Centralia, IL: A Brief History

The following is an edited version of a chapter of my thesis project taking a brief look at the history of my hometown, Centralia, IL. While I knew a lot of what I came across during my research, I also came across a lot that I didn’t know. For those of you who are from the Centralia area, I really encourage you to do some research on the city. There’s an incredible amount of information and history behind the town, some of it incredibly interesting. For those of you not from the Centralia area, I suggest you do some research into your own hometown. You never know what you may dig up, for example, I found out through my research that I grew up within a mile of the largest oil producing fields east of the Mississippi River in the 1940’s. Sure there’s evidence as there’s oil derricks still in the fields today, but I’d have never imagined the magnitude and impact those fields had on the surrounding region.

The Beginning

Downtown Centralia – Year Unknown

The history of the city begins around 1852, when the Illinois Central Railroad was being developed and laid out. Ground was broken for the railroad in what was later to be called Centralia in 1854. Because accommodations were needed for the men that would be working on the railroad, cottages, cabins, and structures for necessities quickly sprang up close by. The city was later named Centralia in honor of the Illinois Central. As the railroad neared completion numerous types of businesses and services began showing up around the train depot, from churches and doctors, to attorneys and orchards. The State Fair was held in Centralia in 1858, where Abraham Lincoln and Stephan A. Douglas would both attend and make appearances as part of their campaign during the 1858 campaign for U.S. Senator from Illinois. On March 1st , 1859, a charter was adopted and Centralia officially became a city. Elections were set to elect municipal officials. Centralia was an important city during the Civil War. With it being a transportation hub for the region, military men could be trained and easily moved via railroad all over the country. Railroads from Chicago connected to Centralia in 1882 and from Louisville, St. Louis, and Evansville, IN in 1887. As the railroad flourished after it was finished, the coal industry built up steam in the early 1870’s as a seven foot vein of coal was discovered, and an eight foot vein found just a decade later. In 1906, the Central Coal Mining Company organized and a year later, coal was found in their No. 5 shaft.

The City Develops

Downtown Centralia – 1911

In the early twentieth century, the city began building a modern infrastructure, sewers were built, stone sidewalks were laid, and roads were paved in 1904. Lake Centralia came into existence in 1908 with water filtration systems for the lake by 1924. Fairview Park, which in the past was a fairground, became the city’s first park in 1920 and a pool was installed in 1938. Other recreational opportunities were presented with the establishment of Community Beach in 1927 and the Community Center in 1941, although Community Beach was quickly abandoned by most when the pool at Fairview Park was constructed. Industries and businesses were booming in early to mid-1900’s. The railroad was experiencing a boom and the coal industry increased and peaked during this time as well. Centralia was a producer of numerous products, from nails and envelopes to stoves and candy bars. Business was so good, visitors from all parts of the state came to see the booming town and be entertained. Electric streetcars took the place of horse drawn ones in 1906 and ran to surrounding villages and towns.

Downtown Centralia – Early 20th Century

Education in Centralia grew tremendously before World War II. The original high school was built in 1904, and a business school and six elementary schools were added before the depression. In 1940, Centralia Township Junior College was established. It would later need to move due to needed expansion and was renamed Kaskaskia Community College in 1967. St. Mary’s Hospital was built in 1909 and led the way in healthcare improvements. Haley’s Eye Infirmary became a cornerstone institution in 1912. Both of these health facilities would be tested in the following decades by the deadly flu epidemic of 1918 and the outburst of tuberculosis. This was the same time frame in which lunch and milk programs were implemented within schools of Centralia. Agriculture flourished around Centralia. The railroads made it easy for farmers to move crops and the soil was great for farming anything from corn to fruit-producing trees. Major producers in the area grew corn, beans, cattle, hogs, apples, peaches, pears, and strawberries, amongst others. Productivity was improved when the University of Illinois experimental farms and Farm Bureau provided leadership in more scientific farming.

The oil boom was most likely the third most important industry in Centralia’s history behind coal, and, of course, the railroad. 1937 was the year it all started, as the Adams Oil and Gas Company discovered oil just northwest of Centralia. By the next year, there were 102 oil-producing wells and 111 drilling operations. The field had produced nearly 300,000 barrels of oil and was producing of over 1,000 barrels per day on just over 1,000 acres. That same summer the focus would shift to the Ed Tate farm just east of Centralia, as the Texas Oil Company struck black gold and struggled to contain the flow. At its peak, Tate farm fields were the largest producer of oil east of the Mississippi River, with almost 2500 wells yielding three hundred thousand barrels of oil per day and over two hundred million cubic feet of natural gas. The oil boom in Centralia brought people from all over the country to the small town. Centralia made over a million and a half dollars from oil revenue. This was put back into the community through a new city hall and new community center. I actually grew up less than a mile from these fields. Citation Oil & Gas, based out of Houston, TX, acquired the fields in 1998 from Texaco. From 2005-07 Citation constructed a gas plant there.

