily Free Press Carbondale Illinois published on Friday, October 9, 1936 “Dedication of the restored gateway to Fort de Chartres, near Prairie du Rocher, ILL., will take place next Tuesday afternoon in a ceremony conducted by the National Society of the Daughters of the American Colonists, which financed the restoration, it is announced by Mrs. Joseph S. Calfee, national president of the organization. The ceremony will include the unveiling of two tablets on either side of the gateway, one of which will be inscribed in English and the other in French, Mrs. Calfee said. A motor caravan will take approximately 100 persons from St. Louis to the ceremonies, which will be attended by national officers of the D. A. C., representatives of the state of Illinois and the French government. The gateway, restored at a cost of approximately $5000, is of stone with a wooden gallery on the top. It is about 20 feet high, 4 feet wide, with walls several feet thick, and corresponds to a description of the gateway in the Treaty of Paris of 1765. It is a typical gateway to a colonial French, fortification, Mrs. Calfee said. The foundations of other Buildings have been outlined and will eventually be restored by the Illinois Park Department, Mrs. Calfee said. The restored gateway marks her organization’s contribution to the preservation of this landmark, which has been made a state park.” Evidently the Gate wasn’t completely finished in 1936, the work continued into 1939 and probably completed in 1940. An advertisement in the Decatur Herald Decatur, Illinois announced the State of Illinois Division of Architecture & Engineering, Armory Bldg., Springfield, on Tuesday. September 12, 1939 would receive bids for “Completion of Main Gate. Fort Chartres State Park. Prairie du Rocher. Illinois. Supervising Architect Department of Public Works and Buildings, Division of Architecture and Engineering, C. Herrick Hammond.” There is a photograph in the HABS collection dated sometime prior to 1940 which shows the back of the Gate and it is obviously not finished. There is also a photograph dated 1940 which shows the construction to the back of the Gate still going on.
The National Society of the Daughters of the American Colonists, which financed the restoration, described it this way, “An architect of the Department of Public Works of Illinois drew the plans for the Gateway after much research and a very careful study of gateways used by French Forts of that period. The stone for the original Gateway had been brought from the river bluffs nearby and the present Gateway has in it every piece found in excavation and some stone from the bluffs from which the French brought theirs. The Gateway is about 25 feet tall and 40 feet wide. It is topped by a wooden roof such as gave shelter to sentries who manned the two cannons pointing down the road. On either side of the gateway and its oaken doors, twin tablets have been placed, giving the history of the fort. After the unveiling of the two tablets, one in English and one in French, the Gateway was presented to the State of Illinois.”
After completion of the Gateway and the buildings that we see today there seems to be a lull in the reconstruction projects, perhaps because of the War effort after the United States entered World War 2 or simply because all of the recommendations from the report of the Board of State Park Advisors issued December 30, 1932 had been fulfilled.
The next big project was the building of the levee on the river side of the Fort. In the United States there are multiple laws known as the Flood Control Act. Typically they are administered by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Floods on the Mississippi, Ohio, and other rivers in the Northeast led to the Flood Control Act of 1917 which was the first act aimed exclusively at controlling floods. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 led to substantial flood control funding, and a series of floods in 1935 and 1936 across the nation were critical in the passage of the Flood Control Act of 1936. Other Flood Control Acts were passed and by 1948 one evidently included the area around Fort de Chartres. I couldn’t find out much but the levee was probably started being built in 1948 and completed by 1950.
In May of 1949 members of the Illinois State Historical Society and their guests took a tour of several historic sites in southern Illinois including a visit to Fort de Chartres Park. The Journal of the Illinois Historical Society from 1949 informs us “early Saturday morning four chartered busses and several automobiles left the headquarters hotel for a all-day tour of historic points, Cahokia and on down the Mississippi River to Fort de Chartres, Prairie du Rocher, Kaskaskia, Menard, Chester and back by way of Belleville. At Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres, Thomas Connor acted as guide. On going through the town he sounded his horn in front of each house over a hundred years old, and the party stopped to see the Abraham Lee mansion and the Old Creole House, an excellent example of French colonial architecture. At Fort de Chartres State Park, the location what was once called ” the most commodious and best built fort in North America,” the members saw the old powder magazine, the reconstructed guardhouse and chapel, and the museum. At the park, also, they were the guests of Mr. Connor at a picnic luncheon served by members of the St. Joseph’s Church at Prairie du Rocher.”
We learn from the Illinois State Historical Society Transactions, News and Comments that The Illinois State Historical Society toured several historic sites in southern Illinois including Fort de Chartres on May 9 and 10, 1959. Hosted by the Randolph Historical Society the “the caravan of four buses and a dozen cars left the Chester Legion Hall at 10:10 AM and went north out of town” They passed several historic sites and houses and eventually ended up at Prairie du Rocher. “The caravan passed through Prairie du Rocher and pulled up for its first stop at Fort de Chartres, where the Stars and Stripes were whipping in the breeze between the French Fleur-de-Lies and the British Union Jack. The Randolph County 4-H Club’s prize-winning square dancers were waiting when the group arrived and went through several routines before the loudspeaker was turned over to Louis Aaron for a brief outline of the history of the Fort, the halfway point between Quebec and New Orleans. Fifteen or twenty minutes were allowed for a quick look through the fort before the tourists were back on their buses for the return to Prairie du Rocher and a “Hunt Breakfast” in the dining hall of St. Joseph’s School. Incidentally, the menu consisted of fried ham, scrambled eggs, hot rolls, asparagus, grape jelly, whole canned peaches, sweet rolls and coffee.” If I ever can take a ride in a time machine one of the first places I will go is that “hunt breakfast” in Prairie du Rocher in 1959.
