Illinois' First Civil War Monument Restored to Place of Honor

Oct 12, 2019

It was 153 years ago when 30,000 people gathered outside the courthouse downtown to dedicate the Peoria County Civil War Monument.

The 30-foot stone pillar, known as "the Shaft," honors the 607 Union soldiers from Peoria County who died. The "Shaft" is the first Civil War monument built in Illinois, and one of the first in the nation.

Peoria was just a city of just 19,000 on Oct. 11, 1866, but the small river town's population swelled with people from across Central Illinois coming to pay their respects. The famed orator Col. Robert Ingersoll read the keynote dedication poem.

But after 96 years, the monument was moved to make way for a modern courthouse in 1962.

"And for reasons unknown, the pieces were never reassembled. They were kind of tossed aside and buried in the weeds at Detweiller Marina for 55 years," said Bruce Brown, a local restaurant owner who's a key person in the Shaft's rediscovery.

In fact, the Shaft was lost for decades after it was removed from the courthouse lawn - and eventually almost forgotten. But not by all.  

Along with fellow local history enthusiasts Norm Kelly and Bob Hoffer, Brown managed to trace the monument's wherabouts to the marina in June 2017 after a long and sometimes frustrating search.

But it was in bad shape. The stone eagle topper, "Old Abe," fell apart, and the Shaft itself was splintered into pieces. One column was missing entirely.

The initial trio of local history buffs who found the Shaft in its neglected state soon multiplied into dozens of supporters rallying to raise the tens of thousands of dollars needed to restore the monument through private donations.

State Sen. Dave Koehler (D-Peoria) brought the restoration into reality with an appropriation in the recent state capital bill making up a significant chunk of the costs.

Brown doesn't just give credit to that small, original group for bringing the dream of a restored Shaft to reality.

"This [is] just an astonishing story that we're calling unity of community. It's not just four or five people. It's a virtual crowd of 30,000," he said.

And group treasurer Gail Thetford said there was good news for "Old Abe," as well.

"The same quarry that produced the original monument in 1866 was still in business," she said. And they were willing to craft another eagle from the same stone from which the original was carved.

About 300 people gathered at Springdale Cemetery exactly 153 years (and one day) after the original dedication to pay tribute to those who sacrified their lives for their country in the war between the states.

Bruce Brown receives a bunch of flowers from Bob Hoffer (right) to lay upon the base of the monument.
Credit Tim Shelley / WCBU

The day included speeches from several people involved in the "Restore the Shaft" effort, including an at-times visibly emotional Brown.

Rev. Marvin Hightower of the Peoria NAACP, an early backer of the restoration effort, gave the invocation. Sherry Carter-Allen of the NAACP sang a spiritual song of the Civil War era.

Bagpiper Greg Boyd emerged from a nearby grove of trees playing "Amazing Grace" on his bagpipes in full Scottish garb after an introductory rifle salute by the Central Illinois Living Historians and American Legion Post 2.

The first attempt to remove the "art wrap" created by Peoria Heights art students failed. But after a little extra effort on the windy day, the Shaft was fully unveiled.

Gail Thetford yanks on a rope as a group of people attempt to remove the "art wrap" from the Shaft.
Credit Tim Shelley / WCBU

Without his blindfold, "Old Abe's" steely gaze harkened to Soldier Hill from his high perch, to watch over the final resting places of the men whose monument he sits upon honors.