A Brief History of Shurtleff College in Upper Alton, Illinois

by

John J. Dunphy

One of the most influential figures in American Christianity, John Mason Peck was born near Litchfield, Connecticut, on October 31, 1789, and converted at a revival in 1807. Peck embraced the Baptist denomination and began preaching in 1811. He served two Baptist congregations in New York and, despite his lack of formal education, began teaching to supplement his income. Peck was formally ordained as a Baptist minister in 1813.

This energetic convert with a passion to spread the gospel was sent as a missionary to the Missouri Territory in 1817, which he reached after an arduous four-month journey in a one-horse wagon with his wife and four children. Just one month after arriving in St. Louis, he opened the Western Mission Academy in St. Louis. The academy was historically important as the earliest attempt of the Baptists to establish a school in the West, but it was not successful. A bawdy river town at that time, the future Gateway City proved to be a less than ideal site for the Christian boarding school that Peck had in mind. He began to scout the area for a new location, a journey that took him to an Illinois community called Upper Alton.

Peck later wrote that early Upper Alton consisted of forty to fifty families living in log cabins, shanties, covered wagons and camps. Twenty-five or thirty boys and girls attended a rudimentary school taught by a man whom Peck deemed “a backwoods fellow.” The ambitious Peck decided that a boarding school in such a primitive settlement simply wouldn’t work. The school was relocated to St. Charles, Missouri.

Peck moved to a farm at the Rock Spring settlement, which was located near present-day Fairview Heights, in 1822. Edward Coles was elected governor of Illinois that year as the only anti-slavery candidate in a four-way race. The state legislature, which was dominated by pro-slavery elements, responded by calling for a referendum to hold a convention. The legislators’ intent was to amend the constitution so that Illinois became a slave state.

The pro- and anti-slavery forces in the Prairie State engaged in a two-year battle. Politicians made impassioned speeches, while newspapers waged wars of words. Public brawls between Illinoisans who felt strongly about this critical issue were not uncommon. Peck steadfastly opposed slavery and assumed a prominent role in fighting the referendum. When the measure was finally put to a state-wide vote in 1824, it was soundly defeated. Peck had helped Illinois achieve a crucial moral victory.

This talented, principled missionary and educator would turn his hands to a number of endeavors during his lifetime. As a Christian journalist, he founded The Pioneer in 1829, which was the first Baptist periodical in the West. A few years later, he began publishing The Illinois Sunday-School Banner. But Peck’s vision of founding a Christian boarding school in the West remained undaunted. He realized that much of the success of the Baptist denomination depended on having ministers with the kind of solid education that they could obtain only in a seminary staffed with good teachers. A board of trustees was elected on January 1, 1827, and the Rock Spring Seminary formally came into existence.

The seminary was housed in a two-story frame building that had one-story wings on either side. Women students roomed in another building. The Reverend J.T. Bradley, an accomplished preacher and strict disciplinarian, served as the first principal, with Peck assuming this position the following year. John Messenger, a surveyor for the federal government who had worked with Peck to defeat the pro-slavery referendum, taught mathematics and Latin. Ebenezer Marsh, who later became a prominent druggist and banker in Alton, also served on the faculty. His son, also named Ebenezer Marsh, taught at Shurtleff College from 1854 to 1875.

Inauspicious as it might have been, Rock Spring Seminary included some future luminaries in its student body, including the son of Illinois Governor Ninian Edwards as well as the son and daughter of Judge Pope of Kaskaskia. The young man, William Pope, later became clerk of the United States District Court. But Peck and the board of trustees longed for a better location for the school.

At a meeting held in Edwardsville on July 26, 1832, the board decided that the seminary should be moved to Upper Alton. The ramshackle hodgepodge of shanties and covered wagons of a decade earlier had given rise to a thriving community that would welcome an institution of higher learning. Upper Alton’s location near three great rivers — the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois — made it accessible by steamboat, so it could draw students from the Western and Southern states.

Hubbel Loomis, the newly-elected principal, journeyed East to secure funding for the seminary. John Russell, who had served as principal during its Rock Spring period, assumed Loomis’s office in his absence. A native of Vermont with extensive teaching experience in other states, Russell enjoyed writing stories and poems. Historians believe that Russell became acquainted with accounts of the mysterious pictographs seen on the Alton bluffs by Marquette and Jolliet at this time. In 1836, Russell’s story “The Piasa: An Indian Tradition of Illinois” appeared in print and continues to be circulated to this day.

Loomis resumed the position of principal upon his return, and the financially-strapped school, now called Alton Seminary, was ready to accept students. Academic Hall, the school’s first building, was a two-story brick structure. The ground floor contained the chapel and library, while the second floor held two rows of dormitories. Later renamed Loomis Hall in honor of Hubbel Loomis, it was restored in 1920 and still stands today near the intersection of College Avenue and Seminary Street in Upper Alton.

The school took well to its new location. Alton College of Illinois, as the seminary had become known, was granted a charter by the Illinois legislature in 1835. Later that year, Dr. Benjamin Shurtleff of Boston, a Harvard-educated physician, donated $10,000 to the college, with three provisions: half the sum must be used for building purposes, the other half used to establish a professorship of rhetoric and elocution — and the school must be renamed Shurtleff College. On January 12, 1836, the board of trustees formally changed the name of the school. Shurtleff’s importance to the school’s development was not forgotten. The 1847 annual commencement included an address by Peck titled “The Life and Character of Dr. Benjamin Shurtleff,” who had recently died. Peck died at his Rock Spring residence in 1858. Vitally interested in Shurtleff College to the very end, he left a number of his books to its library.