For over fifty years Fort de Chartres had been recognized by the state of Illinois as an important historic site and finally on October 9, 1960 the Fort was given National recognition for its historical significance. The United States National Historic Landmark Program was designed to recognize and honor the nation’s cultural and historical heritage and takes its roots from the Historic Sites Act of 1935 which authorized the Secretary of the Interior to “make a survey of historic and archeological sites, buildings, and objects for the purpose of determining which possess exceptional value as commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States;” and to “Erect and maintain tablets to mark or commemorate historic or prehistoric places and events of national historical or archeological significance.” The program was formally inaugurated with a series of listings on October 9, 1960, which included Fort de Chartres. The program is administered by the National Park Service, a branch of the Department of the Interior. The National Park Service determines which properties meet NHL criteria and makes nomination recommendations after an owner notification process and the Secretary of the Interior reviews those nominations. Based on a set of predetermined criteria, the Secretary makes a decision on NHL designation or a determination of eligibility for designation.
In another declaration of National importance Fort de Chartres was registered in the National Register of Historic Places on October 15, 1966. The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the Nation’s historic places worthy of preservation. Authorized by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America’s historic and archeological resources. All NHLs are also included on the National Register of Historic Places, a list of some 80,000 historic properties that the National Park Service deems to be worthy of recognition. The primary difference between a NHL and a NRHP listing is that the NHLs are determined to have national significance, while other NRHP properties are deemed significant at the local or state level and only about three percent of National Historic Place Register listings are NHLs, so that puts our Fort de Chartres in the top three percent. Again Fort de Chartres was recognized nationally when the French Colonial District was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 3, 1974. The French Colonial Historic District is a historic district that encompasses a major region of 18th-century French colonization in southwestern Illinois. The district is anchored by Fort de Chartres and Fort Kaskaskia, two important French settlements and military posts in what was then the Illinois Country. The Kaskaskia village site is also included within the district; it includes the Pierre Menard House, the only surviving building from Illinois’ first state capital. Over a dozen French houses in Prairie du Rocher are also part of the district, including the potteaux-sur-sol Creole House and the 1735 Meilliere House. In addition to the French sites, the district also includes several Native American archaeological sites, such as the Modoc Rock Shelter Site, the Kolmer Site, the Waterman Site, and the Henke Site.
Even with the apparent popularity of the park as a tourist attraction and the recognition of its historical significance further improvements to the park itself and research into its historic details seem to have slowed to barely nothing through the 1960’s. It was not until the fall of 1971 that serious professional Archaeological interest was directed at Fort de Chartres.
No history of Fort de Chartres as a park would be complete without mention of Irvin Peithmann. There were many people whose efforts were influential in the site’s development, but certainly Peithmann’s could be considered significant. Modern scholarly interest in Fort de Chartres began in the early 1970s when the gifted amateur historian and archaeologist Irvin Peithmann conducted extensive surveys of much of the French Colonial District of southern Illinois. Based on these surveys and surface collections of artifacts, Peithmann concluded that the first Fort de Chartres stood at the location now known as the Laurens site. Today we know that this is incorrect, the site is actually the third wooden Fort de Chartres, previously unknown. But this in no way detracts from the studies done by Peithmann. Historical research is like a wall built of different studies, investigations and facts, and each piece is added on top of the foundation of the previous work. Peithmann was one of the ones who built the foundation. It is fitting that the Museum at the Fort today bears his name, an honor bestowed to him in an opening celebration of the newly refurbished museum in 1978. From the Southern Illinoisan Sunday April 23, 1978 “When Irvin Peithmann was asked to cut the ribbon last Sunday for the opening of a new museum at the Fort de Chartres Historical Site, he had no idea he’d see his name emblazoned on the wall. Department of Conservation officials had decided a surprise was in order for the 73-year-old former Southern Illinois University-Carbondale staff member and self-made historian-archaeologist. The Peithmann Museum, filled with artifacts from the time of the French colonial occupation of Illinois, honors the man who has done a great deal to unearth the secrets buried beneath Southern Illinois soil. His discoveries near Fort de Chartres in 1967 triggered explorations that have rewritten the history of the fort and nearby French settlements. Dave Hamilton, district historian at Fort de Chartres for the Department of Conservation, said Peithmann was invaluable in the development of the new museum, both for the well of information he provided and the artifacts he contributed. “Probably 60 percent of the artifacts here at the museum were donated by Peithmann,” Hamilton said. “He said one day he had some artifacts to donate and I said I’d bring the station wagon.” Hamilton ended up bringing a one-ton truck “and literally loaded it to the gunwales. And he still brings in goodies.” Hamilton enjoyed watching the surprise on Peithmann’s face at the museum’s opening ceremony, when the older man noticed his name had been burned into the wall. “He’s a tough old buzzard, but I think he almost sniffed.” Hamilton said.
In 1970 something happened that would to this day change how Fort de Chartres was perceived. In that year the Illinois Conservation Department’s Division of Parks decided to attempt to dramatize the rich and varied historical heritage that is so prominent a part of the state park system. A pilot interpretive effort began that year with an objective to preserve the natural and cultural heritage through public programming. The special events are a facet of that interpretive effort. Special events were two-day, weekend programs which either recreated a specific period in time at historic parks or memorials, or highlighted outstanding natural resource areas by ecological or recreational programming. This was the birth of the Rendezvous at Fort de Chartres. The first Historic Rendezvous at Fort de Chartres was held August 7th through the 9th and was expected to attract statewide attention to the park. In 1970 Dean Campbell was supervisor of the interpretive recreation section of the parks and memorials division of the Illinois Department of Conservation and he said “The Fort de Chartres Rendezvous is designed to rekindle the frontier spirit”. Competition for the first rendezvous included a black powder shooting match, tomahawk and knife throwing, a tug of war over a mud hole between the frontiersmen and the voyageurs and a greased pole climbing contest.
