Visitors Guide to
Union County


The territory that became Union County was French Territory until the Treaty of Paris that ended the French and Indian War ceded the land to the English in 1763. At the end of the Revolutionary War the land became the territory of the United States. Little European immigration came into Illinois before 1814 because of the conflict with the Native Americans and the inability of the settlers to gain legal title to land upon which they located. The early settlers of the region lived a rugged, difficult life. They earned their livelihoods hunting, trapping and fishing, and by growing small gardens. Fort Massac along the Ohio River was the nearest trading post where supplies could be obtained.

Originally Illinois was governed by the state of Virginia and was divided into Randolph and St. Clair counties. In 1812 three more counties were created: Madison, Johnson and Gallatin counties. In anticipation of statehood, the legislature created Franklin and Union counties in 1818. Union County was formed out of Johnson County. In that year John Grammer donated a plot of ground upon which to build public buildings. This ground was located in what became Jonesboro, the county seat of Union County. The majority of the earlier settlers in the county were southerners who hailed from the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Kentucky. In the winter of 1838-1839 the Cherokees passed through Vienna and crossed the Mississippi at two different ferries during their forced relocation from the Southeast United States to present day Oklahoma. Located five miles northwest of Jonesboro is the Trail of Tears State Forest whose name memorializes this tragic episode in American history.

By the 1850s the rugged pioneer who first inhabited Union County had been replaced by well developed little community with homes, stores, mills, churches, and schools, in the center of a farming neighborhood located near a river where the settlers and traders exchanged their products. The years from 1850 to 1860 were a transition period in Union County because new methods of transportation were introduced which caused an increase in population. Many of these new immigrants came from New England and the northeastern states instead of entirely from the south as it had been before this period. Different modes of transportation affected the growth of Union County. In the Mississippi Bottoms, due to the swamps and overflow, the roads were frequently muddy and a plank road was built from the bluffs to Willard's Landing on the Mississippi River. More importantly was the arrival of the Illinois Central Railroad in the late 1850s. The railroad company advertised in newspapers, magazines and their own pamphlets circulated from Maine thru Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee giving descriptions of the attractive land sites available in Illinois, praising the fertility of the soil and the climate. It also advertised for workers in all the large eastern cities and Europe to come to Illinois and help build the railroad. It gave preference to men with families in order to get them to remain after they came. The railroad also gave rise to the creation of the community of Anna when an enterprising landowner paid for a survey that the leading citizens of Jonesboro decided was unnecessary. By the time the men of Jonesboro realized their error the railroad had already accepted the Anna survey and the railroad was routed through the new town. Aside from Anna, the towns of Cobden and Dongola eventually developed along the route of the Illinois Central.

Jonesboro was the site of the 3rd debate in the series of 7 in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Illinois Senator Steven Douglas. These were the catalyst for propelling Lincoln to the forefront of American politics and eventually the U.S. Presidency.  Interpretive signage and statues of the two politicians can be found in a small park north of Jonesboro’s town square. Throughout the Civil War Union County provided about 3,000 men to the Union Army. This was a remarkable record for a county that had its share of southern sympathizers and that the population of Union County in 1860 was 11,181. About three-fifths of the 3,000 soldiers or 1,800 men were killed in action or died in hospitals or prison camps, between one- sixth and one-seventh of its total population.

The introduction of rail service completely refigured Union County’s economy, directing it away from the Mississippi River and New Orleans northward to Chicago and St. Louis. The Illinois Central was particularly instrumental in the development of a commercial fruit and vegetable industry in the county. The weather and soils in the county proved to be ideal for the production of a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Orchard production also proved advantageous to Union County farmers, in that it allowed them to utilize hillsides that would have proven unsuitable for row crops due to erosion. The county’s fruit and vegetable industry continued to grow through the second half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Cobden served as the principal shipping center, and as late as the 1950s the town could claim to have shipped more tomatoes annually than any other point in the United States. Horticulture remains a significant part of Union County’s economy today.

Another local industry spurred by Union County’s natural geography was lumber production. The county was largely covered by timber at the time of American settlement, and it remained so into the twentieth century. Besides being used for building construction and domestic fuel consumption, the timber was cut to provide cordwood for the railroads and for the manufacture of fruit crates. Commercial lumber production peaked during the 1920s, when there were thirty-two sawmills operating in Union County. The industry declined after 1929, however, due to falling prices and the wide-scale conservation of the county’s remaining timber reserves by the state and federal governments.

A section of the Shawnee National Forest is located in Union County. Much of the Shawnee National Forest was exhausted farmland purchased by the Federal government in the 1930s that was planted with pine trees by the Civilian Conservation Corps to prevent erosion and help rebuild the soil. The purchased land was designated as the Shawnee National Forest in 1939. In Union County the Shawnee Purchase includes the high hills in the north and west parts of the county. Fourteen Civilian Conservation Corps camps were established in the area in order to give employment to a large number of young men and also to utilize the available labor in carrying on the reforestation program. These C.C.C. camps provided labor for soil erosion projects, for fire fighting and for road and other construction projects in the forest preserve. Interesting sights to see in the Union County section of the Shawnee Forest include LaRue-Pine Hills Recreational Area and Bald Knob. Bald Knob is the site of the Bald Knob Cross of Peace, is the highest point in Southern Illinois, and offers wonderful views, particularly in the fall.

Explore these Great River Road Communities
in Union County, Illinois
Anna Cobden Jonesboro
Giant City
State Park
State Park
General John A. Logan
Sikeston Depot
Cultural Center
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