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This Week in Illinois History: Moving Shawneetown (December 14, 1937)

Flood refugees line up for food after the Great Flood of 1937 nearly destroyed Shawneetown.
Library of Congress
Flood refugees line up for food after the Great Flood of 1937 nearly destroyed Shawneetown.

On December 14, 1937 the state of Illinois and the federal government approved a plan to relocate the entire community of Shawneetown. This was the first time the federal government had approved the removal of an entire town.

The original Shawneetown stood along the Ohio River on Illinois’ southeastern border. Established in 1810 - but inhabited long before that - it is one of Illinois’ oldest white settlements. It became a major commercial center and in 1816 opened the first bank in Illinois Territory.

Despite Shawneetown’s growth and popularity, it experienced regular flooding. These floods became so common levees had to be built and regularly raised to protect the town. A folk song about Shawneetown’s floods became popular in the late 1800s. An English traveler who visited in 1817 expressed his disdain that so many people continued to live in an area so habitually destroyed by floodwaters. But Shawneetown’s residents persevered, weathering the seasonal floods for another 120 years.

Then came the great flood of 1937. In January and early February of that year, the Ohio River surged over Shawneetown’s 60-foot levees, flooding the town in 15 feet of water. When the floodwaters finally receded several weeks later, only 20 of the town’s 400 homes remained habitable. Residents had been relocated to large tent cities, where they remained for several months.

After the state’s decision to relocate Shawneetown, it chose a location on higher ground three miles northwest of the original site. The big move began in June 1938, but the logistics of moving several buildings and homes, along with the lawsuits filed by residents who refused to leave, dragged out the process for several years.

The original town still exists as Old Shawneetown and operates several historic sites, including a large stone bank building built in 1839.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.