In 1975 Ms. Janet Pickett Coordinator of Interpretive Services Illinois Department of Conservation wrote “Last June marked the fifth anniversary of the Fort de Chartres Rendezvous, the once-obscure pair of 36-foot birch bark replica canoes has been replaced by a small fleet of French Voyageur model Montreal’s and North’s. Other facets of the annual celebration have also matured. The metamorphosis has taken place through the continued interest of historically-minded people in the Parks Division, and among the citizenry, not only of Illinois but throughout the Midwest. The aura of a full-fledged special event is perhaps best felt and described by Fort de Chartres. The rustic stone front gates of the old fortress, along the Mississippi River near Prairie du Rocher in northern Randolph County, beckoned to thousands last June, who became totally engulfed in a different era as they passed through the historic portals. At Fort de Chartres, the physical impact of an historic environment is complete, children, clad in French colonial dress lead you into the fort’s interior where you are greeted by local 18th century artisans working with hand-turned lathes, leather and forge. An aroma fills the air, you follow its scent to where kindly ladies in crisp starched white are busy with long-handled flat wooden paddles extracting earthenware crocks bloated with brown-crusted bread from a rough-hewn stone oven. You’re offered a taste of this soft delicacy, fresh-baked bread along with freshly churned butter. Delicious! Public response to special events has been gratifying, it has been extremely supportive. Realizing the educational and recreational values in this type of programming, the Department has more than doubled the number of events for this year.”
Up until 1975 the ranger who oversaw the park had lived on site in the residence that had been built in the building that also housed the museum. With the early survey work that had been conducted by Irv Peithmann showing the wealth of the archaeological and historical possibilities of the land surrounding the Fort the State of Illinois began to acquire it. Called “putting it in the bank” the idea was to purchase potential historical sites to save them from possible damage and hope that someday the archaeology could be done to determine their historical importance. In the process of doing that the farmhouse and several outbuildings just north of the Fort was purchased sometime in the early 1970’s. The house was used to provide a residence for the onsite park overseer and the other buildings used for storage. With the old residence now empty it was turned into office space. Also in this area of the building was stored the ever increasing library of books and research materials the State was able to obtain. This no lending Library now contains one of the finest research libraries on French Colonial Illinois in the Midwest. On July 9, 2016, the library at Fort de Chartres was officially dedicated to the memory of John H Guilfoil Jr. John was born May 20, 1933, and left this world on June 16, 2015. John was the proprietor of the trading post at Ft de Chartres for many years. He also portrayed a French priest, was a member of St. Anne’s Militia, and was a member of Les Amis. John’s great love of history manifested itself in the many hours he spent in the library at the fort. He also amassed his own historical library over his lifetime and generously donated his private library to the fort. The quote by Samuel Johnson “Books, life friends, should be few and well chosen” was utilized at his memorial ceremony and was so appropriate to John.
In the Fall of 1971 Dr. Margaret Kimball Brown, working under the auspices of the Illinois Department of Conservation, conducted limited test excavations within an agricultural field south of Fort de Chartres at the Laurens Site in search for the first two wooden Fort de Chartres. During the summer of 1972, Brown, again working with the Illinois Department of Conservation, conducted excavations within the limits of the 1753 stone Fort De Chartres with an “intent to provide information for further reconstruction of the Fort.” Plans called for the reconstruction of the bastion walls and surrounding banquette, and excavations were conducted in “the area of the latrine, the powder magazine bastion and other visible structural remains were suggested for initial work, with additional exploratory work to determine the extent of preservation of the original occupation surface”, with most of the effort being expended within the powder magazine bastion. During the 1972 investigations, Brown discovered both the wall trench that formed the inner wall of the banquette, as well as substantial stone drains. Brown again returned to Fort de Chartres during the summer of 1974 and investigated predominately within the “cannon bastion.” During that year, she found several Native American burials within this location. These Native American internments clearly had occurred after the abandonment of the fort, presumably in the later years of the eighteenth century. Brown noted that “because the 1972 and 1974 projects had to be concerned with the construction of the wall, very little could be done on the powder magazine. No work has been done there since. This leaves a great many questions about the construction.”
Again in 1975, Dr. Brown returned to Fort de Chartres and conducted excavations. During the summer of 1975, Brown conducted an archaeological field school through Southern Illinois University at Carbondale funded by the Illinois Department of Conservation. Whereas the previous years’ work at the fort had concentrated on gathering structural information relating to future reconstruction of the fort, this season’s investigations focused on investigating the interior structures particularly the east barracks and bake house. Additionally, exploratory remote sensing and limited subsurface testing was conducted outside of, and to the north of the fort in search of the “Indian guest house”. This was a building outside of the walls of the Fort that was used to house visiting Native dignitaries. To my knowledge the exact location of this structure has still not been found.
Although the economic climate of the middle 1970’s did not result in the reconstruction activity at the fort, as was earlier anticipated, new interest in the reconstruction surfaced in the late 1970’s. With a renewed professional interest in the fort, the Illinois Department of Conservation contracted with a French-speaking historian to visit archives in France, resulting in a variety of new insights into the fort’s history. Additionally, a three-year period of archaeological investigations conducted by Dr. Melburn Thurman was initiated in 1979. Excavations conducted in that year uncovered the remains of the river gate “once believed to have been swept away by the rampaging waters of the Mississippi River, apparently did not lose its foundation stones, which in turn indicates the wall itself was not toppled. And the fine stone masonry revealed in the underground drainage system meticulously unveiled last fall pays tribute to the care and precise engineering and workmanship which went into the building of the time-mellowed fort”. In 1981, the curtain wall surrounding the Powder magazine was reconstructed, and by early 1985 discussions focused on reconstructing the opposite cannon bastion, as well as the north curtain wall between the two reconstructed bastions. In 1985, in anticipation of this work, the Midwest Archaeological Research Center at Illinois State University was contracted to conduct additional archaeological investigations with Dr. Virgil Noble acting as the principal investigator. At that time ISU hired David Keene to oversee the field investigations which focused on exposing the remains of the north curtain wall and drainage system flanking the powder magazine. Subsequent investigations in 1986 and 1987 were conducted by Keene through the Archaeological Research Center at Loyola University. So by the late 1980’s we have the whole front of the fort reconstructed including the gate, both bastions and the curtain wall.
