By Chris Bunton
I have been traveling sections of The Great River Road for many years now. It is a road that goes along the Mississippi River on both sides, and is full of beautiful sites of history and culture.
I recently went to Alton, Illinois which is on the Great River Road, in the Metro-East of St. Louis, on the Illinois side. Alton is a very historically rich city, including the location of the first prison in the state.
The Prison was first built in 1831. It opened its doors in 1833 with around 24-33 cells, which were said to be 4ft by 7ft.
The prison continued to grow to a size of 96 cells in 1846, and 256 cells when it was finally closed.
The conditions of the prison were deplorable and housed both male and female inmates. Since it was on the banks of the Mississippi River, it flooded on a regular basis. It was full of rats, malnutrition, abuse, violence, overcrowding and disease.
The inmates worked pounding rock in the quarries nearby. Alton is located along the bluffs of Illinois, and the exposed stone of the bluffs were busted up for various uses.
In 1841, Dorothea Dix led a movement designed to reform prisons. She went to the Illinois legislature seeking to shut the Alton prison down. In 1860 it was finally closed, and the remaining inmates were moved to Joliet Prison, in Joliet, Illinois, which is now closed as well.
The prison was re-opened as a military prison during the Civil War. It helped alleviate overcrowding in Missouri military prisons by incarcerating Confederate Soldiers captured in battle. As well as, Union troops accused of desertion, and citizens charged with sedition, insurrection, and treason; many of whom had merely spoken or written against the Union.
The military inmates started arriving in 1862, with around 1200 housed there on a regular basis, with a total of close to 12,000 in 3 years.
Again, the inmates suffered from extreme abuse, punishments, filthy water and conditions. There was malnutrition and diseases of all kinds including a small pox outbreak that is said to have killed over 2000 inmates and guards, with 6-10 dying daily.
The victims of the small pox outbreak were housed in a hospital and buried on islands in the middle of the Mississippi River. Accounts give differing names. One of the islands was called Sunflower Island, or Smallpox Island; the other was called Tow Island, with another named McPike’s Island. These might have been the same islands or different islands. But, records show the island is now underwater.
Many of the military inmates, who died of causes other than smallpox, were buried in the burial mound north of the city, where the inmates of the original prison were buried years before.
The prison was closed when the war ended, and the inmates were released into St. Louis.
The current site can be found in Alton, Illinois, at Williams St. at Broadway.
The Confederate Cemetery (along with the old prison cemetery) can be found at Rozier St. in Alton.
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