Cotton Hill

Lake Springfield from West Cotton Hill Park, 2021. The former village of Cotton Hill lies about 20 feet below Lake Springfield approximately here. (SCHS)

Cotton Hill was the only community wiped from the map by the construction of Lake Springfield in the 1930s. But there wasn’t much there to begin with.

The Illinois State Journal explained the origin of Cotton Hill in an editorial in November 1933:

Cotton Hill had its name from a pioneer effort to raise cotton in this county. Kentuckians who came to Sangamon county in 1835 brought seed with them and succeeded in demonstrating that cotton would grow here. A patch on the hillside in the fork of Brush and Horse creeks gave the name to the site.

(In fact, early Sangamon County residents were able to grow cotton, although other histories say that took place earlier, before the so-called “Deep Snow” of 1830-31.)

Cotton Hill’s main distinction was its location on the Illinois Central Railroad – when the Illinois State Register published a commemorative edition about county history in 1918, it devoted only one line to the hamlet of Cotton Hill: “Cotton Hill is a station on the Illinois Central, just north of the line between Ball and Woodside townships.”

Maps show the village of Cotton Hill was just south of the township line, but close enough that the depot may have been on the other side of the line. In any case, it’s worth noting that the village of Cotton Hill was in Ball Township, not Cotton Hill Township to the east.

Besides the IC line, Cotton Hill was on the South Sixth Street Road, also known as State Route 126. The road for a time also was designated part of U.S. 66.

From the mid-1800s into the 1900s, Cotton Hill boasted a store that doubled as a post office, and a blacksmith set up shop there for a period. Otherwise, however, Cotton Hill remained tiny. Students from the area attended school elsewhere, and Cotton Hill seems never to have incorporated as a town.

Cotton Hill also was on the north side of Sugar Creek, one of the main watercourses that feed today’s Lake Springfield. The community was only about 540 feet above sea level, so when planners determined the new lake should crest at 560 feet, Cotton Hill was doomed.

The village’s last gasp was as the site of a camp that housed 170 Civilian Conservation Corps workers in 1933. The CCC workers, part of a federal program to combat unemployment caused by the Great Depression, quarried stone and rip-rapped part of the lake’s banks. Limestone used for the rip-rapping was dug from a quarry near Cotton Hill that provided the original stone for today’s Old Capitol State Historic Site.

In its November 1933 editorial, the Journal urged officials to name the new bridge that crossed the lake west of the old village (today’s Interstate 55 bridge) in honor of Cotton Hill:

The name was used to designate the post office established at Julius Seligman’s store at Crow’s Mill and later was given the post office conducted in the store of Charles Salish, afterwards the site of the general story of Virgil Downing – in the nomenclature of the neighborhood, Downing’s Corners. …

It is a homely name but the story of pioneering which attends its origin is fascinating and inspiring. The name, too, is unique, distinctive and provocative of interest. Its significance warrants its continued use, and the handsome new bridge will lose nothing of its dignity under this historically appropriate title.

Springfield Utilities Com. Willis Spaulding, the creator of Lake Springfield, made a different decision. Instead of the bridge, the city named a 20-acre park on the south side of the lake, approximately in line with the site of the drowned village, after Cotton Hill.

Cotton Hill Park in 2021 had two entrances, both off East Lake Drive east of I-55. West Cotton Hill Park was a popular fishing location, while the rest of the site, including the area labeled East Cotton Hill Park, was a relatively unimproved wildlife area.

Hat tips: To Lake Springfield in Illinois: Public Works and Community Design in the Mid-Twentieth Century (2021) by Robert Mazrim and Curtis Mann, for reminding SangamonLink of Cotton Hill; and to Mann himself for helping SangamonLink locate the original site of Cotton Hill.

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2 Responses to Cotton Hill

  1. Joyce Hemphill says:

    Thank you for this article on Cotton Hill. My maternal grandfather’s side was from there. In all the family trips to Sangamon County as well as when we lived there, we never stopped in Cotton Hill … now I know why.

  2. Bob says:

    Mike, i know one of your old colleagues from the JR newsroom who found a US silver dollar circa 1805 in the cotton hill park. It is my understanding that the Edwards trace ran right through there.

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