Bicentennial Belleville: Finding the lost city within Belleville

News-DemocratMarch 1, 2014 

In this tale of two Bellevilles, local historian Bob Brunkow described the start, significance and demise of West Belleville. While the town has been gone for more than 100 years, its remnants are part of modern Belleville. It also was the cradle for the first national labor union. Bicentennial Belleville is a series of short documentaries about the southwestern Illinois city's history as it celebrates its 200th birthday.

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Drive down West Main Street, pass 10th Street Bakery and the little rose garden at that intersection: You'll be at the heart of some significant Belleville history.

Welcome to West Belleville, a village that disappeared in 1882, but for about 30 years the area prospered thanks to a Latin Farmer and some feisty coal miners.

Theodore Hilgard, an educated German immigrant, bought 134 acres to farm in 1836, but a year later broke the land into home lots that in 1852 became West Belleville. He kept four acres for his home at the highest point, calling it Mountain Seat. His brick home is still there at 210 Voss Place, likely Belleville's oldest brick building.

Coal miners populated West Belleville, building small brick cottages for their families. In 1861 they called a strike, and their strike committee became the American Miners Association. It grew into the first national labor union, meaning the modern labor movement began in West Belleville.

West Belleville's significance is expected to soon land it on the National Register of Historic Places. Even 132 years after it was absorbed by Belleville, many remnants endure.

The West End Saloon that doubled as a train station is still there. Heinemann's market with its meat cooler is still there. Humboldt School, built in 1882 and Belleville's oldest surviving school building, is still there. The West Belleville public square is still there, filled with roses.

You can rediscover the lost city within Belleville in photojournalist Derik Holtmann's video with local historian Bob Brunkow. It is the first in a series of videos called "Bicentennial Belleville," looking at how the city has been shaped by its 200-year history.

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