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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8 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.

    • editor says:

      That would have been the right general neighborhood. I might even be able to guess who found the silver dollar … Thanks, Bob.

  3. Phil Shadid says:

    In my article I wrote about Ball Township High School’s only boys county tournament championship (1928) there was one line that included Cotton Hill: “Ball Township was the first high school in Sangamon County built in a rural area (in 1924) with the nearest towns, Glenarm and Chatham, each about four miles away and the hamlet of Cotton Hill, now just a memory, two miles to the north.” The story is on the website “Channel 1450.com …Premium page.”

  4. Sam says:

    It might be worthwhile to shed a little more light on the history of the name. All the Cotton Hills are connected, but the connections have become somewhat hazy with time.

    As noted in another SangamonLink article, the name of Cotton Hill Township comes from the original Cotton Hill (the hill), which overlooks Horse and Brush Creeks, and on which the Vigal family grew cotton in the 1820s. (I wonder if perhaps the slightly greater elevation of Cotton Hill helped to preserve the cotton from killing frosts.)

    According to peakvisor dot com, Cotton Hill (the hill) is the “most prominent mountain” in Sangamon County. It has a topographic prominence of, uh, 26 feet. It is perhaps unsurprising that, when the county was organized into townships in 1862, the people chose to name their township after this white-capped eminence.

    But it took war to spread the name further. As recorded in the 1881 History of Sangamon County (pp. 791-792), in that same year of 1862, the people of Ball and Cotton Hill townships organized a post office so they could get letters from their loved ones on the Civil War front more quickly. The “post office” in that time and place was simply the postmaster’s house. The first postmaster (Davis Meredith) lived just on the Ball Township side of the line, but the post office was called Cotton Hill. (Perhaps this was a compromise between the townships — one gets the location and the other gets the name?)

    Meredith resigned after the war was over. Not long after that, the post office ended up at Crow’s Mill, but still with the name “Cotton Hill”, where it remained until its eventual closure.

    Late 19th-century maps thus often identify the town not as “Cotton Hill” but as “Cotton Hill Post Office”. I suspect the railroad didn’t appreciate the significance of this geographic nuance, however, so “Cotton Hill” it became.

    (Due to the peculiar USPS naming regulations that took effect in 1894, the name was sometimes further compressed to “Cottonhill”, which I think I have seen on some street signs.)

    The old Crow’s Mill name didn’t entirely go away. Cotton Hill Township didn’t have its own post office, but it did have its own schoolhouses. So the schools at Cotton Hill (the town) were still the Crow’s Mill Schools — and the North Crow’s Mill School, after being moved out of the water’s reach, eventually became today’s Crow’s Mill Pub.

    In sum, Cotton Hill took its name from the post office, which took its name from the township, which took its name from the hill, which took its name from the plant. Leading to the odd situation of this now-lost place that had neither cotton nor hills but was named after both.

  5. Sam says:

    As noted in the article, Crow’s Mill/Cotton Hill was located near the north end of Ball Township, which must have been an annoyance for the post office’s Cotton Hill Township customers. That location can also make researching old maps somewhat of a chore for us moderns, as the old county atlases put each township on its own page.

    But since the political and congressional township boundaries match, that location also means that we get a written record of what was near the site in 1821, when a surveying party led by Angus Lewis Langham surveyed the congressional township boundaries in the area.

    Traversing the Sugar and Lick Creek bottoms, Langham passed through a mature forest of oak, hickory, walnut and elm. But as he crossed just north of where Cotton Hill would later stand, he encountered a “small circular prairie” extending from 9 to 25 chains (or ~594 to 1650 feet, so D=~1000 feet) east of the section 35/36 line along the southern boundary of of T15NR5WS35. (Field Notes for Public Land Survey Township Plats, 1789 – 1946, Illinois, roll 4, vol. 14, p. 114) That prairie would be, today, a bit offshore of today’s Ski and Boat Club.

    A “small circular prairie” in the middle of the woods is not entirely unheard of, but it’s an odd thing. The soil and topographical surveys give no hint of anything unusual at this spot. 1819 was a drought year with many fires (William E. McClain et al., Patterns of Anthropogenic Fire within the Midwestern Tallgrass Prairie 1673–1905: Evidence from Written Accounts, Natural Areas J., 41(4):283-300 (2021)). So it’s possible that this “prairie” was simply the relic of a wildfire that burned itself out, a natural wound that the forest had not yet closed. But an anthropogenic cause seems, at least, plausible.

    Langham seems to have scrupulously avoided mentioning any traces of human habitation in his notes, even ones that we know from other records were definitely there. It is interesting, if perhaps fruitless, to wonder what might have been at that site before Langham passed through — or might even have still been there at the time but simply left out of his notes.

    (Interestingly, Langham’s notes put the Lick/Sugar Creek confluence considerably east of its later location, so that this small circular prairie was between the creeks. If true, this could have been a somewhat strategic location, controlling travel along both creeks. I wonder if Langham might simply have mistaken a backwater for the main channel of Lick Creek, however.)

  6. Al Farmer says:

    In the late 50s and early 60s, our family used to go to Cotton Hill Park pretty much every Sunday, to fish. Mom would have a pot roast dinner ready to cook, or some other good meal, and it would slow cook over the fire in the grate while they fished and I watched out for my kids sisters and brother while they played. I don’t recall there being any equipment out there for play, but those 3 had fun anyway. Most of the time, it seems to me we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

    When my Dad and I went to the lake to fish, we either went to Hazel Dell or on the steps of the Spaulding Dam. Dam steps were our night-fishing spot.

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