For about 135 years, no one laid their eyes upon a cobalt blue bottle with a story to tell about early Belleville history.
But, thanks to a donation of the nearly pristine, hand-blown vessel labeled “L. Abegg, Belleville, Ill.” from Ameren-Illinois, anyone who wants to see it will be able to get a look.
Ameren workers found the bottle during the cleanup of the former Belleville Gas Light and Coke Company site beneath a big, white tent at the corner of Sixth and West Main streets. On Thursday, representatives of the power company gave the bottle to the Belleville Historical Society.
“We’re thrilled to get the donation,” historical society representative Larry Betz said. “After we heard about the bottle we were talking and we’ve only come across one or two of them before.”
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Betz said the bottle will be put on display in the former Garfield Street Saloon at the corner of Garfield and Mascoutah Avenue. It was purchased in 2010 as a museum dedicated to Belleville’s long, rich history in the beer making industry.
Jack LeChien, a Belleville resident and local historian, said details about the bottle aren’t clear. But he said Louis Abegg’s soda water company was sold after his death in 1879 and it’s name was changed to reflect the new owner.
“So we know it dates back before 1880,” LeChien said. “It’s a great find.”
LeChien said Abegg, who originally spelled his name Ab Egg upon immigration from Germany, was his great, great, great, great grandfather. He survived a harrowing trip across the Atlantic Ocean during which his wife gave birth to one of their children, before arriving in Belleville to become a well-known businessman.
LeChien and Betz estimated the value of the bottle at about $150. Several collectors attempted to purchase the bottle after a News-Democrat story about its discovery appeared in October.
Jack LeChien, a Belleville resident and local historian, said the bottle dates back to before 1880 and estimated its value at $150.
The bottom of the bottle bears an interlocking A and B, adding to its mystery.
According to records, the A-B logo was the mark of Aneheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch’s glass bottle company. But Busch’s Belleville glass works was founded about 1886, after Abegg’s company was sold.
Historical society members speculated that the bottle probably came from Busch’s earlier established bottle making companies in St. Louis.
Busch purchased Belleville Glass Co. in 1892 and one of the founders of Belleville Glass was four-time Belleville Mayor Edward Abend, who also was an owner of Belleville Gas Light and Coke.
Brian Marten, who is supervising the cleanup of coal tar at the former Belleville Gas Light and Coke Company site, said the bottle was found early in the project when a test hole was hand dug. He said work to excavate dirt at the site has been done by heavy machinery since those initial stages, making it unlikely that any more bottles will survive if they are there.
We’re glad to be able to share this piece of Belleville history with the community.
Ameren spokesman Brian Bretsch
Ameren spokesman Brian Bretsch, a Belleville native, said he was thrilled to see the bottle go someplace where the citizens of the city can enjoy it.
“We’re glad to be able to share this piece of Belleville history with the community,” Bretsch said.
Ameren is spending $35 million to clean up the former Belleville Gas Light and Coke Plant which it acquired in 2004 when it purchased Illinois Power, one of a long line of successors to the early utility plant.
Belleville Gas Light and Coke was founded in 1856. After that, the utility was swallowed up by one larger company after another.
The rapid advancement that led to the city’s clamoring for its own gas street lights made the heyday of the company short-lived. By the early part of the 20th century, metal piping was developed to the point gas could be shipped over long distances. One central gas company could serve several towns instead of every city having to have its own plant.
Belleville Gas Light and Coke was closed in 1917. The buildings that made up the plant were torn down one by one starting in the 1950s. In 1960, the site of the company was acquired by the city of Belleville. The last building standing, the company’s former powerhouse that served for a long time as a city storage building, was demolished in 2011.
Prior to its destruction, the building served as home to the city Labor and Industry Museum’s Harrison Jumbo steam engine, which was built in Belleville in 1885. Jumbo now stays in a special annex built onto the museum building at 123 N. Church St.