In 1985 another construction project was done, and this was to start a controversy that remains to this day, at least with the local folks who were around before the project was started. From the beginning the parking lot for cars, called automobiles back then, was located right outside of the gateway entrance. As time went on the parking area was improved and enlarged and moved further away from the gateway. By the 1960’s the lot was horseshoe shaped, paved and had curb blocks and a chain to keep cars from driving into the grass areas. I’m just guessing but I would say if you parked your car closest to the gate it would be about a 50 foot walk to the entrance, maybe 100 feet at best. There were picnic tables, trash cans and BBQ pits under big shade trees that made for a very nice picnic and day use area. For many years the locals had made use of this area for family gatherings and BBQ’s. The park may have belonged to the state but the residents of Prairie du Rocher considered it their park.
As reconstruction and interpretive programs progressed and the money still flowed from the state coffers it was decided to change the parking area to be more historic in appearance. The basic idea had shifted from a park atmosphere to an interpretative one. Along with state employees and historically costumed volunteers giving tours and demonstrating traditional crafts and trades there was an effort to give the buildings and grounds a historic look. So down came the “carefully worded tablets containing authentic information regarding the Fort” erected in the 1930’s and they were replaced with a more historic appearing site with real people who were supposed to explain or interpret what visitors were looking at.
When the idea of moving the parking area was proposed one of the main reasons for the change was to create a buffer zone between the modern world and the historic one. The idea was that the visitor would leave his car a distance from the entrance and have a chance to decompress from the modern world and slowly acclimate to the historic one. The old parking lot and the road leading into it were torn out and the area planted with grass and a wooden fence was erected between the grounds and the highway. North of the old parking area new entrances were built to the two new paved parking lots farther away from the fort entrance. A lot farther away. Now if you parked closest to the fort you were looking at a walk of 656.25 feet, that’s not a guess I looked it up on Google Earth. That’s about an 1/8th of a mile. Now at the time I’m writing this I am young and healthy enough that a walk like that wouldn’t be a problem at all, but to some folks who are elderly or have health issues or disabilities that could pose quite a challenge. A brand new concrete floored pavilion with electricity and water was built next to the parking lots and a playground, BBQ pits and primitive facilities were also constructed making for a nice picnicking area. But with any new construction the trees had just been planted and were only three feet tall, so they didn’t provide the summer shade like the decades old trees had in the old picnic area. The locals were not happy with the change in their park. They were not upset, they were not angry, they were not aggravated. They were Mad! And after thirty years some are still mad. But in time the trees grew and provided the shade and the new pavilion was nice and there is a bike rack for the bicyclists and there is an impressive stone platform where a flag pole flies Old Glory and replica cannon stand guard. On any nice summer weekend the new picnic area is full of folks BBQing and enjoying being outside with family and friends and now that the whole area in front of the gate is grass and trees it makes for a lot nicer camping area for the participants of the reenactments. But a word of advice, if you find yourself talking to an old Rocherite in the local tavern or at the church picnic don’t bring up the parking lot at Fort de Chartres.
In 1989 another project was undertaken that would inspire questions for the next 30 years. “What are those big wood things? Why didn’t they finish the building, did they run out of money? Is that what’s left of the original building?” Those are just some of the questions visitors would ask about the interpretive structures known as ghostings. The reconstruction of historical buildings has been debated by preservationists, archeologists and historians, both with each other and within their own fields, since the creation of the first major reconstruction project at Colonial Williamsburg in 1926. But no matter how intensely scholars discuss and disagree on the subject, professionals at historic sites still continue to reconstruct historical buildings. In 1937, the committee drafting the National Park Service policy on preservation decided the preferred order of preservation: Better to preserve than repair, better to repair than restore, better to restore than construct. The question of whether to reconstruct historic structures is still controversial and the discussion continues among historians, archaeologists and preservationists today. In the mid 1970s, a new type of reconstruction began to emerge which the NPS and several private sites have used over time as an alternative to a full historical building reconstruction, a 3D ghost structure. The ghost structure shows the visitor the outline of the building and its dimensions without the expense, intense research, and necessary maintenance of a fully reconstructed building. Some of these early ghostings were made of metal, but the structures at Fort de Chartres were built using cedar timbers bolted together with iron hardware to simulate 18th century construction. The ghost buildings were placed on the foundations of the east barracks and the government house over which a wood plank floor had been built.
And then disaster, The Great Flood of 1993. On August 1, 1993 a levee broke near Columbia, Illinois that eventually flooded 47,000 acres of land and inundated the towns of Valmeyer and Fults, Illinois. The freed flood waters continued to flow to the south, parallel to the river, approaching levees providing protection to the historic areas of Prairie du Rocher and Fort de Chartres. On August 3, 1993 the Corps of Engineers and Levee District Commissioners, using a drag shovel and eventually dynamite, made several breaks through the Mississippi River levee to provide a passage for the flood waters to flow back into the river. The innovative plan worked, and the historic town of Prairie du Rocher was saved from the flood waters. The Fort was not to be spared however.
