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The Rolling Mill Years 1870-1875

Today it is hard to imagine Jasper Street as the eastern edge of Decatur. But when the Cleveland Rolling Mill company executives Andros B Stone, Henry Chisholm, and a Mr. Walters came to visit in September 1869 to look for a location for an iron rolling mill plant, the undeveloped land near the Toledo, Wabash & Western railway between East Eldorado and East Sangamon street was ideal for industrial use. The Decatur Republican newspaper noted the rapid interest in expanding Decatur eastward:

"Many more of the gigantic trees which grew up to the town on the east side were leveled to the ground to give place to the houses of newcomers." -January 20, 1870

The formal presentation was given to Mayor Franklin Priest and City Council in May 1870 to build mill in 9 months to manufacture 50-60 tons railroad iron. The city would donate 10 acres and provide sufficient water for the mill operation which would include blast furnace and Bessemer steel rail. The foundation of a 211 foot by 175 foot mill building was laid in July. The construction of the new mill included old bricks from Macon County's second courthouse, then being torn down. On December 1, 1870, the city council voted to lay pipe from a well at East Wood Street and Broadway (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) to the Illinois Central Depot and then eastward to the rolling mill location. The well was owned by Gilbert Howell and had been dug in the summer of 1870: 10 feet square and 30 to 40 feet deep. It was known as Howell's Hollow.

Left to Right: Henry Chisholm, Andrus B. Stone & Stillman Witt, Executives of the Decatur Rolling Mill Company.

The city soon found the Howell well and several area wells insufficient for the operating needs of the plant. But at the same December 1870 meeting, the city council voted to build a waterworks plant at the Sangamon river. The Priest distillery property was purchased on May 28, 1871 to provide ground for a pumping station. Meanwhile, ongoing negotiations with the Illinois Central railroad to provide water when needed for the plant failed. The completion of the waterworks plant required the hiring of a city plumber. The first city plumber was Hieronymus Mueller.

Construction of the Decatur Rolling Mill Company plant was completed by the fall of 1870. Mabel Richmond in the Centennial History of Decatur and Macon County describes the rise of the notorious "Levee" district:

Those were the days when the "levee", the district in the neighborhood of East Eldorado, Front and Cerro Gordo streets, was born, and when it saw its most hilarious moments. Front street then was lined with saloons. Folks who lived in Decatur in the time of the rolling mill never forgot the impression it made upon them.