1940’s Postcard of the Lake Centralia-Salem Oil Fields

Sports in Centralia were very popular in the early twentieth century. Independent and semi-professional baseball teams were abundant from 1867 to 1950. A state championship was captured in 1869 by the Centralia Egyptians and success followed for nearly the next century. In 1947, Centralia received its first professional team, an affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. They were later renamed the Sterlings in 1949 and won pennants in 1949 and 1950. Football was played in 1889, but hardly resembled the game we know today. In 1905, however, there was considerable football action and it more closely resembled the game we know today. Teams of school and non-school participants played games against nearby towns. However, due to lack of safety equipment, Centralia Township High School put an end to the game for twenty years, not to be played again at the high school level again until 1925. Centralia High School has had eight seasons without losses. Although the high school football team has seen its successes in the past, basketball is by far the sport of the city. Centralia High school was credited with being the winningest high school in the nation until the early 1990’s with three state championships and a number of other appearances in the state tournament. The most famous athletes to come from Centralia are Lowell Spurgeon, Dwight, “Dike” Eddleman, Bobby Joe Mason, and Gary Gaetti. Lowell Spurgeon set state records in track and had an amazing football career at the University of Illinois. “Dike” Eddleman is the most famed athlete from Centralia. He held numerous high school state records as well had an amazing football and track career at the University of Illinois, but his Olympic medals are what set him apart from the rest. The University of Illinois’ “Athlete of the Year” award is actually named the “Dike Eddleman Award”. Bobby Joe Mason was a versatile athlete in football, basketball, and track and was a member of the Harlem Globetrotters for years.

Stained Glass at Old Trout Gym.

Entertainment was plentiful in Centralia. The circus has been popular from the days of the Civil War until today. Traveling entertainment and opera houses were the most popular form of entertainment before the 1900’s. Opera houses remained popular in Centralia, as the Pittenger Grand Opera House was the most elegant theater south of Springfield. A movie theater became popular around the turn of the century with the first moving picture playing at the Pittenger in 1905. The Illinois Theater opened in 1922 with an amazing 1,200 seats. The first talkie was shown at the Illinois Theater in 1929.

Illinois Theater; Downtown Centralia

Post-War Years

Former Coke Bottling Plant; Centralia, IL

Housing shortages and rising prices welcomed the servicemen returning home all over the United States, and Centralia was no different. There was much expansion 8 in the 1940s as the first radio broadcast took place. The VFW purchased the Shell building, and new building projects took place, the most popular being the Art Deco style Coca- Cola plant. However, with this continued growth came a disaster. In 1947, the Number 5 Mine collapsed and killed one hundred and eleven miners. This disaster is the second worst mining disaster in the United States since 1940. Soon after the disaster, the Foundation Park system opened featuring a pond, where the Centralia Balloon Fest would later be held. The Centralia Centennial was held in 1953 with much honoring of its past. The town had definitely changed over the course of a century. The 50s and the Centennial brought a number of new items. Telephone dials, parking meters, low cost government housing, and Pittenger Bandshell located behind the new Carnegie Library.

Even with all the new came some disappointment. The city population dropped as unemployment rose due to shops and the mine closing and the oil fields suffering. Even with the suffering of the 1950s, the 1960s saw continuing construction as a number of schools, churches, government facilities, and places to shop continued to be built. A number of famous people visited Centralia. Richard Nixon visited during campaigning years of 1952, ’56, and ’60 as well as Barry Goldwater, Ed Sullivan, and Jimmy Hoffa. The 1970’s saw even more construction and renovation, as the Library added wings, although not without controversy regarding the architectural style, expansions occurred at the Municipal Airport, new construction occurred at the swimming complex at Fairview Park and in downtown Centralia as well as more churches and schools were built.

