The Fairhaven correspondent for the “Savanna Journal” had written May, 1889, “Considerable excitement prevails north and west of here over the recent prospecting for coal—774 acres of farmland have been purchased from farmers west of Daggert Station,” was just part of the item. And last week’s PDQ Me article tells of mining for mineral in Carroll County.
James Shaw was a prominent, respected citizen of Carroll County from the mid-1880’s to past the turn-of-the century, 1900. His contributions were many and varied. And, in fact, noteworthy on a state level but very few know today of his accomplishments. Born in 1831 in Ireland, he arrived in America with family in infancy. The Shaw’s came to Cass County, Illinois and though in well-to-do circumstances, lived in a double log cabin in the wilderness that was Illinois at the time.
James grew up reading the best in classic literature, receiving the most useful morals and manners. In his youth he began assembling the vast library he was to enjoy all his adult life. Shaw attended the Illinois College at Jacksonville but not yet determining what he would major in — geology or law.
After graduation he “read” law with attorney Frederick Seckel (or Sackett) in Sterling in Whiteside County. Meanwhile, his family had moved northward to Lee County so in deciding to stay in the area with family, he located in Mt. Carroll in 1860.
Shaw married Jennie Harvey of Wheeling, West Virginia the previous year, 1859. Together they had three children: Undine, Hoyt and Effie who became the valedictorian of her class at Vassar College.
Although his interest in geology never lagged, he had decided to practice law and soon was directing a thriving business at the county seat. That career leading to prestigious work with both the CMStP and CBN railroads, the former at one time asking him to lead their law department which he declined. He was elected four times to the state legislature and became Speaker of the House when the new capital building was constructed in Springfield. As a representative of Illinois College, he became an Elector to the Presidential Electoral College and was voted into the circuit court twice, 1891 and 1903. He was a conscientious public speaker at all sorts of occasions, including the 4th of July in 1876 where he’d compiled an informal history of the settlement of Carroll County and orated on the subject to the gratification of Old Settlers.
Meanwhile his interest in geology never lagged. He had surveyed for the state in most all the counties in Northwest Illinois and the nearby Mississippi Valley making notes, maps and studies of the terrain, particularly of the Northwest. Thus he was consulted by all counties in this region when they were assembling material for their county histories in the 1870’s and ‘80’s.
His knowledge was so extensive that his works were being published by the Smithsonian Institute, one being a monograph titled, Mound Builders of the Rock River and Northern Illinois.
James Shaw was urged by Major John Wesley Powell to come to the Smithsonian and work with him in his interests in geology but Shaw declined just as he did when the famous hero, Powell, invited him to accompany an expedition to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. Powell made many important and “firsts” in the exploration of America especially in geology and ethnology, his classification of the American Indian languages was beyond repute.
Shaw would certainly have profited in a scientific way if he had not declined but he claimed to be devoted to his family and serving the public as attorney and legislator. His vacations were made in the North Woods and the mountains of the West. Nature claimed his interests throughout his life. some of the books he wrote were left to the Mt. Carroll Library and would be of valuable merit even today. A noted attorney and legislator, some of the bills he wrote being termed excellent. James Shaw might have held the highest office in the state from Carroll County — Assistant State Geologist for three years. He died in 1906 and is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Mt. Carroll, his family surrounding him.
That source goes on to say that the “coal mining fever” in Fairhaven and Salem Townships like the iron ore excitement in Savanna and Woodland Townships. It was of short duration and as the Savanna editor reported, “Only made a few headlines.”
Files of the Savanna paper, however, did describe a walk-over of the iron mining site which might impress you with its manager; J.H. Jones. There were a number of shafts dug down 30 or 40 inches where “float ore” had been found. Two tunnels about a hundred feet apart, one being approximately 125 feet in distance where ore has been discovered “being of paying quantities.” In the early Journal articles there are encouraging words concerning the quality of the mineral found, it having assayed in top grades AND it was embedded in Yellow Ochre, also valuable, and commanded a “good price.”
The writer also said that prospects looked so great that it wouldn’t be surprising that mining could replace agriculture as Carroll’s top industry!! By June of 1890 there was still interest in the iron mine up in Woodland, some lessees having been signed by such as Matthew Law, 80 acres, and Andrew Law, 160 acres and others.
Rumors constantly wavered about a branch line of railroad tracks being built from Savanna over the hills to Woodland. Or not. A couple Smelting Furnaces at Savanna instead of Chicago. Or not!
Jo Daviess County had been part of the stir with several being named as leasing vast acreages to be prospected. Nothing came of the iron mine either in quantity or quality although many a farmer believed there was something of value under the strata of iron that could live up to their expectations.
The late Dorothy Guentner told in later years about the abandoned tunnels and shaft being a trap towards inner earth for the livestock grazing in the fields surrounding the holes. Finally fencing was put around them and overtop. It was a well known landmark for years and Dorothy remembered the dress she wore each time she visited the place!!
Gold was responsible for a short-lived sensation with but a few samples of being discovered on the then—Christopher Shirk farm just inside Lima Township. It was at the south end of “Gold Mine Road” driving from present day Rt. 72 east of Shannon. Shirk had a large quarry to produce “building stone” for local trade. A couple samples were found by were they (Fools Gold) assayed? References point out that iron pyrite glitters on its surface (Fool’s Gold) and can be mistaken for gold. These have also been discovered locally. A “Gold Mine Road” exists going west out of Pearl City, too.
