Answer Man

Swansea incorporated to try to avoid creeping urban woes

Q. If Belleville is 200 years old and was founded in 1814 but Swansea was not founded until 1886, why didn’t Belleville annex the land before that happened. For that matter, why does Swansea even exist and why didn’t Belleville annex Stookey Township in the west and areas of growth along Carlyle Boulevard for so long?

— E.H., of O’Fallon

A. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been told many times not to bite off more than you could chew. In the simplest terms, this advice not to take on more than you can adequately handle may lie at the heart of the answer to your questions.

Sure, it’s easy to look back now and criticize our forefathers for not anticipating the economic growth our neighbor to the north now enjoys. Back then it was little more than mines, farms and brickyards. Now it’s an explosion of commercial growth and new subdivisions. In fact, while we were at it, we should have grabbed Fairview Heights, O’Fallon and Shiloh, too. What an economic dynamo we could have had — and we could have avoided the current hospital hubbub.

After all, what’s the big deal? The big North Illinois-North Belt intersection is less than a mile and a half away. We can get there in less than five minutes from the public square if the lights are with us. Fairview Heights and O’Fallon are only a few minutes more. What were our founders thinking?

Oops, forgot. They didn’t have cars back in the early 19th century — or paved streets, for that matter. No sewers, Internet, telephones, electricity. Probably only the most rudimentary police and fire protection. Having to provide services to such an undeveloped area — despite the short distance — likely would have seemed overwhelming at the time. Perhaps annexation was not even considered because they thought the area would never be much more than farms and mines.

So, I would contend, it was probably all Belleville’s city fathers back then could do to care for a handful of blocks around the public square. That’s perhaps why as early as 1843 a proposed Belleville city charter stated the following: “Be it ordained by the President and Trustees of the town of Belleville that the corporate limits of the town of Belleville shall extend for half a mile in each direction from the public square.” Those are the city limits included in Belleville’s 1850 state charter.

If my car’s odometer is correct, that puts Belleville’s northern boundary at about what is G Street today. Including the area that would become Swansea apparently was not even considered.

Such a decision really shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider another piece of Belleville history. Using your logic, Belleville also immediately should have taken a huge swath of land west of Richland Creek. But starting in about 1835, an independent village known as West Belleville grew up between 9th and 16th streets, complete with homes, mines, breweries, a school and its own governmental services. It wasn’t until 1882 that the two merged.

Unfortunately for Belleville, by the time the city felt ready to tackle the area that would become Swansea, it was too late. In 1859, Belleville had amended its state charter to include the right to expand its area from 1 square mile to 2 square miles without a public vote. Even so, the northern city limit would have been where Swansea starts today.

Then, in 1886, all hopes of Belleville adding even more territory to the north were dashed for good. On Nov. 27, a group of 35 voters petitioned St. Clair County to organize a new village, according to a history compiled in 1986 by Elaine Lintzenich for Swansea’s centennial celebration.

They perhaps had gotten wind of Belleville’s plan to extend its city limits. On Dec. 10, the Belleville Weekly Advocate reported that Belleville had been circulating a petition among residents seeking approval to extend the Belleville city limits north to the “Smelting Works,” which lay in the heart of the original village of Swansea.

According to Daniel J. Elazar in his 1974 book “The Politics of Belleville,” residents there wanted no part of it. So on Dec. 18 — one week after the Advocate story — area residents voted 29-16 to incorporate the village of New Swansea. It was named for the seaport town of Swansea, Wales, and one story says it was suggested by a coal miner who had immigrated from Wales.

They approved the incorporation, Elazar wrote, “apparently to insure a predominantly rural environment for its residents (who) did not wish to encourage the denser urban development which was the tendency in Belleville proper.” Ironically, however, as soon as the village government was set up, those good ol’ days the residents wanted to keep began to disappear, Lintzenich noted. Slaughtering animals within the city limits was outlawed and street improvements were ordered. Perhaps as further proof of Elazar’s theory, owners of a couple of sizable chunks of land detached themselves from Swansea in April 1890, although some soon would be asked to be readmitted.

In 1895, the village trustees voted to remove “New” from the village name to conform to the name it had given the post office it had established. It has grown in almost every direction ever since, and we can only wonder what 19th century Belleville leaders would think now about their missed opportunity.

Today’s trivia

Who bought the first Hummer built for civilian use?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: While Leonard Nimoy was directing “3 Men and a Baby” in 1987, it apparently wasn’t any conceited, self-centered adult actor that gave him trouble. No, as it turned out, it was the baby. As filming progressed, the two babies who played Mary (Lisa and Michelle Blair) became so enamored with the moving microphone that they would look at it rather than the actors around them. Eventually, Nimoy had to have the crew disguise or hide it so the little girls would focus on their movie-set family. Apparently, Nimoy was successful. The movie was the highest grossing film of the year as it raked in nearly $168 million in the United States alone.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or call 618-239-2465.