Fort de Chartres is no stranger to floods but this one was different. The whole Park was inundated by 15 feet of muddy turbulent Mississippi river water. And when the water receded the damage it left was heartbreaking. Picnic tables and shelters were lifted off their moorings, tossed into the raging river and dropped hundreds of yards from where they belonged. Out buildings were lifted off their foundations and carried downstream, deposited unceremoniously where ever they come to rest. All the plant life was dead and brown, everything covered with mud and sand and huge holes scoured into the ground from the rivers current. The staff and volunteers started right away to clean up and repair the damage. Early in 1994 it became apparent the work would take a long time and June rendezvous was cancelled. Over $300,000 was spent in repairs, mostly through federal assistance and grants. Everything was cleaned up and repaired and in many cases not just replaced but improved. The grounds and museum finally opened to the public on September 29, with the annual French and Indian War Assemblage Event, but the interior of the museum wasn’t completely done. Everything had been moved out and stored at several different locations. Inside the museum they had set up a temporary display about the effects of the recent flood to the Fort. Now the architects and designers began to renovate and improve the museum with new display cases for the artifacts and visual and audio displays that told the Fort’s history from beginning to end. But the massive job of clean up and repair was almost done. The park was open, beautiful and freshly painted, and the park had become more handicapped accessible with ADA approved restrooms in the office and museum and better pathways. The special event season for the next year began to be planned and the State vowed to make 1995 June Rendezvous bigger and better than ever.
But in the Spring of 1995 the Mighty Mississippi River began to rise once again. With the flood of 1993 still very fresh in everyone’s mind a feeling of déjà vue settled in and worries that the Rendezvous scheduled for June 3 and 4 might have to be cancelled began to be felt by the planners of the event. By May of that year the flood gates on route 155 at Prairie du Rocher were closed, the bottom was saturated with seep water flooding many roads which closed off access to the fort and the decision was made to postpone the Rendezvous. But not cancel, they were determined to hold the event.
Finally in September the annual Rendezvous for 1995 was held on the 16th and 17th. Interviewed in 1995 Phyllis Eubanks, special events director for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, said. “Although the 12-foot floodwaters did extensive damage, that meant that needed repairs and renovations could be justified. The museum is not back in place,” Eubanks said. “But there will be an exhibit there about the Rendezvous. The rest of the fort is beautiful. It was too bad about the flood, but it has brought some good things. Next year’s Rendezvous is scheduled for June 1 and 2, 1996. We want to get back on track because this is the largest event of its kind in the Midwest, and people have come to expect it to be held the first weekend in June.” Rendezvous did come back, maybe better but not necessarily bigger. The price of gas went up, more and more festivals, rendezvous and events were taking place everywhere. People, especially kids became more enchanted with new technology than old time skills. Also the budget crisis in Springfield started to raise its ugly head and although it would be a decade before the real effects would be felt, something was in the wind. The participants still came and so did the spectators but the bubble had burst and the glory days were over.
I found in the State of Illinois appropriations for fiscal year 2000 an appropriation for the replacing of the maintenance building with a new one. I couldn’t find out exactly when but the state built a garage in the back of the Fort between the trading post and the levee. My guess is it was built in the 1950’s or 1960’s but it was there in some pictures taken in 1972 and it had been removed sometime before 1993. It may have been in 1985 when the new parking lot out front and a new parking area were built for the staff near the back gate but outside the wall outline. Sometime in 2000 or 2001 the state built a large modern maintenance shed, with a bay for parking and working on equipment, storage rooms, a lunch area and restrooms next to the farmhouse acquired in the 1970’s.
At the time of this writing the last big spending project was the third restoration of the 18th century powder magazine. The first was the restoration done by Mr. Connor in the early 1900’s when the site was acquired by the State of Illinois. During the 1930’s, yet another restoration of the structure was undertaken. This second restoration resulted in a variety of modifications to the building, including the restructuring of the doorway, and the rebuilding of the roof system by the addition of a wooden roof to cover the underlying masonry barrel vault. This timber roof system did not last for many years, and by the early 1940’s the conventional shingle roof was replaced by a slab wood type roof loosely patterned after research done at Fort Niagara in New York State. During a research visit to Fort Niagara for the State of Illinois in the early 1930’s Joseph Booton took pictures and made drawings of the reconstruction there. These notes and photographs became the model for the reconstructed Fort de Chartres powder magazine roof in the middle 1930’s. This timber slab roof also didn’t last long and was removed probably in the late 1940’s revealing the distinctive round roof exterior surface of the barrel vault.
In May 2000, the State of Illinois had finalized construction plans for yet another restoration of the powder magazine at Fort de Chartres specifically, Capital Development Board Project No. 104-060-008; Plan Restoration of Powder Magazine. The initial plans for the restoration called for the construction contractor to excavate around the perimeter of the structure to re-point and or repair the foundations of the building. Additionally, the plans called for the re-pointing of the existing above-grade stone work, rebuilding of the gable end walls, reconstruction of the main entrance, rebuilding of interior floor and powder keg racks, and the reconstruction of a new frame roof structure over the stone barrel vault. Subsequent discussions with the Preservation Services Division, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, indicated that archaeological investigations would be required around the structure prior to the construction activity. Although relatively extensive archaeological research had been carried out at Fort de Chartres over the years, little work had been conducted within or immediately adjacent to the powder magazine. In August 2000, Fever River Research a Cultural Resource Management firm located in Springfield Illinois submitted a time and cost estimate for conducting limited test excavations in, and around, the powder magazine. Field investigations were completed during one week in late August and early September 2000. The limited archaeological testing conducted by Fever River Research was conducted to determine the integrity of the archaeological deposits around the structure, to determine the structural integrity of the stone foundations, and thus the need for the proposed belowground construction activity, as well as to address several research questions posed prior to the investigations regarding the history and or construction of the powder magazine.
