The Lost Grandeur of the Hartford Castle
John J. Dunphy
Castles are few and far between in the United States, but in years past one could be found in southwestern Illinois. For three-quarters of a century, Lakeview graced a hilltop about a mile south of Hartford in Chouteau Township.
Benjamin Biszant, a Frenchman, purchased 38 acres near Cahokia Creek in the 1890s and hired workers to build a 14-room mansion that would be modeled after a castle he had seen in Europe. The source of Biszant’s wealth remained a mystery, as was why he chose Hartford as the site for such a grand enterprise. Most sources agree, however, that Biszant had the castle built for his English bride as a wedding present.
Workers using teams of horses dug a moat that surrounded the castle, which was named Lakeview. Soil from the moat helped to form the rise upon which Lakeview was built. An exquisite ornamental bridge reached across the moat.
Much of the construction material was imported from Europe. Luxurious cypress wood comprised the floors, while hand-carved columns supported the ceilings. Sparkling crystal chandeliers lighted Lakeview’s mirror-lined main hall, with a cone-shaped red roof and white turret transforming what could have been just another stately home into a “castle.”
In yet another touch of Old World elegance, several small lakes adjoined the moat, which Biszant stocked with goldfish. Gazebos and statues dotted Lakeview’s meticulously landscaped gardens. Biszant enjoyed making ornamental concrete figures as his gentleman’s hobby. A variety of animal figures and even cannons soon appeared on the estate’s grounds.
Biszant and his wife threw lavish parties. Area residents often heard music drifting down from the castle on summer evenings. Guests at Lakeview used the estate’s lakes for boating, swimming and fishing. The Biszants entertained so frequently that railroad maps of the 1890s listed “Station of Lakeview.” Biszant indeed had a decorative station built by the railroad tracks to accommodate visitors to Lakeview.
The idyll of Lakeview ended in the early years of the twentieth century when Biszant’s wife died. He attended to her burial in England, sold Lakeview and moved to California. Lakeview began its slow, inevitable decline.
The castle changed ownership frequently and became, among other things, a boys’ military school, a home for unwed mothers and even a speakeasy during the Prohibition era. In 1923, Lakeview was sold to a Wood River couple who occupied it until 1964. During the ensuing years, Lakeview was alternately rented out or left vacant. The Biszants’ dream home became the target of vandalism. The worst deprecation occurred in 1972 when unknown parties utterly destroyed the castle’s interior by ripping mantles from the walls, pulling supports from staircases, smashing the chandeliers and even using a telephone pole to gouge holes in the walls. Lakeview was condemned by county building inspectors, only to be totally destroyed by a fire in 1973.
In March 2007, the author and several of this book’s photographers explored the area to learn whether any traces of Lakeview survive. The path to where the house once stood was discernable. The moat, now choked with fallen trees, still held water. A concrete dog — the only ornamental figure that we could find — lay half-submerged in a pool of water. We saw the foundation of Biszant’s castle as well as some ruins of outbuildings.
The most poignant witnesses to Lakeview’s past grandeur were a damaged well and a remnant of the train station that once welcomed guests to the Biszants’ fabulous estate. The tracks, visible on a rise near the old station, are still in use. But trains no longer stop at Lakeview.
Candela, Neta. “Historic castle only survives in memories,” The [Alton, IL] Telegraph; August 24, 1990.
Dunphy, John J. “The lost grandeur of the Hartford Castle,” The [Alton, IL] Telegraph, December 25, 2011.
Matheus, Bill. “Elegant Reminder Of The Past Is Destroyed,” The Wood River [IL] Journal; 1973.
Schmidt, Sanford. “Hartford landmark destroyed,” The [Alton, IL] Evening Telegraph; March 21, 1973.