A Brief History of the New Piasa Chautauqua on Illinois Route 100
John J. Dunphy
In addition to the village of Elsah, the stretch of Illinois Route 100 between Alton and Grafton hosts yet another unique community — New Piasa Chautauqua. This private, gated summer resort, sometimes referred to as Chautauqua, Illinois, consists of over one hundred cottages and homes, many of which have been kept in the same families for generations. But New Piasa Chautauqua is more than merely another secluded spot to soak up the summer sun. It is the lineal descendant of one of the most popular and influential educational movements in the late nineteenth, and early twentieth, century United States.
Methodist clergyman John Heyl Vincent, editor of the Sunday School Journal, began training Sunday School teachers in 1874, utilizing an outdoor format. Two years later, Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller organized the New York Chautauqua at a campsite on the shore of Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York. While Christian education remained the core of the Chautauqua movement, its programs gradually expanded to include courses that encompassed a variety of general topics.
Americans, especially those living in isolated, rural towns and villages, hungered for knowledge. The Chautauqua movement offered them an opportunity to expand their cultural horizons and acquire the kind of education that too many of them had been denied. The original New York Chautauqua, which was later renamed the Chautauqua Institution, rapidly spread across the nation.
There were two types of Chautauquas. The Circuit, or Tent, Chautauquas were itinerant and featured speakers, musicians and performers who enthralled crowds one town at a time. At their peak in the 1920s, Tent Chautauquas appeared in over 10,000 communities to audiences estimated at over 45 million. Independent Chautauquas operated at permanent facilities located in semi-rural areas that had access to railroad service. New Piasa Chautauqua belongs to this second category.
The site chosen for the River Bend’s Chautauqua has an intriguing history that actually precedes the New Piasa Chautauqua. The area contained a natural spring that provided cool, delicious drinking water even during the driest seasons. According to legend, a prominent Native American chief approached the spring one day to get water for his ill grandson. He saw near the spring a doe caring for its fawn. The chief was moved by the sight and vowed to the Great Spirit that he would never kill any deer in the vicinity of the spring.
When the chief’s grandson recovered after drinking the water brought to him, the entire tribe joined the chief in pledging to kill no deer near the spring. These Native Americans decided that the spring must contain magical healing properties and revered its water. They named the spot the Spring of Deerfoot.
The joint committee of Methodist clergymen and laity from southern Illinois and St. Louis who ventured into this area in 1885 for the purpose of selecting a Chautauqua site were familiar with this renowned spring, although they knew it as Sherer’s Spring. This region near the great river was called Babb’s Hollow, and committee members reported finding the abandoned cabin of John Babbock surrounded by a field of green corn. Further exploration revealed an abandoned corn field and a site where a house once stood. There was no other evidence of past habitation in the area.
The site was duly purchased. The Piasa Bluffs Assembly, as the Chautauqua was called at this point, came into being. An image of the Piasa Bird was adopted as the new community’s signet. Additional land purchases, including a portion of Elsah founder James Semple’s farm, increased the Assembly’s size and importance. An article that appeared in the August 7, 1888, edition of the Alton Daily Democrat predicted that the “Western Chautauqua” [the Piasa Bluffs Assembly/New Piasa Chautauqua] would be quite similar to the New York Chautauqua and in a few years would enjoy the same degree of success and fame. That opinion proved to be not much of an exaggeration.
Originally a week-long program, the Piasa Bluffs Assembly in 1889 stretched from August 6 through August 17. The printed program for that year records that most of the organization’s officers were ministers. Morning devotions were scheduled for 7:30 a.m., followed by instructions for Sunday School teachers. The late morning and early afternoon consisted of lectures. The daily schedule concluded with yet more Sunday School teacher instruction, a Vesper service and a sermon or song service. An image of the fabled Piasa Bird, the organization’s official signet, appeared on the program’s cover.
By 1890 the Assembly’s program listed “special days” that featured presentations by well-known groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Grand Army of the Republic and the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society. Lectures were illustrated using stereoptican slides, that era’s cutting-edge visual technology. The 1891 Assembly included entertainment in the form of fireworks and concerts.
Crowds arrived at the Assembly by steamship and by the Bluff Line Railroad, which was completed in 1891. That same year the Piasa Springs Hotel opened for guests. Modest cottages and even rented tents served to house many of those in attendance. Hotel Chautauqua, also known as Chautauqua Inn, opened in 1903.
