By Norma Smith
East Peoria Historical Society
Located in Central Illinois, East Peoria has long drawn life from the Illinois River and from the rich soil and natural resources of its location. From the time of the earliest Indians through its development as a suburban manufacturing community, East Peoria, with its rich plain, scenic hills and abundant water, has grown and prospered.
Origins as Bluetown
Many of the earlier settlers of the area now known as East Peoria were from Alsace Lorraine. The homes were built in the swamplands where Caterpillar Inc. now stands. In 1864, Joseph Schertz platted an area known as Bluetown, possibly named from one of three theories: first, it was the custom for the Alsace Lorraine men to wear blue smocks; second, the homes, built on stilts, were painted blue to combat the corrosive action of the swamps; and third, a large number of the homes belonged to a mining company and a large quantity of blue paint had been purchased to paint the houses. Bluetown became known as Hilton, Illinois, in 1869.
Peoria was prospering, crowding the land along the shore and causing developers to look across to the East. One of the first was Almiron S. Cole. Captain Cole, who had grown wealthy as a merchant, steamboat captain and distiller, built the first toll bridge in 1848, connecting the two shores, and eventually moved to the east side. His home was located at the site of the present First United Methodist Church, corner of Washington and Almiron streets. The area developed as Coleville, and streets such as Almiron, Cole, Johnson and Cole Hollow commemorate Captain Cole and his descendants.
In July 1884, the residents of Bluetown and Coleville incorporated under the name of Hilton. The vote, 30-12, established the first incorporated village where East Peoria now stands. In October 1889, the name was changed to the Village of East Peoria. It was changed to the City of East Peoria and the commission form of government adopted in April 1919.
The coal industry was one of the first to be recognized. Because of the hilly terrain, much of a rich vein of coal was located near the surface and was easily mined. Among the coal companies established were Lake Erie Coal and Mining, Standard Coal, Doering Coal, Giebelhausen Coal, Manhattan and East Peoria Coal.
Coal miners faced hard work, long hours and were paid an average of $1.25 per day. Coal mine tunnels could be found all over town; indeed, one was unearthed in the summer of 2005 during the reconstruction of Interstate 74 in East Peoria.
The Carter Brick Yard, located on Cole Hollow Road, was the second industry to come to East Peoria. It had a daily output of 40,000 bricks, many of which were used in paving streets in the area. It is presently known as Peoria Brick and Tile Company.
Heavy manufacturing began with the Colean Manufacturing Company in 1902, followed by the R. Herschel Manufacturing Company in 1903. The Holt Manufacturing Company bought out Colean in 1909, but continued to manufacture heavy equipment. Its continuous track tractor proved to be valuable both at home and in Europe during World War I. Holt combined with the C.L. Best Tractor Company of California in 1925 and this union resulted in the formation of the Caterpillar Tractor Company in East Peoria, now known worldwide as Caterpillar Inc. Today Caterpillar's world headquarters is across the Illinois River in downtown Peoria, and the company still operates manufacturing facilities in East Peoria.
Altorfer Brothers Company, a major manufacturer of washing machines, moved to East Peoria in 1914. The Haag Brothers Company also manufactured washing machines here. The city water works was installed in 1916.
One reason for the growth of industry was the early development of railroads. By 1905, East Peoria had connections with 12 different railroads, through the facilities of the Peoria and Pekin Union Railroads. The Toledo, Peoria and Warsaw (later Western) and the Illinois Terminal Railway also located their headquarters in East Peoria.
Captain Cole built a toll road to aid those who were traveling to Peoria, and Oliver Hanson started a hack line which ran from George Defenbaugh's store to Peoria. Then in 1905, streetcars began operation. Also in 1903, an ordinance was passed to bring electricity to East Peoria.
Access to and from East Peoria was improved with the paving of the first road in 1901. With the growth of industries and businesses, coupled with the number of automobiles, traffic flow became a major problem by the 1940s. The constuction of Interstate 74 in the late 1950s and early 1960s helped to eliminate some of the problem while providing a fast and efficient method of travel to other locations.
The great flood
East Peoria's terrain proved itself to be a mixed blessing. During heavy rains, the river bluffs shed their water into the valleys and creeks and directly into the downtown area. Although the city had diked its creeks, the flood of 1927 caused severe damage. Other floods occurred until the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the East Peoria Sanitary District began a flood control program in 1948. The Fondulac and Farmdale dams were built to control runoff from the hills and creek beds were deepened, widened and straightened.
Education and organizations
Education had been provided in the area since 1850 and a vote was taken to establish a public school in 1870. Early churches established in the area included the Methodist Church in 1867, the Free Methodist Church in 1885, St. Monica's Catholic Church in 1898, and St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1903.
The East Peoria Woman's Club was organized in 1934 and started the first public library, now known as Fondulac District Library, in 1935.
The East Peoria Historical Society was formed in 1999 as a result of the City of East Peoria receiving the gift of the Doering Homeplace, built circa 1888, from Dr. James Healey and his wife, Barbara Doering Healy.