About the Village of Riverton, Illinois and History


The Village of Riverton has an interesting early history. Published sources provide very little detail to the complicated web of owners and residents of the community. The village's origins go back to the days before its founding when a ferry crossing was located just south of Riverton on the Sangamon River. The earliest known proprietor of this ferry was Ezekiel Judd who in 1829 transferred the ferry license over to his brother Corbin. Corbin Judd operated the ferry for just a year before turning it over to John Judy. The operation was now known as Judy's Ferry. Abraham Dingman succeeded Judy in 1833 and the Dingman family ran the ferry for several years after.

Interesting Fact- In March 1831, Abraham Lincoln, John Hanks and John D. Johnston came to Sangamon County for the first time, traveling on the Sangamon River by canoe to Riverton, then named Jamestown.

Gershom Jayne, a Springfield physician and land speculator, purchased the land where Riverton sits in December 1830. Jayne held onto the land until May 1837 when he sold it to Samuel Danley. Mr. Danley owned the land for just a few months before selling it to John Taylor, a Springfield merchant and speculator. Taylor was responsible for having the town of Jamestown, the original name of Riverton, platted on December 11, 1837. The town's formation is believed to have been caused by the construction of the Northern Cross Railroad. This railroad was supposed to have run from the Illinois River to the boundary line with Indiana. Jamestown would have been located on this rail line. Contracts were let out to different groups for the construction of various stretches of the railroad. A group of four men including James F. Reed received the contract to build the railroad between Springfield and the Sangamon River. Reed set a sawmill in Jamestown for the purpose of cutting timber for the construction.

Interesting Fact- The Sangamon River derived its name from the Pottawatomie Indian word Sain-guee-mon (pronounced sang gä mun) meaning literally "where there is plenty to eat".

By early 1840s Jamestown was experiencing some growth with the establishment of a grocery store and post office. Reed's mill continued to operate as well. The strange fact remains that John Taylor sold very few lots in the town. The Northern Cross did not reach the city of Springfield until 1842. Soon after, it became apparent that the railroad was unreliable. The construction of the tracks proved to be faulty. The railroad was closed and later sold. Jamestown fell on hard times as well in the later 1840s. John Taylor failed to pay the property taxes on the town and the land was sold at a tax sale to Joseph B. Loose of Maryland. James Frazier Reed had turned to manufacturing furniture at his mill as well as grinding corn. He mortgaged the mill along with some other land to the Sangamon County School Commissioner for $1,000. Reed left for California in April 1846 with the Donner/Reed Party. Reed and his family became a part of the Donner Party Disaster high in the Sierra Mountains, although most of them survived. He failed to pay back the borrowed money and his land including the mill was foreclosed upon.

Very little happened in Jamestown until the early 1850s with the arrival of the railroad. The Northern Cross, which had been sold, was reorganized as the Sangamon and Morgan Railroad, which then became the Great Western. The railroad track was rebuilt from the Illinois River and pushed eastward. By 1854 they had reached the city of Decatur. John D. Keedy, a Springfield distiller, bought Jamestown from Loose in December 1857. Keedy mortgaged the town and some land directly south of it to Jacob Bunn for $10,000. Keedy apparently used the money to build a distillery on the land just south of Jamestown. The town property was released to Keedy for partial payment but the land and distillery were given to the Bunns. Jamestown was sold in October 1862 to pay for a judgment against Keedy. Parley L. Howlett, another distiller, purchased the town.

The name of Jamestown was changed to Howlett in 1864. Under its new owner, the town began to flourish. A large flouring milling was added to the distillery in 1866 and one of the county's first coal mines was started in the same year. Miners and workers for the distillery began to arrive in town. A business community of saloons, boarding houses, doctors and general stores developed. Parley L. Howlett had borrowed money, mainly from Jacob Bunn, to implement his business ventures. Unfortunately they did not prove to be successful enough and Howlett was forced into bankruptcy in December 1868. Once again, the majority of the town and its main businesses were sold. This time Jacob Bunn, probably the largest creditor of Howlett, purchased everything in 1869.

By the 1870s, Mr. Bunn had sold many lots in the town to individuals but retained ownership of the mine and distillery. The mine was now known as the Western Coal & Mining Company and the distillery known as the Sangamon Company. The village was incorporated in August 1873 and the name changed from Howlett to Riverton. The reason for the change resulted from a State requirement that an incorporated town not be named after an individual. The population of the village in the late 1870s was composed of mostly coal miners of Irish descent. The Panic of 1873 proved to be hard on Jacob Bunn and its effect finally forced him into bankruptcy in 1878. Bunn's holdings in Riverton were sold to pay part of his debts. The distillery, coal mine, and town property were dispersed to a variety of purchasers. This effectively ended the ownership of the town by one individual.

Interesting Fact- In late August 1876, Jesse James and his Gang stayed overnight in Riverton , Illinois . They stayed at a house on the south side of the railroad tracks. The gang was on their way to Northfield, Minnesota, where they robbed a bank on September 17, 18 76. At this time the reward for Jesse, dead or alive, was $10,000.

From the 1870’s to the 1930’s, Riverton boomed with 3 operating coal mines. The population of Riverton included a large Italian-American population which continues to this day. It is reported that Al Capone used Riverton as a hideout when the heat in Chicago was on him. For a genealogy of some of the Italian American families you can visit www.calascio.com.

Interesting Fact- Piza Street in Riverton is named after four prominent Italian-American families in Riverton- Pescitelli, Ippolito, Zara and Antonacci.

The Villages population dipped with the closing of the mines but has steadily increased since then due to it’s close proximity to Springfield, the State capital. Present day Riverton is a thriving municipality with a promising future. Controlled growth in both its residential and commercial sectors coupled with an progressive school system make Riverton a excellent location to live and raise a family.

Chuck Stone

With thanks to the Sangamon County Historical Society