The American Miners’ Association, organized in West Belleville in 1861 to represent the interests of workers, was the first mining union. Achieving little in an unregulated industry, unions came into violent conflict with mine owners by the end of the 19th century. The deadly 1898 mining conflict in Virden, south of Springfield, was a harbinger of darker days to come. By 1900, the economy of Southern Illinois was largely dependent on coal mining as labor relations continued to decline, culminating in the 1922 massacre of nineteen strikebreakers in Williamson County following the shooting deaths of three strikers.
More tragedy followed when the mile-wide Tri-State Tornado of 1925 raged at more than 60 miles per hour through Gorham, Murphysboro, De Soto, Bush, West Frankfort, and Parrish. Part of a storm cell stretching from Mississippi to Michigan, with winds estimated at 300 miles per hour, the tornado killed almost 700, injured more than 2000, and left thousands homeless, without food, and victimized by looters. Southern Illinois never fully recovered.
Extensive poverty in Southern Illinois during the Great Depression, due largely to mine unemployment, attracted the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used photographs of impoverished living conditions to raise support for his social programs. His Civilian Conservation Corps projects in the 1930s provided some relief, but it was war industry during the 1940s that generated the most improvement.
Crab Orchard Lake, developed by the CCC west of Marion, supported a large ammunition plant during the war. Explosive devices and parts were manufactured in Anna and Cairo. Fluorite mined in Hardin and Pope Counties factored into the production of steel and aluminum. Plants across the region manufactured a variety of other products for soldiers, equipment, and weapons.
Educational opportunities also grew as a result of the war. Pilots trained at Parks Air College near Cahokia, and officers trained at Southern Illinois Normal University, renamed Southern Illinois University by the Illinois General Assembly in 1947.
After World War II, education benefits for military veterans fed the university’s expansion. Delyte W. Morris, who served as president of the university from 1948 to 1970, transformed SIU from a teacher’s college to a cosmopolitan research institution with visionary faculty, including futurist architect Buckminster Fuller, anthropologist and choreographer Katherine Dunham, and opera star Marjorie Lawrence.
As coal production continued to decline and large scale agriculture increased, populations became concentrated around larger towns with greater economic opportunities. Education and manufacturing have become major economic draws. Fresh produce is abundant, from local farms and orchards to vineyards supporting local wineries. The natural beauty of the Shawnee National Forest, heritage centers like the General John A. Logan Museum in Murphysboro, and events like the Southern Illinois Music Festival, Big Muddy Film Festival, and Makanda’s Vulture Fest attract tourism to the region.
Chaotic weather continues to challenge Southern Illinois, from tornadoes to the super derecho of 2009 and flooding along the Mississippi River, but the resilient communities of Southern Illinois draw closer together facing each challenge.