Illinois Central Steam Locomotive 2500 Move Day – September 2nd, 1962 – Moved to Fairview Park

In the 1970s, however, there was an increase in crime and drug use. After the murders of two well-known Centralia men, Centralia was named as a site for a new state prison. Streaking was seen on the streets and Ku Klux Klan activity was briefly reported. Desegregation was completed by the end of the decade. The 1980’s and 90’s saw little action, other than Hollywood Brand candy factory, a staple of Centralia producing Paydays since 1937, burned down, the Centralia Orphans basketball team won their 1500th game, the first school in the country to do so, and Centralian Jim Brady, took a bullet for President Ronald Reagan during an assassination attempt. The most important structure built over this time, however, was the Centralia Carillon. The Carillon is the sixth largest in the world, standing at one hundred sixty-five feet it contains sixty-five bells, the largest, known as “Big Tom”, weighs in at eleven hundred pounds and the smallest at twenty pounds. There are shows every Wednesday where a carillonist comes and plays for the public. Centralia has had a number of community traditions and a number of them survive today.

Centralia Carillon at night

Memorial Day observations have undertaken since 1868, with two different services being done. The Centralia Halloween Parade has been a staple of the city since 1923 with what has become a Mardi Gras flavor with colorful floats, bands, and food. Two traditions have stood the test of time at Centralia High School. The first is May Fete, which was started in 1913 and is an event in which students vote a “Queen of May”. Performances by students are performed in front of the May Fete Court and thousands of community members who attend the event each year. The other high school tradition is the Centralia Holiday Tournament, which is the longest running holiday high school basketball tournament in the state of Illinois. Teams from all over the country, as far as Florida in recent years, have made appearances at the historic tournament. The newest tradition of Centralia is the Hot Air Balloon Fest held at Foundation Park every August. Nearly forty thousand visitors come to the Balloon Fest from all over during the three days it is held. The Balloon Fest’s inaugural year was 1990.

Trout Gym at the new Centralia High School, which hosts the Holiday Tournament


Balloon Fest at Foundation Park held in mid-August each year

Centralia has been struggling the past few decades, with a number of businesses and people leaving the town. The population was down to 12,858 in 2012 from 14,136 in 2000, which is a 9.0% decrease over just a twelve year period. The problems began when Illinois Central Railroad began downsizing and laying off employees. Centralia was the division headquarters and at one time employed nearly one thousand people. Today that number is much smaller. After the railroad, coal, and oil industries tapered off, manufacturing companies moved in, and Centralia had bounced back.

By 2000, unemployment was down to 4.4%, lowest in over a decade, however, the good times were short-lived. The emerging global economy has hurt Centralia, as many of the small manufacturing businesses have left town, outsourced to another country. Prime downtown real estate is held by a music store and tattoo parlor. Most other stores are empty. A number of major Centralia employers have left town in recent years. Over three thousand jobs were lost from 2001-2003 when World Color Press, Littelfuse Inc., Sealed Air Corp, Meridian Automotive Systems, and Greif Bros. Corp all closed their doors. Many of the employees at those factories making a decent living were forced to take a job with much less pay or relocate. At this point, unemployment was at 11%, and Marion County had the highest unemployment rate in the state for thirty months. The top employers in Centralia now are St. Mary’s Hospital and Centralia Correctional Center.

Centralia High School
New Centralia High School – Est. 2006

Recently Centralia has seen some new construction. In 2006, a new high school was built as the existing high school was deemed insufficient in a few areas. More recently, a new Super Walmart was recently completed with a new hotel and outlet shops also planned near the site. A new coffee shop, The Rail, also just opened its doors downtown. Centralia has the opportunity to remake itself as a young, artistic community if only they can embrace that image and work toward providing opportunities.

8 thoughts on “Centralia, IL: A Brief History

  1. Great article, I have lived in Centralia and worked at Hollywood Candy, Altadonas I.G.A., And North American Rockwell. I a few classes at the community college. When i was in high school in Salem I worked at the Star Gas station in Sandoval and at Miller’s Truck Stop. My roots were spread from Mt.Vernon, Salem, and Centralia. Great Southern Illinois memory’s.


  2. Very interesting, I’ve lived in Centralia all my life. You informed me more on my city than any one. I appreciate your detailed article on the history of this great city. I wish we could all go back to the glory days. Things are really headed south with all the drugs and crime going on.


  3. My Dad came from Oklahoma to work the oil field. He came to Clay City IL. The Pure Oil Co. Had employment until May 1960 when many throughout the state or states were laid off. I was graduating high school that year Flora IL. Over the years other companies have refined the operations & some wells are still pumping. My dad’s father worked for the Gulf Oil Co in Oklahoma. Dad was a driller.


  4. Good article. I used to live there at 222 S Maple St, which is an 1873 Italianate Victorian built and owned by the Kerr family. First mayor of Centralia.


  5. Tyler, thank you for honoring our community with this wonderful website! My husband and I live in a home that was built in 1905 by the Vice President of the Illinois Central Railroad and is located on East Broadway. This was well researched and beautifully written!


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