The Piasa Bluffs Chautauqua formally became the Piasa Chautauqua in 1897. The name was registered with the U.S. Post Office and assigned a postmaster. That year marked another milestone in the community’s history — the first motion pictures were shown at Chautauqua. Gas lamps on the walls of the auditorium allowed entertainment to extend into the evening.
William Jennings Bryan, the unsuccessful Democratic presidential candidate in the elections of 1896 and 1900, spoke at Chautauqua on July 24, 1901. A frequent lecturer at Chautauquas across the country, Bryan revisited the Piasa Chautauqua while again seeking the presidency in 1908. Bryan made two more appearances at the River Bend’s Chautauqua. Famous evangelists such as Billy Sunday and Gypsy Smith also spoke there.
While history records a number of memorable events that happened at our Chautauqua, perhaps the most humorous occurred during the 1902 visit of Richmond Hobson, a naval hero of the Spanish-American War. A young woman on a boat called to Hobson, who was on another boat, and asked whether he would save her if she fell into the water. When Hobson replied in the affirmative, the woman deliberately jumped into the Mississippi! Hobson, in full Navy uniform, proved true to his word by diving in to save her.
The Piasa Chautauqua became New Piasa Chautauqua in 1909, when a new corporation was formed to guide the organization through a financially-troubled period. The layman-controlled board of directors hired the Reverend M. Edward Johnson, an East St. Louis minister, as manager. A Christian of strong convictions, Johnson posted a bulletin declaring that Chautauqua residents could no longer play cards on the verandas of their cottages. Chautauqua was founded as a pious endeavor, Johnson declared, and the community’s morals could be harmed by the sight of women playing bridge in public. Johnson cut them a bit of slack, though, and stated that he had no objection to women playing bridge in the privacy of their cottages.
Despite such minor impositions, Chautauqua continued to grow. New homes and cottages were built each season. The community had playgrounds, courts for tennis and croquet, as well as a swimming pool with steam pipes that heated its water. A yacht club formed in 1930. Yacht Club Day in 1941 featured sixty boats watched by a thousand spectators.
While New Piasa Chautauqua thrived, the national Chautauqua movement was in its death throes. Inexpensive automobiles helped to end the isolation of rural Americans. Families living on farms and ranches could now venture to cities for entertainment whenever they wished. Residents of even the smallest hamlets could listen to engaging speakers on their radios. Chautauquas, once such an integral part of American cultural life, had been dealt a fatal blow by modern technology.
However, New Piasa Chautauqua survived in part because of its scenic location. The bluffs of the River Bend and the mighty river that flowed past them created a majestic panorama that no radio program or urban entertainment could hope to rival. But even more critical to New Piasa Chautauqua’s survival were the loyalty and commitment of its families to this unique River Bend community. It was unthinkable to them that New Piasa Chautauqua should ever slip into oblivion as had so many other Chautauquas in the United States.
Throughout its history, New Piasa Chautauqua’s School of Instruction has recognized the importance of offering a variety of classes that the community’s members would find interesting. The 1983 program listed courses as diverse as furniture refinishing, calligraphy, archaeology and baton twirling. The School of Instruction proved that it could change with the times by offering “Introduction to Home Computers” at a time when many American families were purchasing their first computers and learning how to use them.
Born in the nineteenth century, coming of age in the twentieth and still flourishing in the twenty-first, New Piasa Chautauqua looks forward to the future with confidence. Like the village of Elsah, its neighbor down the Great River Road, New Piasa Chautauqua preserves the best of our nation’s past while lending its inhabitants a respite from the bustle of the present.
Alexander, Barbara. “Chautauqua: make a reservation for a trip through times past,” [Alton, IL] Citizen Journal; June 19, 1985.
Kulp, Jim. “Photo album: mysterious trove of historic treasure,” The [Alton, IL] Evening Telegraph; February 24, 1979.
Osborn, Ralph A. A Centennial: The History of New Piasa Chautauqua, 1885–1985. Chautauqua, Illinois 1989.
Start, Clarissa. “Chautauqua: echo of another era,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch; June 19, 1960.
Taylor, Troy. Haunted Alton. Whitechapel Productions Press, 2003.
- John J. Dunphy’s latest book is “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” which includes interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army’s 7708 War Crimes Group.