Peoria History

Illinois' First European Settlement

Peorians and visitors alike are often surprised to learn that Peoria was the first European settlement in Illinois, and one of the earliest in Middle America. Standing atop Peoria's world-famous Grandview Drive, and looking out into the beautiful river valley, it's easy to see why the Native Americans lived here for more than 12,000 years.

Illinois River Country's origins trace back to France. In 1673, French fur trader Louis Joliet and French missionary Fr. Jacques Marquette canoed into the Peoria river valley and reported to France the riches of its new colonial territory. Later, in 1680, French explorer LaSalle, along with 30 men, built a small fort on the east bluff of the Peoria river valley and christened it Fort Crevecoeur (meaning broken heart). The fort was the very first European building ever constructed in the Midwest. 

Population Booms - Peoria Flourishes

While the French and British occupied the land for several centuries, the first American settlers began farming here in 1819. Soon the small village experienced a great economic and population boom. With an abundance of natural resources and access to the great water highway of the Illinois River, many early industries arose, including meat-packing plants, casting foundries, pottery factories, wholesale warehousing, distilleries, and earthmoving and farm machinery manufacturers.

In 1837, Judge John C. Flanagan built his American Federalist style home on Peoria's east bluff. The Federalist style, which was popular from 1780 to the early 1840s, reflects ideas that were gaining favor during the founding of the United States and is more likely to have curved lines and decorative flourishes than before. The Pettengill-Morron House reflects the mid-Victorian architectural influences of the post-Civil War era. Built in 1868, the house is now a museum, portraying the life of the Morron family, the last owners of the house.

Today both houses are listed on the National Register for Historic Homes and are open to the public as museums, giving us glimpses into an almost forgotten world of horse-drawn carriages and homes without the modern conveniences of microwaves and televisions.

Rollin' on the River

The "Spirit of Peoria" paddle-wheel steamboat transports us back to the slow, smooth beauty of river travel. The Illinois River was originally used as a main branch of transportation and travel to and from the Peoria area. Steamboats, such as the Spirit of Peoria, transported people and goods up and down the river to destinations from the Mississippi River and the rest of the continental United States.

As the country moved forward during the railroad boom, so did Peoria, and in November of 1854, the railroad made its way into town. Due to its central location, Peoria was the fourth largest regional hub in the U.S. railway system for many years. During its peak, Peoria served 15 railroads and 70,000 miles of track. In 1891, the Rock Island Depot was built to service this large railroad hub, and it was an integral part of the Peoria railroad until it closed in 1978. Today the depot is a thriving restaurant complex, with exceptional dining, spirits and live music.

Mention the name "Duryea" and many will say, "Oh yes, the automobile that was invented and built in Peoria". But the re-edited book, Charles E. Duryea-Automaker, by George W. May, proves that although the Duryea was the first practical American gasoline powered car, Springfield, Massachusetts was its original home. However, we can take a measure of comfort from the fact that Peoria was one of several cities in which Duryea automobiles were built. The oldest known, fully restored, Peoria built Duryea, is exhibited at the Peoria Public Library.

World's Most Beautiful Drive

This quote from President Teddy Roosevelt describes his 1910 visit to Grand View Drive in Peoria Heights. The vistas gazed upon by the former President still sits upon bluffs unchanged from when the Indians first settled in the area centuries ago. Drive along the two-and-one-half mile drive to see the expansive panoramic view of Woodford, Tazewell, and Marshall Counties where, on a clear day, visitors can see more than thirty miles of the scenic Illinois River valley.

Will it Play in Peoria?

This famous question originated during Peoria's exciting vaudeville days during the 1920s. After a new live act or stage show was produced, it was soon booked into a Peoria theater to test audience reaction to the show. If the show did not receive a strong positive approval, one of two things could happen: the production was rewritten, recast, or otherwise improved, or it was canceled. Because Peoria was viewed as the "typical" American town, if a show could achieve the approval of the Peoria audience, it would be successful anywhere in the country.

The phrase came back into circulation when a Nixon administration political advisor used it while talking about campaigning in the Midwest. Peoria was still seen as a model of the norm in the country, and the President could use the citizens of Peoria to gauge his approval.

In the past 80 years, Peoria has garnered the "All-American City" award four times. As national test marketers have found, Peoria is a microcosm of America herself. To "Play in Peoria" is not only an old term from vaudeville, but also a catch phrase used today to measure the thoughts and habits of the typical American. 

Sports in the Greater Peoria Area

Visit the Greater Peoria Sports Hall of Fame website for the history of Peoria area athletes, teams and organizations.