Sunday, May 18, 2014

52 Ancestors #20: Streatorland

Ancestor Name: Alexander Muir

Sometimes when doing genealogy research, it turns into a litany of names, dates, and places. It becomes mind numbing if you can't add a little color to your research. I've added a step to my process to look for old books about my ancestors or the places in which they lived. That's how I found Biography in Black by Paula Angle, published in 1962, on Internet Archive. It is a history of Streator, Illinois, and included some interesting and unique descriptions of the the city.

My great grand uncle, Alexander Muir, was born in Streator on 13 May, 125 years ago this month. He was the first son of James and Margaret (Semple) Muir born in the United States after Margaret and her children emigrated from Scotland 1887 to join their husband and father. James was a coal miner in Scotland and the U.S. 

When Alexander Muir registered for the World War I draft in 1917, he wrote Streator, Illinois as his place of birth. When I think about Illinois now, I think of it as a "rust belt" state filled with cities in decline. But it wasn't always so. At the time my great great grandparents lived there, Streator was one of the most rapidly growing and developing cities in the state outside of Chicago. In 1870 its population was a little under 1,500 by 1880, it had tripled. 

Streator is situated on the banks of the Vermilion river, straddling LaSalle and Livingston counties. The area was first named Hardscrabble because it was a "hard scrabble" to cross the river and get up the hill where the settlement was located. Next the town was called Unionville in honor of the local men who fought in the Civil War. In 1865 the city was named for Worthy Streator, a Cleveland railroad promoter, who financed the region's first mining operation, and the town was incorporated in 1882. 

Bridge over Vermillion River at Streator, Illinois; photograph courtesy
of Encore Editions

Colonel Plumb, Streator's mine overseer, could not afford European employment agents to send him workers. Instead he alerted steamship offices of the new job opportunities and convinced local railroads to carry notices of Streator's promise.  I've always wondered if that's how James Muir came to settle and work in the city.  

Biography in Black included this item from the La Salle Press in 1881:

"N H Deisher of Streator was over here a day or two this week to see his old friends. He says Streator is a booming town and he likes it first rate. We must caution friend D[eisher] to be very careful of himself, for there are lots of holes in the ground over there where people tumble in very frequently and are killed."

The punning La Salle journalist, who meant only to toss a barb in Streator's direction, was right. Streator was booming by the time James Muir's wife, Margaret, and children joined him. Those "holes in the ground" yielded coal and provided jobs for many recent immigrants.

Coal mine in Streator, Illinois; photograph of Mining Artifacts

Biography in Black also contained Edward Steiner's, an immigrant turned professor, description of city. He came to Streator as a young man sometime after 1886. 

"The town lay uninvitingly among the coal mines which gave it life. Its geometric streets contained the usual stores with the invariable surplus of saloons. The residence district stretched in every direction; while at the most undesirable edges of town the miners had settled in hopeless, unkempt groups. These localities were known as prisoners are -- merely by numbers, and were fast deteriorating; for the more stable population of Welsh and German miners was giving way to the changeable, newer, immigrant groups…the [coal] 'patch' seemed to be a law unto itself, as far as cleanliness or even sanitary conditions were concerned. The only time it realized that it was under some government control was when the officers came to interfere in the not infrequent brawls. The miners were entirely out of touch with the community, except through the saloons…"

Such was the nature of the town where Alexander Muir was born.

This is my entry for Amy Johnson Crow's 52 ancestors in 52 weeks challenge.

Alexander Muir was born 13 May 1889 at Steator, La Salle, Illinois to James and Margaret (Semple) Muir. He was the first child born to them after they immigrated to the U.S. from Scotland. I have contacted both La Salle and Livingston counties and his birth record cannot be located. (Streator crosses county borders.) On 13 June 1914 Alexander married Bertha Clorin and by 1916 they were living in Seattle, Washington. He worked for the city as a fireman. Alexander and Bertha had three children: Alexander, Helen and Frances. When he completed his 1942 World War II registration card, he was working for Boeing Aircraft Company. Alexander died on 6 May 1957 at Seattle, Washington.

For more on coal in Illinois, read Coal Mining: A Dangerous Occupation.

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