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THE SETTING AND HISTORY OF SAVANNA

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Welcome to the City of Savanna, Illinois, a place of opportunity. Savanna lies along the mighty Mississippi River, bordered by unglaciated hills, majestic limestone bluffs, and thousands of acres of preserved natural wilderness (some of which lies in the Palisades State Park). Savanna has its historical buildings, which have attracted tourists while struggling to perpetuate and increase its industrial base. The area's landscape, with breathtaking views and unspoiled natural settings unique to the prairies of Illinois, has prompted the City to be called a "Sportsman's Paradise." This local beauty draws close to a million visitors from all over the Midwest each year. The area's scenic charm is complemented by the river's magnetism and has afforded local people similar river trade opportunities that drew Savanna's first settlers to its banks. Savanna's historic economic growth can largely be attributed to the Mississippi River. With the advent of the railroad yards and improved transportation access, the City prospered as a major commercial distribution point for commerce and agricultural goods. Today, the river continues to play an important role in the area's economy.

Settled in 1828, and receiving its city charter from the State of Illinois in 1875, Savanna began as a river town. Savanna was originally a stopping point for steamboats during regular runs between Galena, Illinois and St. Louis, Missouri. The evolving transportation lines also added to Savanna's success as a growing city. Settled by true pioneers, this land offered its citizens an opportunity to begin a new life, acquire land, and a chance to accumulate wealth from the river's steamboat and barge traffic. The story of these pioneers is the same story of the thousand lured to the far west with rumors of opportunity and fortune. It was for this reason that a young pioneer from Boston, Aaron Pierce, and his wife began their long journey west. For years these unsettled pioneers searched to find a haven of peace and plenty. They enlisted the services of Vance Davidson, a kind of soldier of fortune, who told them of a beautiful valley on the bank of the Mississippi. He had discovered this area on a recent journey from Rock Island to Galena. The Pierce family, led by Mr. Davidson, traveled an old Indian trail through the deep woods in an ox-drawn covered wagon. Upon arrival they found themselves atop a lofty pinnacle of land overlooking the Mississippi (this is currently the site of the former city hospital). Below was a valley lush with burnished-gold savannas and natural beauty that would later become Savanna's downtown. Aaron housed his family in an Indian hut for temporary shelter near what is now 1018 Main Street (near the Savanna Sabula Bridge). This area had river front access, plenty of trees and was full of wildlife. Aaron took advantage of the area's natural resources and began to sell cordwood to steamboats as fuel - - a cash industry for the early settlers.

Additional settlers soon followed and the community slowly began to grow. By the mid-1830's, the community reached a population of approximately 200. In 1835, Luther Bowen (the City's first proprietor) arrived in the area. He bought the claims of the original settlers and began to plan a town. In the 1840's, the local population began to grow more rapidly, increasing to nearly 500 persons around 1844. During the 1850's, a sawmill was constructed near the current Old Mill Park. A brickyard was also developed to facilitate the construction of homes, stores, and hotels. Bowen named the town Savanna. Situated on the mighty Mississippi River, the town became an important shipping point for steamboats. Settlers from Rockford, Freeport, and Oregon, IL came to Savanna to sell their products and buy lumber and supplies. Very few trails existed in northwest Illinois at the time. Packet boats brought goods up the Mississippi to Savanna. From there, products were distributed to the east, north and south. As a result, Savanna became an important shipping and trading center.

As transportation continued to develop, Savanna's economic progress transformed this small new community into a vibrant city around the turn of the century. In 1862, the Northern Illinois Railroad Company laid track between Lanark and Savanna. In 1885, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad started laying track in Savanna as well. Savanna became the switching point on the railroad because it was a natural stopping point for crew shifts. The first enterprise spawned by the railroad was an 80,000-bushel grain elevator built in 1862 by Mr. Bowen. More economic development quickly followed. Storage warehouses and rail cars carrying perishables were common sights in Savanna. Savanna built its first City Hall in 1874. With a population of less than a thousand, the town was granted a City Charter by the State of Illinois in 1875. The railroad continued to help expand the local economy by opening doors to personal travel and trade opportunities. This caused and influx of settlers and visitors. In 1886, five hotels (Radke House Hotel, Henry Zelenka's Hotel, the Occidental Hotel, the Depot Hotel and the Railroad Hotel) accommodated the visiting travelers and entrepreneurs. These changing forces caused the City's population to skyrocket.

