Visitors Guide to
Chester
Randolph County, Illinois

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Chester is situated on the Mississippi River on the Great River Road and is the county seat of Randolph County. The earliest known European settler to the area was John McFerron who purchased 47 acres that included a ferry landing from the government in 1816. Samuel Smith, however, is considered the founder of Chester, which was originally known as Smith’s Landing. Smith built a dwelling, a mill, and established a ferry in 1829. Smith’s wife, Jane, was from Chester, England, and the name of her hometown was given to the new settlement.

In the 1830’s Chester expanded and along the riverfront were an iron foundry, machine shop, several large stores, and steamboats found chopped wood for fuel. Chester’s earliest industry was the production of castor oil, which was used as a lubricant for railways and industrial machinery. Chester incorporated in 1835 and in its early days was located entirely below the bluffs. The Flood of 1844 caused the county seat to move from Kaskaskia to Chester where the courthouse was temporarily located in a schoolhouse until a new courthouse was completed in 1848. The stone annex, now the Archives Building, was built in 1863 and today houses the Randolph County Museum. The museum contains Kaskaskia Manuscripts, Native American artifacts, and an old electric chair that was last used to execute a woman who had killed her brother. Next door is the Randolph County Court House with an observation deck on the fifth floor for a great view of the Mississippi River and Missouri farmlands in the flood plain.

As the town grew and began to occupy the tops of the bluffs, access to the riverfront was made by what became known as the “city steps,” a stairway of more than 100 steps. Chester became a river port in the mid 19th century and exported locally produced castor oil, flour, and meat. Chester was also a favorite stopping place for the steamboats and their passengers. Charles Dickens and his wife stayed here in 1842 and Mark Twain supposedly stayed at the Cliff House, which was a noted river hotel. The buildings of the original town along the river no longer exist but a number of homes on the bluffs overlooking the river, such as the Cohen Home, give visitors a sense of the architectural style of a 19th century river town.

Chester is the birthplace and early home of Elzie C. Segar, the creator of Popeye. Segar is said to have modeled many of the Popeye characters after real residents of Chester. In 1977 a 6-foot bronze Popeye statue was dedicated in Segar Memorial Park, located near the Chester Bridge that crosses the Mississippi River. In September Chester hosts its popular annual Popeye Picnic with events located at numerous locations throughout the town.

 
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