Albany historian and journalist Helen Hanson is gone, and with her, many thoughts and memories about her lovely, historic hometown of Albany, Illinois. Helen died in 2005, but her “Albany Echoes” will still reverberate through time. Much of the history of this community was compiled by her. She left two excellent volumes about past events and early settlers to the region. Helen knew all about the town that was a fixture on the Mississippi since the 1830’s.
Helen had many other interests besides writing, such as being a well-practiced organist at the Methodist church. She also was a farm wife, a mother of five, and a master barterer. She could probably make the proverbial “silk purse out of a sow’s ear!” To squeeze a few more dollars into the budget, and so her family could get discounts on farm products, she sold Fuller Brush and Rawleigh Products. She was always busy, but still made time for frequent social engagements like her ladies’ “teas.” But, above all, she was devoted to her beloved Albany, its people and its history!
It was from Albany that Elijah Buell and his family moved up-river to create the town of Lyons, Iowa. Much of the river country was settled from the south, with people coming up the Mississippi from the East along the old Ohio. Some easterners came by way of the Great Lakes and trekked across Illinois in wagons. Edwin Corbin and a Mr. Mitchell have been credited with opening up Albany in 1835, although they weren’t “settlers.” Samuel and David Mitchell ran a horse-powered ferry to Camanche in 1840, which was later changed to steam in 1850. The Verne Swain packet boat was another important ferry of the time, and continued until the wagon bridges were built in 1892.
Many, like the folks who settled Albany, came only as far as the Mississippi and thrust down roots which have flourished for 170 years! The Slocums were among the first in Albany after the Blackhawk War, and the settlement was first called Port Newbury and later VanBuren, until the name “Albany” was permanently chosen by 1836. Erastus Allen and his family may have been the first settlers, but the Alfred Slocums could also make that claim. However, William Nevitt and his group, in 1836, were the first to hold title to the land which became Albany.
John Baker settled Fulton, IL and his friend Elijah Buell settled the Iowa side just after the Blackhawk War (1832-1835). Buell came from Utica, New York, and lived in Albany with his family for a time. He and Baker chose the best “high spot” on the river… a good distance from Albany and Camanche. This pretty much completed the settlement of the river from the south, as the upper Mississippi had already been settled from the north by the French and others.
That Blackhawk War wasn’t really very much of a conflict, but it signaled the opening of Iowa to farmers who could then legally cross the river to homestead a farm. Tough, hardscrabble times ensued and many died of cholera, especially during 1851.
Albany was a pivotal point for the growth of America to the west. It was a key spot for riverboats to stop, too. Had roads and trains come a different way, the little towns of Lyons, Sabula, Camanche, and Albany would have had a tremendously different histories.
The tornado which touched Albany and Camanche on
June 3, 1860 severely impeded the growth of those towns. Prior to that time, the biggest significant event was the Beaver Island War (for wood), in 1842. It was only a blip on the screen of history as the two communities began to progress. Cool heads prevailed though, and the “armies” led by Clinton’s Sheriff Deputy Aiken against forty armed stalwarts from Albany decided to compromise and let Albany receive 400 valuable acres of timber-land on Beaver Island.
One reputedly strong inhabitant of Albany was Captain Stephan B. Hanks, a first cousin to Abraham Lincoln. His family, like many of the time, moved from Kentucky to the western regions of Illinois. He came to Albany as a teenager with the Slocums (he was their cousin) and helped to lay out the new town with Surveyor Charles Rood. He even plowed the first furrow. Oddly, settlers hadn’t realized that this area had such superb soil until they started turning the sod for their gardens.
Stephan Hanks was soon involved in the industry of steamboats and lumber rafts, becoming an accomplished river pilot and boat captain. His career spanned 60 years, and he accumulated several fortunes, which were sometimes forfeit to the elements. On one occasion, his small company lost four rafts in the swirling flood waters of the upper reaches of the Mississippi River, … which wiped him out! Hanks was quoted as saying, “we started the winter with Porterhouse steaks and pumpkin pie, and ended it with liver and potatoes!”