As the project proceeded, and it became apparent that the archaeological deposits around the powder magazine were relatively intact and the foundations were in a good state of preservation, it was decided to limit the re-pointing activity to the aboveground stonework. Construction work proceeded during late 2000 and continued through the summer of 2001 with a formal dedication and reopening of the newly restored powder magazine on Sunday October 7, 2001. This is another thing you might not want to bring up if you find yourself chatting with an old Rocherite. Although all research of construction of 18th century French powder magazines supports the newest restoration it forever changed the iconic round barrel vault appearance of the beloved building leaving a very bad taste in the mouths of many the people who grew up with the round top stone structure.
It isn’t an accident no substantial work was done after the early 2000’s at Fort de Chartres Park. The State of Illinois hadn’t balanced its’ budget since 2001, according to information from the state comptroller. Each year, lawmakers’ spending plans never left room to pay off the previous year’s unpaid bills. The growing financial crisis began to be felt by the administrators of the Fort, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Every fiscal year in an effort to stop the bleeding politicians looked for easy marks to cut spending that wouldn’t get too many voters complaining. The simple fact is, there are less people who care about historic sites falling apart or being under staffed than there are who would complain about spending cuts to tax funded projects like public transportation, education or human health and welfare support programs.
Those cuts to the historic site’s budgets continued year after year until the effects of the reduced staff and maintenance neglect can still be seen today. In an effort to operate with the man hours they had available the Fort was reduced to being open only five days a week from the normal seven. Later it reduced it again to four days a week , Thursday through Sunday. Finally by September 2, 2008 the Illinois Governor’s office announced layoffs of up to 450 state employees and the closure of 25 historic sites and state parks. A spokesperson for Governor Rod Blagojevich stated that they had no choice but to make the budget cuts because of a faltering economy and an unbalanced state budget. Included in the cuts were the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, which operated the state parks and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. The IDNR would lay off 39 employees in total. The IHPA, which operated the state historic sites slated for closure would cut some 38 positions. Fourteen state historic sites were scheduled to be closed October 1 and eleven state parks were slated for closure November 1. The closures were considered indefinite but would last at least through the end of the fiscal year, July 1, 2009. Each site would have one employee on site for security and maintenance and once entrances to state parks were barred on November 1, the public would no longer be allowed to enter the sites. Any member of the public entering the closed state parks after November 1 could be arrested and charged with trespassing. Negotiations continued which did nothing but feed the rumor mill and cause nervous stomachs for those to be affected by the closure. Finally on December 1, 2008 Fort de Chartres was officially closed, all the special events at the fort were cancelled and the waiting began.
As month after month went by it became clear that holding June Rendezvous in 2009 was in jeopardy, after all, plans had to be made by not only the staff but also the volunteers and participants who helped to put on and attend the event. It began to appear that the only thing besides an historic, catastrophic flood of the Mighty Mississippi that could cancel June Rendezvous was a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats from the state capitol.
Darrell Duensing the Site Superintendant at the time addressed the Prairie du Rocher Chamber of Commerce at their meeting in January of 2009. “As it stands now”, Duensing stated, “the Fort is still closed. However, with the continuing situation with our Governor still unfolding, there is a chance that could change.” The situation that was unfolding was the investigation of Governor Blagojevich for corruption. The case involved sweeping pay to play and influence peddling allegations including the alleged solicitation of personal benefit in exchange for an appointment to the U. S. Senate as a replacement for Barrack Obama, who had resigned after being elected U. S. President. Blagojevich was impeached by the Illinois General Assembly and removed from office by the Illinois Senate on January 29, 2009 and as a result Lt. Governor Pat Quinn became Governor. Lt. Governor Quinn had publicly gone on record as saying that if he assumed the leadership role in Illinois government, he was committed to reopening the parks closed by Governor Blagojevich. Duensing also said, “Depending on whether that happened and how soon it all might take place, there was a chance that the Fort’s spring and summer events could take place after all. Depending on the timing, the events might be on a reduced scale for this year simply due to the time factor, but that all remains to be seen.” Everyone remained cautiously optimistic, the guy who ordered the closing was gone but the budget crisis still remained. After five months it was announced on April 23, 2009 eleven state historic sites shuttered by former Gov. Blagojevich due to budget cuts were to be reopened by Gov. Pat Quinn.
Kids’ day, a special event which featured 18th century games, contests and crafts for children was only days away. Always held on the first Saturday of May there was just not time to get the Fort ready for a special event. Not wanting to cancel another event it was decided to hold it in the Prairie du Rocher city park. So the first Fort de Chartres special event of 2009 was held offsite in downtown Prairie du Rocher and plans were made for June Rendezvous coming up in a little over a month. It seemed the crisis had been solved and things were back to normal, but that was not the case at all. The main problem still existed and like what most politicians usually do the can was soundly kicked down the road once again.
This whole affair was unnecessary, helped nothing and hurt the people who got laid off. It did have an unexpected benefit though, increased visitors to the site. The possibility of the closing of the Fort had been in the news for several months so people who hadn’t ever been there or hadn’t been there for awhile came to the park before it closed. Please forgive me for a moment while I interject a personal opinion on this ridiculous episode. At the time of the closure there were three full time employees, one was laid off and two remained on site to provide “security and maintenance”. So the lights stayed on, the furnace ran and two thirds of the staff went to work and got a paycheck. In the meantime the visitors who were Illinois taxpayers and wanted to come to the Fort were effectively denied the pleasure of using the Park they paid for. Sorry, couldn’t help myself.
And so June Rendezvous 2009 went off without a hitch but things were not back to normal. Hours were reduced, funds for the site were again cut and talk began to start of not funding any special events at all. Word from the top of the Agency that no overtime would be approved for Fort staff limited the amount of time they could spend preparing for events. Volunteers and a new non-profit support group filled in some of the gaps but it was clear the current situation was unsustainable. For the next several years there was no improvement and if anything things got worse. With the help of volunteers most events were held but rumors persisted of cancelling all events or only allowing events if they paid for themselves. Much worse was the lack of funds for repairs and maintenance. Stonework in need of repointing, peeling paint, rotten wood and leaking roofs became more and more apparent. Also with limited man hours, less equipment maintenance and less money for fuel more and more of the once beautifully manicured grassy areas were not maintained.
