Local History

West Frankfort, Illinois - A Record of Perseverance

Like many towns in Southern Illinois, West Frankfort has a deeply rooted, rich history. At the beginning of the 1800s, the Shawnee defeated the Kaskaskians in a tribal war over rights to hunting. These bountiful hunting grounds include what is today known as West Frankfort. Less than three years after this ferocious fight, the French entered present-day Franklin County and erected a tannery for buffalo hides on Frankfort Hill.

Several years later, five Tennessee families wandered into the area and set up camp. They began living in primitive three-sided huts called pole sheds. These shelters served their purposes perfectly until Governor Ninian Edwards, in an effort to lessen the threat of Native Americans, ordered all settlers to begin building block-house forts. Francis Jordan purchased land for the fort and with the aid of the Saline Militia built the block house on what is now the edge of Williamson County. With help from Jordan and his brothers, other families, and their indentured servants, the fort was completed in 1811. Named after Francis Jordan, it was christened Frank's Fort. The fort was fully occupied until 1812, and then at intervals until 1817, when it was purchased by Francis Jordan's brother, James.

Many aspects of Franklin County attracted settlers, but the main factor involved was economics. In 1805 Congress passed the Bit Act, which lowered land prices from $1.25 per acre to 12.5C an acre or $5 for 40 acres. The abundance of inexpensive land led to a rush of settlers immediately moving into the area. However, life in this place was not for the weak of heart or back. It was sometimes known as "paradise for men and dogs, but hell for women and oxen." Life for the settlers was good for hunting and fishing, but horrible for socializing and laboring.

During this time, a town known as Frankfort (named after Frank's Fort) began to flourish. Between 1812 and 1815, more people settled in Frankfort than the entire county combined, due to the construction of a road through Frankfort from Shawneetown to Kaskaskia. Frankfort became a major location in Illinois during this time, rivaling Chicago in population.

The push for Illinois statehood greatly affected Frankfort and the surrounding area. In 1818, the territorial legislature created three new counties in an effort to meet requirement for admission to statehood. Part of this legislation, the Enabling Act, created a county of 430 square miles of rolling prairies and woods. It was named after Benjamin Franklin and had a population of 1,228, with 171 families, 52 free blacks, and 15 slaves.

A temporary county seat was made at the house of Moses Garrett, an influential land owner. By 1820 Frankfort alone had a population of 1,763. Late in 1821 the county seat was moved to Garrett's tavern as a permanent location on top of Frankfort Hill. This was the same hill where the French had at one time operated a buffalo hide tannery. From this point on, Frankfort went through a series of economic ups and downs. Although tobacco and castor beans for castor oil was a fairly steady trade for farmers, the market for businessman was very unsteady.

In 1894, a railroad track making its way through Chicago, Paducah, and Memphis was laid through Franklin County four miles from Frankfort. This distance was too far for businesses to stay in Frankfort, so many businesses and residents migrated to the new commercial center which formed near the tracks. This new community came to be known as West Frankfort for its location west of Frankfort. The two cities eventually merged and retained the name of West Frankfort. In November 11, 1905 the village made application to become a city. It was April 10, 1906 when the incorporation papers were signed and West Frankfort became an official city.

As soon as this change occurred, a commission elected by the Senate was to decide on a new county seat. It decided that the neighboring town of Benton would become the new county seat. West Frankfort was presumed doomed. Once again, though, the determined businesses and citizens of West Frankfort refused to go quietly. A new flour mill was constructed and the castor oil business thrived. West Frankfort once again survived the hard times.

As the years passed, West Frankfort's population dwindled but was never without its few diehard citizens. Little did the residents know that around the turn of the century they would multiply their population many times. Beginning in 1904 the Deering Coal Mine Company took Franklin County and West Frankfort from no coal production in 1900 to the number one coal producer in the state by 1917. Once the mines opened, the population increased 3,500 in seven years. By 1927 West Frankfort's population reached 19,896. In the late 1940’s, four theatres and a minor league baseball team marked the downtown area.

To their dismay, the residents of West Frankfort would have to once again suffer disappointment because one by one the mines began to close. By 1970 the population was down to 8,829. However, the residents of West Frankfort had the strength and determination to return to those West Frankfort roots by examining ways to renovate and restore the historic remnants of downtown.

The area of West Frankfort formerly known as Frankfort is still sometimes referred to locally as Frankfort Heights or, more commonly, simply as "the Heights", due to its higher elevation relative to the rest of the city. A post office was maintained in Frankfort Heights until its destruction by fire in 2005, making West Frankfort one of the smallest cities in the United States to have two ZIP codes.

By Steffen Brown
Carbondale Community High School

illustration of the main street on west frankfort