A Chronicle of the 1866 Shaft

by Norman V. Kelly
Above: The Shaft at the old Peoria County Courthouse, ca. 1955. Historic photos courtesy of the Peoria Historical Society and Peoria Public Library Local History Collection

From its post-war dedication until its dismantling nearly a century later, The Shaft stood tall in downtown Peoria. Today, an effort is underway to restore this lost piece of history.

In order to bring folks up to date on the 1866 Civil War monument, I had to refer to two stories I had previously written about “The Shaft.” That is what Peorians called this memorial dedicated to the men from Peoria County who had fallen during the Civil War.

As young teenagers, we used the monument as a meeting place to discuss what we were going to do once we were downtown. Sometimes we gathered and went to different movies, agreeing to “meet back at The Shaft.” The truth was, it just seemed like an old piece of forgotten concrete, and I am embarrassed to tell you that it certainly had no real meaning to us. After all, it was erected in 1866, and over on the other side of the Peoria County Courthouse we had a very famous Civil War monument. I am afraid we did not give The Shaft much patriotic thought.

The last time I saw it was the day before I entered the United States Air Force in the early days of the Korean War. I never saw it again, but I vaguely recall that in 1950 there were 43 Civil War veterans still living.

It all began in 1865 when a local ladies group decided that thoughts of the men who had died during the Civil War were fading away. They formed committees and activated groups to raise the money to put up a fitting memorial to the men who helped save our Union—so they would never be forgotten. Once an impressive amount of money was raised, the Peoria County Board and local merchants got into the act, and the plans and dreams for the monument became a reality.


An Autochrome postcard featuring The Shaft, mailed from Peoria in 1911

The Crowd at Courthouse Square
On the glorious morning of October 11, 1866, even before sun-up, folks from all over Peoria and surrounding counties began to head for downtown Peoria, Illinois. Special trains and steamboats came and went, depositing thousands of people, including countless Civil War veterans.

At precisely 10:00am, the drums boomed and Spencer’s Band struck up a patriotic song, as other bands and hundreds of marchers stepped off on their way to the Courthouse Square. As the bands passed by, the folks standing along the street joined in until there were thousands of smiling, raucous folks all moving toward the Courthouse. Leading this parade was “Old Abe,” the famous war eagle that was a pet of Civil War hero General John A. “Blackjack” Logan. Perched high above the crowd, the eagle screeched and encouraged the onslaught of the cheering mob.

Once they reached the Courthouse, every square inch was filled with people happy to be part of the historical event about to take place. The bands continued to play as folks jammed up against the speaker’s stand, eager to hear from Peoria’s famous orator, Robert G. Ingersoll. It was a glorious day in Peoria history, and that night the new, bright moon had a gleaming white memorial to look down upon.

The monument was moved once to the Jefferson Street side of the square, but other than that, it stood as a constant reminder of those brave men from the Peoria area who had fallen to save our Union.

Searching for “Old Abe”
In 1962, The Shaft was dismantled to make room for a new courthouse. Eventually, it was discarded and most certainly forgotten. I first learned of its plight from an article in the newspaper—the accompanying photographs showed the remains had been tossed among some tall weeds. I never forgot about that article.

Years later, I wrote a couple of stories about The Shaft and bugged my friend Bruce Brown a dozen times about trying to find that monument—especially the famous eagle that once perched atop it. I did talk a few friends into helping me look for it, but I ended up taking them on a wild goose chase.

But I did find an important document about the monument and showed it to Bruce. He knew exactly what it was, and finally we were on the right track. It led us to the folks at the United States Army Corps of Engineers, where we were directed to Detweiller Marina and the remnants of the old Civil War monument. Bruce photographed the pieces and with Bob Hoffer’s research assistance, we identified all of them. But the elusive “Old Abe” was ascertained to have been destroyed, along with some of The Shaft itself.

Assembly at Springdale
On May 8, 2018, a group of folks with an interest in restoring the 1866 Shaft gathered together as Bruce Brown and a dozen or so of us explained the details of our find. Spread out in front of the speaker’s area were the assembled pieces that had been recovered and delivered to Springdale Cemetery. Bruce told the crowd that today marked the beginning of the long task of restoring and refurbishing the monument, with hopes that on October 11, 2019—exactly 153 years after it had been dedicated in 1866—a replica would stand near the entrance to Springdale Cemetery, the original site proposed for The Shaft.


A press conference at the Peoria Riverfront Museum on July 23, 2018, honored those raising funds to restore The Shaft. Among those making donations and offering support were: Bill Conger, PRM; Rev. Marvin Hightower, Peoria NAACP; Fisher Stolz, Bradley University; Brenden Schuller, WWII Reenactors; Gale Thetford, Shaft Project treasurer; Colleen Johnson, Peoria Historical Society; Bruce Brown, Shaft Project committee; and Joe Hutchinson, Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

Bruce continued: “Missing are a column 11 feet, 11 inches tall; a cap, which is about a foot-and-a-half tall; and the eagle, which was two-and-a-half feet tall.” This, of course, was the famous “Old Abe,” which we were very anxious to recover… but never did. It takes money along with a large volunteer force to accomplish this noble task, and to restore it to its original glory would cost a sizeable sum.

To learn more about the project to restore The Shaft at Springdale Cemetery, visit restoretheshaft.org. You may donate by credit card or check, and be sure to watch the YouTube video about the whole incredible saga. Be a part of this historical project, and join us on October 11, 2019 for the festivities.

Bruce, along with the folks he consulted with, explained what they hoped to accomplish. “The most difficult task will be reproducing the eagle. But the business that created the eagle—and the entire monument—in 1866, is still in business today, some 152 years later. The Restoration Committee just needs the funds to finish the job.”

So far the committee has raised about $30,000, and we are asking folks to donate whatever they can afford so we can make the final push to finish this important project before October 11, 2019. On that glorious day, those brave men who served during the Civil War can be honored once again with the dedication of the new Shaft. iBi

Norm Kelly is a Peoria historian and true crime writer. He can be reached at norman.kelly@sbcglobal.net. Learn more about "Old Abe"—the famous eagle perched atop The Shaft monument—on our PS Blog.

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