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Illinois Bicentennial: How the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana ended – News – Journal Star

Editor's Note: The Illinois Bicentennial Weekly Series is presented by the media editors of the Illinois Associated Press and the Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are writing stories about state history, places and key moments before the bicentennial on December 3, 2018. Stories published to this date can be found at

Champaign- Urbana owes its importance to the University of Illinois, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign owes its existence to Clark Robinson Griggs.

If it had not been for Griggs, probably the largest political operator in Champaign County history – the U of I or, as it was then known, the Industrial University of Illinois, would have been located in Jacksonville, Lincoln, Bloomington or perhaps Chicago.

However, there is no Griggs Hall in the university, there are no Griggs statues on campus. Even in Urbana, where he served for a year as mayor, there is only one street four blocks long that bears his name.

One can only guess why Griggs' name has been forgotten by all but history books. . Maybe the university is a little embarrassed about the man who could be called his father.

You see, Griggs was a bit of a scoundrel.

Much of Griggs' story is deliciously cunning. The effort comes from an interview he gave to Allan Nevins (who later became known as the father of oral histories) shortly before his death.

Historians have discussed some details of the Griggs story, but there is no doubt that

Griggs was a native of Massachusetts who came to Champaign County in 1859. He purchased land north of Philo on Yankee Ridge, a place named for all the inhabitants of New England. who settled there.

At the beginning of the Civil War, he enlisted in the Union Army and served as a sutler, a man who sold food and drink to soldiers.

After the war, Griggs was elected to the Illinois House. He had already served two terms in the Massachusetts Legislature and apparently had learned a lot there about political maneuvers. Griggs went to Springfield, a first-year lawmaker who did not act as such.

In a 1915 interview shortly before his death, Griggs told Nevins how he helped lead the university to a marshy and sparsely settled community.

It started with $ 40,000 allocated by the supervisors of the Champaign and Urbana municipalities and Griggs' decision to travel to most of the state (everywhere except Jacksonville, Lincoln and Bloomington), meet with other state representatives and obtain support for Champaign. -Urbana.

In five weeks, he said, he interviewed 40 members of the House and received promises from 15 of them.

He then met with the governor and lieutenant governor and with the presidents of the Republican state and Democratic parties. In those talks he learned that the postwar Legislature would be occupied with a series of special interests.

Southern Illinois wanted a prison; Peoria and Springfield were fighting for what would be the state capital, and Chicago wanted to deepen the Chicago River and develop a system of parks and boulevards. Such knowledge would be important in the future exchange of votes.

When the Legislature entered into session in January 1867, the Champaign County Committee moved to the Leland Hotel in Springfield, where for the next three months it maintained the main reception room and a suite of living rooms and bedrooms. The halls were used to entertain legislators and their constituents with drinks, refreshments or sumptuous oyster or quail dinners. The legislators received cigars and tickets for the theater. At the end of the session, Griggs organized a special train to take the legislators to Champaign-Urbana.

None of the other communities seeking university had a similar agreement.

Within the House of Houses, Griggs demonstrated his ability to apply as a speaker.

For two days, the House of Representatives was tied in an interminable vote. The night after the second day, an intermediary visited Griggs and asked him what it would take to get him out of the race. Griggs wanted the chairmanship of the Committee on Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, the committee that would listen to all bills about the location of the university, and the right to elect its members. He got it, he retired from the race for a speaker and, therefore, he was able to control the legislation.

As the session progressed, advocates from the other communities, particularly from Jacksonville, wondered why legislation on the location of the university was not being applied. heard on the committee.

Griggs would explain that he had convened the committee, but that he could not obtain a quorum. He then publicly announced another committee meeting, but privately told his members not to show up.

This continued until the end of the session when Griggs was convinced he had the votes.

Finally, on February 20, the legislation, which named Champaign as the site of the university, came to an end.

An amendment was made to replace Jacksonville with Champaign. Failed 61-20.

Another motion was made to replace Normal. Failed 58-26.

A third motion was made to insert Lincoln for Champaign. Failed 60-21.

Then, the legislation appointing Champaign was voted on and approved 67-10. The Senate did the same on February 25.

Three days later, Governor Richard Oglesby signed the legislation.

Opponents accused Griggs of buying the legislators with a "muddy bottom." Jonathan Turner, who had sought the university for Jacksonville, said the Legislature had exhibited "a degree of corruption, hypocrisy, drunkenness and debauchery unparalleled in the history of Illinois."

The state was not even 50 years old. There is a much greater story of corruption ahead.

Tom Kacich of (Champaign) News-Gazette can be found at

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