Mount Vernon, known as “Festival Arts City,” is the county seat of Jefferson County, Illinois. The population was 15,277 at the 2010 census.
Mt. Vernon was founded in 1817 by Zadok Casey and incorporated as a city in 1819. Casey was elected to the State Senate in 1822 and was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1833. He served in the U.S. Congress between 1833 and 1843. The town was named for George Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon, which was named for Edward Vernon, a British naval hero.
After the state capitol was moved to Vandalia in 1819, it became apparent that a road to Vandalia was needed. After the Vandalia Road was built, Mt. Vernon was “on the map” and was officially incorporated as a city in the State of Illinois. The bridge across Casey Creek and the Vandalia Road provided a much shorter path across Jefferson County than the original Goshen Road. The new Goshen Road soon captured most of the traffic, and Mt. Vernon became an important stop on the road west.
In 1848, the Illinois Supreme Court was relocated to Mt. Vernon at what is currently 14th and Main streets. The 5th District Appellate Court was constructed in 1854 according to the National Register of Historic Places and is still in use as the Appellate Court House. When the Supreme Court was in session, the important lawyers in Illinois, including Abraham Lincoln, gathered in Mt. Vernon to argue their cases. The lawyers gathered at the Mt. Vernon Inn, owned by Angus McNeil Grant and his in-laws, the Andersons. This building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since July 2, 1973.
On Feb. 19, 1888, a tornado cut a path a half-mile wide through Mt. Vernon, killing 37 people and destroying more than 450 houses. The Jefferson County Courthouse was destroyed. This event was one of the first disasters to which the American Red Cross responded. Clara Barton herself directed the relief efforts.
In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Citizens Gas, Electric & Heating Company brought electricity, gas and running water to Mt. Vernon. However, rural homes and farms were without electricity until 1939 when Tri-County Electric Cooperative was formed under the Rural Electrification Act and erected power lines and furnished electricity to the area.
The Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Company opened in 1889 after moving from Litchfield, Illinois. This relocation may have been an outgrowth of the relief efforts following the tornado. The Louisville and Nashville Railroad hauled in some 1,900 carloads of supplies for reconstruction of the town. Somehow, this effort translated into a major business building railroad cars, at first building about 10 cars per day. By 1909, the car shops were producing 25 cars per day, employing more than 1,000 workers, with a payroll of $60,000 per month.
20th & 21st Centuries
The Great Depression of the 1930s, the worst economic downturn in U.S. history, had a large impact on the nation and Jefferson County. In President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” programs were developed to help small businesses, banks, and farms and to provide jobs. Jefferson County reaped the benefits of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that hired local individuals to work in the nations parks and forest to help protect the land. Mt. Vernon hosted a CCC camp where the current Country Heights subdivision is located. This location later became a U.S. Army camp for training military police during World War II. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) hired the unemployed
and the Public Works Administration (PWA) financed road and building projects. In Mt. Vernon, these programs helped build City Hall and several original Mt. Vernon Township High School buildings.
During World War II, portions of the “car shops,” as they had to come to be known, were converted over to wartime production, including the production of bomb casings. Around 1939, a portion of the car shops was purchased by Precision Engineering, which originally built components for locomotives. During the 1970s, this company purchased old diesel/electric railroad locomotives, which it scrapped out or refurbished. Today, the plant thrives as a hub for National Railway Equipment Company that rebuilds and services diesel electric locomotives for rail lines across the globe. Ironically, the facility is poised to again become one of the area’s largest employers as sales of its innovative hybrid locomotives fuel plant expansion to include another facility across town.
In 1954, the car shops closed, causing a temporary jump in unemployment throughout the city and the 108 communities called “home” by its former employees.
The Interstate Highway System was built in the late 1950s and 1960s. The concurrency of I-57 and I-64 is along the western border of the ridgeline which divides the Big Muddy River and Casey Creek. The stack interchange on the southwest side of town complements the historic Casey Creek bridges, allowing much shorter travel times through the swamps to the east and south.
In April 2007, Mount Vernon voters elected the first female mayor of the city, Mary Jane Chesley. She was sworn into office on May 7, 2007.