The Mississippi River was a critical part of Fort de Chartres’ successful life as an agricultural and fur trade entrepot, governmental headquarters and military presence for two of the most powerful world powers at the time of its existence. Other than perhaps malaria, which was also indirectly caused by it, The Great River was also Fort de Chartres’ most destructive enemy. That’s no less and probably more true today. Not ever to be taken for granted the Mighty Mississip still will remind us of who really is in control. We discussed 1993 but there were other years that caused problems albeit nowhere near as bad as that year. One of the annual June Rendezvous that will always stand out in the memories of folks who attended was the 43rd scheduled for June 1st and 2nd, 2013. Once again the Mississippi River would flex its muscle. There was record rainfall the couple weeks before Rendezvous and the threat of a rising river. Finally it got so bad that IHPA staff drove down from the Capitol and saw the flooded ditches, roads and flooded parking areas and heard that Prairie du Rocher would probably close the flood gates on Rte. 155. Rendezvous was officially cancelled on early Saturday morning. The problem was everybody was already there. And spectators were showing up. So, Rendezvous went on, the drummers drummed, the fifers fifed, the shooters shot and the demonstrators demonstrated and the spectators spectated. 2013 “Raindezvous” will be remembered as the best cancelled event that was ever held.
Another memorable time was the winter of 2015-2016. In December the weather was unseasonably warm which caused the precipitation to be rain instead of snow. As the River rose to the level that would trigger evacuation of the site calls went out to staff at other sites and volunteers to move out everything before the suspected closing of the flood gates at Prairie du Rocher which would cut off access to the Fort. In a herculean effort by mostly volunteers everything was physically moved out and stored at different locations on higher ground. Torrential rains which occurred in the week between Christmas and New Year finally tipped the scales and the flood gates at Prairie du Rocher were closed on December 28th, 2015. The site was closed and the annual singing of “La Guiannee” at the Site on New Year’s Eve was cancelled. The Fort was closed and inaccessible for a few weeks but thankfully the site was spared from flooding and the standing water in surrounding fields and valleys dissipated and the River receded. Again volunteers helped and moved everything back in and once more Old Man River had reminded everyone who really was boss.
There had been rumors that the State of Illinois would no longer fund special events at historic sites and as early as 2009 the money they did spend at Fort de Chartres started to become less. Every year site staff faced tough decisions on what to cut and what was essential to putting on a safe, enjoyable and educational event for the public. Volunteer groups also increased their funding drive efforts realizing they would be called on now for more financial support for the site. While the politicians who had created the problem to begin with scurried about looking for a easy fix they continued to cut the budget of the IHPA. By early 2015 it was clear, not officially but by innuendo that the IHPA did not have any money for events and there was a very good possibility June Rendezvous would be cancelled. Talks were held between the IHPA and the different non-profit volunteer support groups about any options that might be available until finally it was officially announced the State would pay for this year’s June Rendezvous, the 45th annual. There was a collective sigh of relief but it was now painfully obvious that the current program of special events just wasn’t going to survive as it had. And the very life of the IHPA was in question as well. As a way to save money by being more efficient politicians were proposing consolidating different departments and agencies under other departments thereby reducing redundant personnel with the usual large dose of smoke and mirror rhetoric. For the rest of 2015 uncertainty and rumor reigned and in April 2016, the state of Illinois, in the midst of its self-created budget crisis, abruptly pulled the financial plug on events at Fort de Chartres, including Rendezvous and all other historic and educational activities. It seemed the 45th June Rendezvous might be the last but with a concerted 11th hour effort by the non-profit volunteer groups to gather funds and volunteer labor to sustain it the 46th annual June Rendezvous was held in 2016. But pulling together and putting on an event was one thing, continuing that and financing the other events held at the Fort was quite another. Les Amis du Fort de Chartres the non-profit support group for Fort de Chartres had originally envisioned its function as providing financial resources for the maintenance and repair of the site the state had neglected for years. Now faced with no state funds for special events the volunteer group set out to raise money for that too, but there was talk of the administration of the Park being given to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources so the hope was that agency had the funds to pay for the events. While the nationally recognized historic site continued in operation for now, the future of events such as Rendezvous and the other historic events each year was by no means guaranteed.
In an example of how bad things had become, in early 2017 the wood of the timber “ghostings” built in 1989 had rotted and degenerated the integrity of the structures to the point they were considered unsafe and had to be removed or roped off to limit public access which would effectively close the inside of the park to human traffic. The project of deconstructing and reconstructing of the Ghostings was submitted to the state’s Capital Development Budget by the IHPA architect in late 2016 and it was denied for emergency funds but remained on the IHPA’s overall project list for future remediation as the state budget allows. The problem with that was the ghostings were about to fall down and were quickly going to be a safety hazard. The project requirements and scope for the Ghostings deconstruction were given to Les Amis, the non-profit support group to pursue in a more timely fashion. With the help of volunteers and a local contractor who was extremely generous with his bid the wooden structures were deconstructed and removed from the site, the salvageable wood saved for future projects. Without the help of volunteers and donated funds this project would not have happened for possibly years and at some point the inside of the park would have been declared unsafe and closed to the public.
