The history of both Carlinville and Macoupin County date to 1829. Together, they are the only town named Carlinville, and the only county named Macoupin, in the world.The county was established on Jan. 17, 1829, and that June 2, the site of Carlinville was selected as the seat of government. The fledgling town was named for Thomas Carlin, a state senator from nearby Carrollton, who was instrumental in the founding of the county. Carlin would be elected governor of Illinois in 1838.

The town began to grow, and in 1831, Carlinville boasted eleven buildings around the town square, including six homes, a blacksmith shop, tavern, dram shop, schoolhouse, and the courthouse. By 1837, there were twenty buildings were in place, though a massive storm the following June destroyed at least one of them. The southwest corner of the square was leveled in a fire in May 1852.

The first courthouse was a log building measuring 18 X 24, with cost estimates ranging from $128 to $155.25. The log courthouse served the county until 1840, when a two-story brick structure measuring 50 X 50 feet was erected in the middle of the town square. The cost was $15,000.It was used until 1870 and housed court cases involving the luminaries of nineteenth-century Illinois law, including Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, and Lyman Trumbull. Lincoln was retained in five cases that were tried in Macoupin County, including one that featured a 43-page reply, believed to be the longest existing document in Lincoln’s handwriting.

In 1833, the population of Carlinville numbered 200, but there were no brick structures until the first brickyard opened in 1835. Three years later, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist denominations dotted the town. By 1851, the town had grown to 438 residents, a number that jumped to 936 three years later.Blackburn Theological Seminary, which evolved into Blackburn College, was founded on the northeast side of town in 1837, and has been an anchor of higher education in central Illinois ever since. Blackburn is best known for its Student Self-Help Plan, commonly known as the Work Program, which was introduced in 1913 and has left a remarkable imprint on the history and landscape of the school.

Famous Citizens

Carlinville held a surprising prominence in the state of Illinois in the mid-to-late 1800s and accordingly, a number of residents distinguished themselves statewide and nationally.At the top of the list is John M. Palmer, one of the towering political figures of the 19th century in Illinois. A member of the 1847 Illinois Constitutional Convention, Palmer earned a seat in the state senate in 1853, the beginning of a half-century run in Illinois politics.A close friend of Abraham Lincoln, Palmer was a major general and corps commander in the Civil War. He was elected governor of Illinois in 1868, a year after he left Carlinville for Springfield. He was in office during the catastrophic Chicago Fire of 1871, and is considered one of the better chief executives in state history.A man of robust health, Palmer was active at a late age, running for governor again at age 74 in 1888. He lost by only 12,547 votes. Three years later, he won a seat in the U.S. Senate.In 1892, Palmer enjoyed widespread support as a Presidential candidate. Four years later, he was the Presidential nominee of the third-party Gold Democrat ticket. He died on Sept. 24, 1900 and is buried in Carlinville City Cemetery.

There was also Richard Rowett, whose farm one mile north of Carlinville became a nationally recognized breeding ground for thoroughbreds, including the winner of the 1889 Kentucky Derby, Spokane. Rowett is also credited as the first the true-bred beagle hound to this country from his native England, around 1875.A man of national stature, Rowett’s sudden death on July 13, 1887 was reported on page one of the New York Times the following day.

Another key figure of Carlinville history was William B. Otwell (1863-1941), who organized countless activities for farm youth across the nation, including his Farmer Boy Round-Ups and Otwell Tree Planting Clubs. However, his corn planting clubs earned the greatest acclaim, and are credited by some as the forerunner to the 4-H movement.

Other Carlinville residents of note include Walter Woods (1875-1951), a local native who served as United States Treasurer from 1929-33. During that time, his signature appeared on all paper currency. Author Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) is credited with 32 books of fiction and 250 published articles, stories, and poems. Austin remains a foremost figure in southwestern American literature.Also born in Carlinville was Gustave H. Loehr (1864-1918), in whose Chicago office the first-ever meeting of Rotary International was held in 1905.

Railroads Help Build the Town

Like many towns in the nineteenth-century, Carlinville’s growth was influenced by railroads, particularly the north-south line that became the Chicago & Alton.Lincoln was a staunch backer of this line, which originated in Alton and reached Carlinville on July 1, 1852. Four days later, “The Great Rail Road Festival” celebrated the occasion in Carlinville, attracting crowds of six to seven thousand.The line finally reached Springfield that September 9, and Carlinville enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom. It was reported that all lots on the west side of the square and south of Main Street were selling for $450 to $900, a princely sum at the time. The Chicago & Alton has since undergone a succession of mergers and takeovers, and the line is now part of the Union Pacific network.Another key railroad emerged in 1904 as the Illinois Traction System, later known as the Illinois Terminal, was laid through town. The tracks ran down West Street and shared the roadway with automobiles, a common occurrence in other towns along the line.