By the turn of the century, Savanna became a "boom town". The fastest recorded growth decade was from 1910-1920, during which the total population peaked at 5,237. Two more major economic influences in the area caused this exceptionally fast growth. First, the army constructed a 13,172-acre Ordinance Depot in 1917. Secondly, the railroads increased their activities and extended their rail lines. The City prospered from these developments and gained momentum as its population grew. From 1860 to recent times, the railroad's main line junction in Savanna was the driving force of the local economy.

With a local population that had grown to 3,097 by 1890 and peaked at 5,237 by 1920, Savanna embarked upon a program to improve the towns' appearance and overall quality of life. The leaders strove to meet the growing population demands cast upon the young City. Homes appeared almost overnight and construction of the City's first sanitary sewer began in 1904. Concrete sidewalks were added along Main Street and the public library was built. The City recognized the need for public space and leisure areas for its citizens and created the river front Marquette Park in 1917 and the 30-acre Old Mill Park in 1922. Quality of life in the City also improved with establishment of the City's grade school in 1916, the first hospital in 1922, and the Lincoln Middle School in 1928. In 1929, the State further enhanced the area by purchasing 54 acres just north of the City for a State Park. The Indians called this State land the "council bluffs of the upper Mississippi." It became known later as Mississippi Palisades State Park. This park developed into a major outdoor paradise for sportsmen and outdoor enthusiast; frequently attracting over a million tourists annually. Cessation of the ferry line created a need for the Savanna Sabula Bridge (constructed in 1932). This action started a trend that would further distance Savanna's economy from the river. The railroad offered quicker more dependable year-round service, and by the 1920's it began to surpass the river as a freight carrier.

Savanna's heavy dependence on the railroad and Army Depot made the City quite susceptible to frequent population fluctuations between 1920-1940. It was during this era that Savanna's economic boom came to an abrupt halt. Slowed activity at the Army Depot, reduced rail expansions and the end to larger construction projects resulted in lower employment opportunities and the first outflow of population in the City's history. With the advent of World War II, a vibrant wartime economy again spurred the local economy and caused increased Army Depot and railroad activity. In 1948, the railroad spent $625,000 to modernize and expand the rail yards and switching points. This provided an economic boost to the area by creating additional jobs and a new sense of job security. During peak times the railroad switched as many as 4,500 freight cars in a day. Soon, the rail industry accounted for 47% of Savanna's local economy. This prosperity would prove to be short lived. The City's lack of industrial diversity could not support the post war railroad. This resulted in economical instability, slowed job growth and a continuous population outflow over the decades to follow.

The City's annexation efforts during the 1960's led to slight economic improvement and population increases. However, other commercial events were taking place that signaled a need for improvement. One such sign was that the City's retail sale percentage totals had dropped to 55 percent in the furniture, household goods and appliance sales categories. Though the City witnessed new home construction increases of 14 percent over previous decades, it maintained a housing inventory that was relatively old (27 percent of its structures were identified as deteriorating and dilapidated). Out-migration of Savanna's young people caused the local elderly population to increase to 15 percent of the total population. With only three manufacturing industries within its corporate limits and four within its immediate environs, Savanna's economy during the 1960's was still dependent on the railroad industry and the Army Depot. During this decade, the Savanna Army Depot (800 employees) and the four local manufacturing industries (400 employees) provided the lion's share employment for the City's 5,000 residents.

It became obvious to City officials and citizens alike during the early 1960's that the City was in dire need of rejuvenation and planned redirection. Savanna had become a City; and like all cities, it had its share of urban problems. As eluded to previously, 28 percent of the area's future work force, ages 25-34, moved elsewhere in search of better job opportunities during the 1960's. Convinced of the City's potential that had never been fully realized, the City officials set out to prepare a long-range comprehensive plan that would encourage healthy and stable growth. The first Comprehensive City Plan was prepared in 1964 by Carl L. Gardner & Associates Inc.