Elected in 2015 Governor Bruce Rauner inherited the budget problems and in April 2017 with an executive order Rauner took steps to trigger the consolidation of the IHPA. The IHPA was separated out from its former parent, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, then called the Department of Conservation in 1985 and now it seemed they were being reunited. Under the terms of Rauner’s Executive Order, most of IHPA would be returned to what is now the Department of Natural Resources. The Governor’s office said consolidation of the two agencies is expected to generate significant administrative savings. A key entity within IHPA, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, was granted its own Board of Trustees and autonomy directly under the Office of the Governor. The consolidation of the IHPA and granting of autonomy to the Lincoln Presidential Library took effect in May of 2017. So now The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, which had been part of IHPA, operated independently. The new Division of Historic Sites of the IDNR was to have two major functions. One was operating sites that preserve and celebrate Illinois’ heritage, like Fort de Chartres. The other major function of the Division of Historic Preservation is housing the federally mandated State Historic Preservation Office. The office oversees nominations to the National Register of Historic Places, administers tax incentives that encourage rehabilitation of historic buildings, and reviews construction involving government money or permits to assess their impact on historic resources. According to the Governor’s office spokesperson. “By positioning IHPA administration within IDNR, core competencies will be centralized. The merger, which includes $9.2 million in new appropriation authority for IDNR, is anticipated to result in $3.2 million in savings and ensure the continued collection and preservation of state historic resources. By combining these offices, the IDNR will be able to further deliver services and programs to the people of Illinois while at the same time creating efficiencies and saving taxpayers’ money,” Of course it would, why hadn’t someone thought of this before.
After successfully putting on and financing the events in 2016 the volunteer groups had continued with that effort and also put on the events in the beginning of 2017. But with the IDNR now in charge of the Fort and promises of an increased budget there was a cautious sense of optimism that perhaps the tide had turned, word from state employees was how good things were going to be once the transition took place. But it became apparent very soon that optimism was misplaced. The hopes of more resources, personnel and a renewal of the long neglected maintenance and repair activities soon melted like an ice cube on an august afternoon in southern Illinois. No extra people were hired, nothing was fixed and the special events were not going to be funded by the IDNR. The only thing that changed was the name of the agency on the website, signage and the shoulder patch on the employee’s shirts.
And that’s pretty much where we are now at the beginning of 2019 when this is being written. The Park is under the administration of the Historic Sites Division of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and is under staffed, and underfunded and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Les Amis du Fort de Chartres still raises money for maintenance and repair projects but the IDNR has to approve most of those projects which of course involves any number of bureaucrats planning to study, studying, then evaluating the study, and maybe giving their go ahead for the project, essentially postponing badly needed repairs or improvements for months or years. Les Amis and other volunteer groups raise money and provide volunteer labor for the special events that are still being held bringing visitors to the park and the surrounding communities who benefit from the added traffic economically. I am aware the recent history I have written here presents a somewhat less than rosy outlook for the future. I wish this was a novel, I could’ve written a happy ending.
Although not what those folks envisioned back in the early 1900’s when they worked to get the site out of private hands and into the hands of the state of Illinois the future of Fort de Chartres is not completely devoid of hope. The self imposed budget crisis of the state is not going away any time soon, it probably will even get worse than it is now putting the future of the site in real doubt. But there a lot of folks who care as deeply for this historic site as did the people from 100 years ago, willing to give their time and money to help preserve what the folks from the early 1900’s saved from oblivion. A spokesperson for Les Amis recently wrote “Together, with the other invaluable Fort de Chartres volunteer organizations, we are working to keep the site moving forward into the future, continuing to safeguard the region’s history, and promoting the positive economic impact of a thriving historic site on the surrounding communities.” Now if only the government caretakers would show as much concern and willingness to actually do something as the volunteers there may be hope of saving this “object of antiquarian curiosity”. In 1881 Edward G. Mason wrote, “it seemed not unreasonable to wish that the State of Illinois might, while yet there is time, take measures to permanently preserve, for the sake of the memories, the romance, and the history interwoven in its fabric, what still remains of Old Fort Chartres.” Now a hundred years later that statement rings as true today as it did when it was written, indeed it isn’t anymore unreasonable to preserve this historic place now than it was then. Fort de Chartres fell into ruin and languished in the overgrown forest until it rose up and once more became an impressive fortress of stone. It is now our responsibility to make sure it is not a Phoenix, having to die and be reduced to a pile of ashes before it can be reborn again.
In closing let me just say, Whew, that was a lot of dang durn writin, time for a beer…..
Any opinions expressed in this article are solely mine and do not reflect the position of any State Agency or State employee, or probably anyone else for that matter.
An Interview with Darrell Duensing Part of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library IHPA Legacy Oral History project Interview # HP-A-L-2016-037.
On microfilm Illinois State Archives Department of Conservation: State Park Commission Meeting Minutes, August 12, 1911-July 31, 1917. On microfilm Illinois State Archives Department of Conservation.
Publication Number Thirty-five of the Illinois State Historical Library Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society for the year 1928.
The Southern Illinoisan Sunday April 23, 1978.
The report of the Board of State Park Advisors issued December 30, 1932.
The Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) Library of Congress.
The Farmers Weekly Review Joliet Illinois 1930.
Illinois Tourist Guide 1932.
Views of La. together with a journal of a voyage up the mo. river in 1811 H. M. Brackenridge – appendix skull in museum.
Illinois Parks and Recreation 7 January/February, 1975 magazine.
Natural Disaster Survey Report The great Flood of 1993 February 1994 US Department of Commerce NOAA Coastal Services Center Library 2234 South Hobson Avenue Charleston, SC 29405-2413.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, “After Action Report – The Great Flood of ’93”,(1994).
Decatur Herald Newspaper Decatur Il. 1936.
The Collinsville Illinois newspaper The Advertiser for May 31, 1919.
Weekley Review Will Co. Il. May 19, 1966.
St Louis Post-Dispatch, September 29, 1994.
Fever River Research, Inc. Springfield, Illinois.