Shurtleff College boasted that its academic requirements were considerably higher than those of other Western colleges of its day, a claim substantiated by its required courses. Students took classes in algebra, plane geometry, Greek, Latin, chemistry, astronomy, natural history and much more. As a school founded by Baptists, Shurtleff did not ignore the Christian development of its students. Readings in Biblical studies and natural theology were obligatory.

Two of Shurtleff College’s most famous alumni were John M. Palmer and Hugh Murray. Palmer’s accomplishments were truly staggering. He served as a major-general in the Union Army during the Civil War and was appointed military governor of Kentucky. Palmer’s civilian career was no less impressive — he was elected governor of Illinois and, later, a U.S. senator. The board of trustees assisted this enterprising but impoverished young scholar to work his way through Shurtleff, even to the point of appropriating him the sum of $20 to erect a cooper’s shop on campus.

Hugh Murray also embarked upon a distinguished career, although not in the Prairie State. He became the third chief justice of the California Supreme Court.

Shurtleff College played a major role in the Civil War. In addition to Palmer, almost 200 of its students and alumni rallied to the Union cause. While the precise number of Shurtleff casualties is unknown, records show that six members of the class of 1867 left school before the completion of their freshmen year to enlist in the Union Army. Three of the six — Charles Ives, Harlow Street and David Wear — were killed.

Although Rock Spring Seminary was a coeducational institution, Shurtleff College didn’t open its doors to women until the 1870s. Its first female graduate, Sarah Bulkley, was the daughter of the college’s acting president and took her degree in 1873.

While it isn’t certain whether Shurtleff ever excluded African-American students, it is a matter of public record that blacks enrolled at the college when Alton’s elementary and junior high schools were still segregated. Regional historian Eileen Smith Cunningham graduated from Shurtleff in 1947 after returning from nursing school New York City’s Cornell Medical Center. She noted that, upon first arriving at Shurtleff College in 1941, two black students were seniors. As a freshman at Shurtleff, Smith sang in the choir with two other black students: Muriel Cannon, who was majoring in public speech and music, and John Paul Jackson, an education major.

Shurtleff continued to prosper through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Andrew Carnegie, the wealthy industrialist and philanthropist, pledged to give the college a $15,000 library building if Shurtleff secured an equal amount for maintenance. The necessary funds were acquired and construction began in 1911. The new library was formally dedicated at the 1912 commencement.

Most of Shurtleff’s students were drawn from the River Bend, and most of its graduates remained in the area. The 1946 edition of the Alton High School Tattler listed 12 faculty members who were Shurtleff College alumni, including Dorothy Colonius, the co-founder of the Alton Little Theater. Bob Graul, long-time photographer for The Alton Evening Telegraph, also graduated from Shurtleff.

Shurtleff College in 1950 had 700 students, the highest enrollment in its history. That year’s graduating class numbered 99, another all-time high for the college. The Class of 1950 erected a memorial on campus that stands to this day — the lettering SHURTLEFF COLLEGE, atop a globe, telescope and desk with an old-fashioned quill pen, all cast in wrought-iron over a gateway.

Shurtleff’s president, Dr. Roland E. Turnbull, in his preface to the 1956 edition of The Retrospect, the annual yearbook, wrote that, in an ever-changing world, Shurtleff College reaffirmed its commitment to Jesus Christ and the importance of Christian education. His words rang of optimism for Shurtleff College’s future. On June 30, 1957, however, financial hardship forced this River Bend institution to cease operation, although its last 28 students graduated in 1958. It had been the oldest Baptist school west of the Appalachian Mountains.

The Shurtleff College campus was acquired by Southern Illinois University, which began holding classes at the site in 1958. River Bend residents were still afforded the opportunity to secure a college education in their own community. The old Shurtleff campus became the Southern Illinois University School of Dental Medicine in 1972. A classroom building at the Edwardsville campus of Southern Illinois University is named after John Mason Peck.

Vestiges of Shurtleff College remain on the old campus. Besides the Class of 1950 memorial, three other classes left tangible reminders of their years at Shurtleff: a concrete tete-a-tete seat inscribed with the words CARPE DIEM, courtesy of the Class of 1909; a sundial erected by Shurtleff’s Class of 1927 in honor of the college’s centennial; and a stone bench from the Class of 1948 that rests outside Loomis Hall. A wishing well, inscribed ALUMNI WELL but carrying no date, was sealed shut decades ago. The Alton Museum of History and Art, which is housed in Loomis Hall, displays an oil painting of the Piasa Bird by Paul E. Harney, who taught art at Shurtleff College.

Yet the most visible reminders of Shurtleff College can be seen by motorists making their way through Upper Alton. The old campus is located at the corner of Seminary Street (Alton Seminary, the school’s name after relocating to Alton) and College Avenue (Shurtleff College).

Bibliography:

DeBlois, Austen Kennedy. The Pioneer School. Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1900.

Moon, Jill. “Historic buildings dot campus,” The [Alton, IL] Telegraph; February 5, 2007

— . “Integrated Curriculum;” The [Alton, IL] Telegraph, February 16, 2010.

Whaley, Dave. “Shurtleff College annual reunion is set for April 29, “ The [Alton, IL] Telegraph; April 18, 2001.

— . “Shurtleff alumni to gather April 27,” The [Alton, IL] Telegraph; April 6, 2003.

Shurtleff College Bulletin, April, 1925; Volume XVIII, Number 2. Housed in the archives of the Alton Museum of History and Art.

http://www.famousamericans.net/johnmasonpeck; accessed 2/14/07.

  • John J. Dunphy is the author of Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials, which includes interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army’s 7708 War Crimes Group.

John J. Dunphy owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton, IL USA. Google him to learn more about this enigmatic person who is such a gifted writer and poet.