The 1964 plan stressed a need for Savanna to diversify its industrial economy, preserve its downtown as a Central Business District (CBD), and improve the overall quality of life for its citizens.

Although still widely considered a self-sufficient community, concerns were directed towards Savanna's non-diverse local economy. City officials determined that population fluctuations from out-migration were a by-product of their non-diverse local economy. More specifically, such population trends were determined to have been caused by a combined lack of local job advancement opportunities and the lure of larger metropolitan areas for more diverse job opportunities. The Plan identified the local economy's heavy dependence on the Army Depot and rail industry, and stressed the importance of attracting industry that would be compatible with the existing industrial base. Taking advantage of the area's transportation opportunities was recommended to be heavily promoted. Utilization of the river was strongly recommended in the Plan as well. The Plan suggested that raw commodity distribution and processing plants be development to promote Savanna as a receiving and distribution center for product shipments throughout the interior Midwest.

The Plan attributed the decline of the local business district to old age and the lack of reinvestment. During the 1950's, Savanna's commercial district dropped to only 37 percent of the County's total merchandise sales. The Plan stressed the renewed importance of this commercial sector within the community and encouraged renewal and modernization.

The Plan called for updates to parks and community facilities. These amenities are essential for a community to prosper and be a desirable place to reside, conduct business, shop and promote itself as a competitive choice for commerce and industry. Most notably, the Plan recommended improved neighborhood playgrounds within each of the residential areas.

Many of the Plan's recommendations were accomplished, including the procuring of a new City Hall/Municipal Building maintaining the CBD as the local commercial center. The most notable accomplishment of this Plan was that the City had become aware of its shortcomings. Rather than ignore them, they attempted to learn from them and build for a better future. Over the course of the next decade, Savanna implemented its first Subdivision Ordinance, followed by its first Zoning Ordinance and a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The City had taken the first steps towards providing itself with the tools for better growth and management.

During the 1970's, the City continued to feel the effects of a non-diversified economy that had been cautioned in the Plan. The total employment in industry groups had undergone notable shifts. The dominant transportation and railroad industries (once Savanna's largest employer accounting for 30 percent of its labor force) were replaced by retail and service trades. The manufacturing sector ranked third in employment distribution. The City's economic backbone during this decade (the rail industry and Army Depot) began to constrict and/or cease.

With the rapid demise of the railroad industry and scheduled phase-down of all activity at the Army Depot, Savanna began to decline. As the local economic situation worsened, the social and commercial aspects of the community were negatively affected. The City's population went on a downward swing from 1970 through 1990, losing approximately 24 percent of its population. The poor economic situation prevented neighborhoods from receiving the necessary infrastructure and building improvements. As a result, the older housing structures in town began to fall in disrepair. Owner-occupied housing numbers fell as an increasing number of rental units were created through single-family home conversion. Vacancy rates began to climb as the population declined, which further discouraged reinvestment and accelerated deterioration of the community's housing stock. By 1990, the City's housing stock was 36.2% renter-occupied with a 9.7% overall vacancy rate.

The Illinois Department of Commerce & Community Affairs (DCCA) developed a Savanna Comprehensive Plan "Update" in 1980. This Plan recapped the 1964 Plan, identified building limitations and conducted a land use analysis. The Plan did not have an action plan nor did it provide recommendations in addition to what was outlined in the 1964 Plan.

By 1990, Savanna's population had decreased to 3,819; approximately the same size as it had been around the turn of the century. The three-decade long out-migration of the City's young people attributed much to the older elderly-dominated 1990 local population (22 percent were over the age of 65). The mighty transportation and rail yard industries that once controlled 47% of the local economy were reduced to only 9% of the local employment distribution. Retail trade and service sector jobs continued to be the leading employers, providing nearly half of the employment opportunities. The manufacturing industry still remained third on the list with 15 percent of the employment distribution.