Originally an electric railroad, the Illinois Terminal became a major source of transportation, connecting Carlinville with towns throughout the state. Older residents still recall riding the “interurban,” as it was known, until passenger service ended on March 8, 1956. Freight service continued on the Illinois Terminal until the line ceased operations in 1982.In between, Carlinville was served by the Litchfield, Carrollton & Western, an east-west line that ran largely down Nicholas Street. The line was opened through Carlinville in December 1886, but meager revenues and poor maintenance doomed the LC&W, which was better known as the “Lazy, Crooked, and Winding” or the less-flattering “Look, Cuss, and Wait.” Service on the line was later absorbed by the Chicago & Alton, and ended in February 1932.

Coal Mining Provides Economic Boost

Next to agriculture, the dominant economic force in Carlinville history was coal mining, as the mines left an indelible imprint on the development of the town.In 1867, the Carlinville Coal Company sank a mine that employed 45 men and cranked out a reported 500,000 bushels of coal a year. Two years later, the South Mine, located on the extreme south edge of town, opened for business. A second South Mine, located near the first, was sunk in 1918.In 1917, corporate giant Standard Oil purchased the Carlinville Coal Company, located at the corner of Nicholas and North West streets, to supply its refineries. The next year, Standard Oil sank a new mine, the Berry Mine, off the north end of University Street.A direct result of the Berry Mine is the Standard Addition, located in the northeast part of town, which is one of the world’s largest collections of mail-order houses from Sears-Roebuck. The homes were literally ordered by catalog and offered quick assembly, as well as proximity to the nearby mine. The Standard Addition has since become one of the most famous features of Carlinville.

The Magnificent Macoupin County Courthouse

The most outstanding feature of Carlinville is the Macoupin County courthouse, a magnificent four-story structure topped by a dome that measures 191 feet from its apex to the ground. The sprawling 181 X 80 building is highlighted by its main courtroom, a chamber of 4,500 square feet whose size and décor are immense.The third courthouse in county history, construction lasted from 1867-70. The design was by Elijah E. Myers, one of the prominent American architects of the late nineteenth-century, whose credits include five courthouses across Illinois, the classic Macoupin County Jail across the street from the courthouse, and the state capitol buildings of Michigan, Texas, and Colorado.The reasons for such a grandiose courthouse remain unclear. One theory is that the county simply needed a larger building for its business. A second reason concerns rumors that Macoupin County was about to be divided, and that Carlinville would lose the seat.A third, and most incredulous, theory is that the county wanted to attract the state capital from Springfield to Carlinville. This idea seems outlandish, as ground-breaking for the current statehouse in Springfield was held in March 1867, around the same time construction began in Macoupin County.However, this idea gains credence based on the secrecy of the four-man court commission, which had absolute power by law in Macoupin County. A ten-foot-high board fence surrounded the construction site, while the plans were kept closed to the public.

Screams of “taxation without representation” reverberated across the county, but the court commissioners were remarkably indifferent and pressed on, seemingly building the courthouse to their own desires. The battle carried to the state legislature, where the court commissioners managed to prevail.County records reveal that the commissioners voted themselves heavy appropriations for travel, among other expenses, implying that they profited on the deal. In addition, the Loomis Hotel on the town square was built at the same time as the courthouse, with the same building materials. Several court commissioners were investors in the hotel, including the county judge, whom the hotel was named for.When completed, the building cost $1,380,500, equal to nineteen percent of the assessed valuation of all property in the county. An independent audit showed the building should have cost $643,867 – less than half its actual cost.The county endured numerous bankruptcies and foreclosures as residents struggled to pay the debt. But the bitterness dissipated over time, and the courthouse gained its rightful place as the centerpiece of the county.The final bond was burned in a grand ceremony in July 1910 – forty years after completion. Some 20,000 attended the festivities. Another massive celebration, this time to mark the building’s centennial, was held in 1967.Today, the courthouse is lauded for its interior design, impressive architecture, and imposing size, as it has become the top tourist draw in both Carlinville and the county. The dome has been painted various colors over the years, including gold, silver, red, white, maize, and the current paint scheme, which has been widely praised for its beauty.

Route 66 Rolls Through Town

The most famous highway in the world is Route 66, which connected Chicago and Los Angeles during its remarkable existence from 1926-77. Carlinville was part of the original corridor of Route 66.In 1926, State Route 4 was designated as part of Route 66, placing Carlinville and other Macoupin County towns on the legendary highway. The designation lasted until 1930, when the corridor was shifted eastward, toward Litchfield.In its four short years in town, Route 66 left an impression on Carlinville. The Ariston Café, one of the most popular attractions on Route 66 in Illinois, was originally founded in 1924 on the Carlinville square. In 1930, the restaurant moved to Litchfield, where it remains a storied part of Route 66 culture.Route 66 has captured the imagination of the globe, and Carlinville is visited by countless Route 66 riders today, many of whom stop on the town square for food, gifts, and photo opportunities.

What to See in Carlinville Today

Carlinville offers an array of historic and tourist sites, including the courthouse, which is available for tours. There’s also the dungeon-like county jail nearby, as well as the Loomis Hotel, Blackburn College, the Standard Addition, and Route 66.