Just when you’d have thought the mineral excitement had died down for good, this item was found in the 1878 Carroll County History. It brought up more questions than it answered, “Specimen found near Savanna on the Beers Tomlinson farm, Section 35, Carroll Township, have been found as black as cannel coal and burn with an oily, bright flame for an extended length of time. Misled by this, some capital has been expended boring for coal at the latter place ... One of our citizens has also been successful in extracting some oil which he pronounced petroleum out of a similar specimen. When the oil excitement was in this county a company was formed and but for the advice of a geologist that company would have been spending money in vain to strike oil.”
Despite attempts to list the many unique qualities of minerals in Carroll County and the region, that paragraph above (in part) does not tell what year the oil fever occurred. It was before 1877. The once called “Mt. Carroll to Fulton Road” later the Argo Fay Road, and presently the “Oil Valley Road,” show the changes and prominences of various sites in our history. The Oil Valley Road does us more of the past we know little about. It is the second road west of Rt. 78. Out of Mt. Carroll going south from Rt. 64/52, just west of the large grain bins.
At one time those mineral deposits were called the “coalite mines” and used to some extent in the first decade of the 1900’s. They were a little northeast of Argo Fay on Vinegar Hill Road, the north side. This may have been the site of the “petroleum” fields!!! It is seen on the Carroll County Historical Society map (1968) as number 3701.
Information of mineral deposits was compiled at an early date by the county judge, James Shaw. Not only an attorney, but he was also three years the assistant state geologist and who had monographs printed by the Smithsonian Institute. His picture here was taken from the 1878 history. He was a respected source concerning geology throughout northwest Illinois and beyond.
He was applied to by Stephenson County about several sites where minerals prevailed and in their 1880 county history apparently wrote about their “oil excitement” in 1864, carrying over into 1865. It had been discovered in the northern part of Lancaster Township, Section 6, that being near Cedarville. A company was organized, an engineer hired who directed that a hole 6 feet wide and 800 feet deep be bored but no other oil was found which halted the excitement. At about sixty feet some carboniferous substance was drilled through it amounted to nothing.
If, from that inclusion in the Carroll County History, it was at that time Carroll experienced an “oil excitement” it isn’t clear. Just a short sentence provides the teaser which had caused the excitement, energy and money spent. A reference that PDQ Me spent about ten hours trying to find AGAIN had no success but reported that SOME substance exudes from the earth around springs to give the outflow an oily sheen to create unfounded excitement!!!
Oh, yes, Carroll and regional surroundings provided mineral hopes and dreams: Oil, coal, gold, iron, then coalite, the latter providing a shaley substance that did yield up some money in profits and, for a short duration, did resemble “industry,” not agriculture as before related. What prompted the second look at the “coal” mine down there near Argo Fay, if that’s where the mining was done, we did not find but it began in 1903 at the “coalite deposits.”
Paint Mine. That was its casual identification. Following the “coalites” extraction it was hauled to Freeport where shales were reduced to a dry powder by extreme heat, roasted, in enclosed retorts. The “gas” formed was recycled to heat the retorts. The factory was on the east side of Freeport and the north side of the street, near the Pecatonica River at the end of Second Street. The dry powder was sent to Chicago where it was added to a paint mixture as a rust-inhibitor to coat iron and some other metals.
The “Natural Carbide Paint Co.” was organized. Adam Baumgart who was also leader of an internationally successful manufacturer of toys and kitchen appliances, the “Arcade Co.” The toys are valuable collectibles today. Baumgart served also as mayor of Freeport at the turn-of-the century, 1900. What Adam Baumgart invested in, others did, too. Shares in the Paint Company sold for seven dollars per.
Other substances were produced by the cooking of the shale such as a black tarry element, mostly carbolic acid came, an ingredient used widely in salves, ointments and other medicines “Petro-Carbo” was a popular product in many. (Watkins Co. still sells it today—effectively. It draws splinters.) As a result, another company was organized, “Natural By-Products Co.”
It was estimated that a shaley deposit down in Carroll County was six feet thick and one hundred acres in size. A freight car a day could be hauled away by that figuring. If the railroad had been used. But, no, for some reason the company preferred it be hauled to Freeport by team and wagon although the “Ashdale Cut-Off” was at the coalite mines’ side door, parallel to the Argo Fay-Fulton Road or Oil Valley Road today. Ashdale was a switching station a couple miles west of Lanark that went diagonally cross-county through Argo Fay to Thomson-Ebner thus missing the heavy traffic and steep grade on the Milwaukee’s main line from Chicago and south of Quad Cities. It was a perfect, economic solution. But no. Hauling by team was considerably more expensive and may have caused the company to sell to a Chicago firm before it otherwise might have. “Natural Carbide Products” was in business from 1903 to 1914.
The Cut-Off persisted, however, because a thriving milk products factory was located there. Some passengers were dropped off or picked up there also. It was a day when convenience for the customer was vital!
It’s not known how long the Paint factory lasted in all but for one hundred thirty years there was “industrial mining” going on in Carroll and Stephenson counties though mostly unsuccessful. It was short in each of its chapters in our history and as it happens, we that harvest the “gold” that grows as corn and soybeans and praise our agricultural industry.