With the imminent closing of the Army Depot, Savanna of today is at a crossroads. Savanna's past holds the key to its future prosperity. Although many things have changed in Savanna, its natural beauty and proximity to transportation routes have remained unchanged. These were the primary location factors that lured Savanna's early pioneers to settle in the area and fueled its prosperous growth. The people of Savanna are pursuing an intra-connected and realistic plan to achieve a healthy economic base with long-term stability. Its citizens have determined that it should manage its natural resources and channel growth in ways that are healthy, both economically and culturally.

The City seeks to extend a welcome to industrial development thru planned development incentives. Savanna offers prime industrial park and central commercial sites with ample municipal services. The area's natural beauty is also an amenity that needs to be further developed from Savanna's regional tourism industry. Savanna would like to capitalize on Mississippi Palisades State Park located just north of the City. The park has 2,550 acres of natural recreation, and offers great potential for future public/private tourist lodging and retail services. The City has proximate low-cost land that would lend itself well for affordable year-round tourist lodging facilities.

Excellent retail and office sites are available throughout the City. Savanna offers a unique combination of new construction and well-preserved historic downtown sites, both of which are in close proximity to one another. Commercial sites lie along the City's Main Street, Chicago Avenue (State Route 84), and US Route 52/State Route 64. The City and its many agents offer planned incentives and flexible development requirements. A new supermarket (Sullivan's County Market) and national retail chain (Pamida) have already begun to enjoy Savanna's commercial market advantages.

Residents stroll up and down the viable historic downtown, which is a sidewalk forum for the community. The old commercial center exhibits well-preserved architecture and it still serves as the City's CBD. The City's historical downtown has 78 well-preserved storefronts with a low vacancy rate. It offers a unique combination of retail and service-oriented businesses that are easily accessible by cars and pedestrians alike. Savanna intends to improve their downtown by enhancing, not altering, the old structures. They would also like to add more public and private green space, improve the conditions of walkways, add historic lighting and promote upper-level use for office space and mixed uses. The future plan incorporates a planned walking and biking path to improve pedestrian and bike accessibility and promote more foot traffic through the CBD. The path would link-up the City's river front Marquette Park with Palisades Park and the expanded CBD. CBD capital improvements included an outdoor pavilion, a farmers' market, 3-on-3 basketball courts, abundant landscaping, recreation equipment, and appropriate civic décor. The CBD will serve as a community focal point, a place for community gatherings and festival events while providing tourists with a clean and peaceful rest area.

Savanna is promoting new and/or improved housing and park areas for its residents. It realizes that careful growth management and improved maintenance enforcement of its existing neighborhoods are important factors to create a better and more attractive living environment. Savanna will offer a variety of housing options that will serve residents at all points of their lives. Savanna offers a small town atmosphere where homes are within close walking distance to the CBD and are available for a very low price. The City's new Master Plan calls for a variety of new and old housing options for all ages and income groups. The proposed subdivisions boast optimal locations with wooded lots, neighborhood parks and scenic views of the Mississippi Valley below. These areas also offer low cost land for affordable development of seasonal and residential homes. In addition to affordability, some sites offer proximity to new schools and permit both single and multi-family opportunities. Equally important to increased livability is each neighborhood's proximity to a public park. The City demonstrated its commitment to civic beauty by proposing new public parks, a recreation path, and an "Adopt a Neighborhood Program."

With its promising redevelopment outlook and natural beauty, the desirability of doing business and living in Savanna will no longer be the secret it once was. A key component in Savanna's improved economical future is the redevelopment of the Army Depot. The redeveloped Depot should supply the City residents with new job opportunities and promote spin-off business within the City to existing and future industries. The City has been preparing a Master Plan to promote new home construction in order to meet the residential needs of these new employees and provide housing for other local housing market needs. Spurred on by the anticipated private and public reinvestment of the Army Depot and guided by a new Master Plan, Savanna has the unique opportunity to relive its past prosperity.
(This information was submitted to Key to the City by the City of Savanna)


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