People and places come and go. Some leave us just as quickly as they once appeared, and however brief their appearance and however final their disappearance, they all press a mark into our collective consciousness.
After the Standard Oil Company founded the Wood River Refinery in 1907, a new town was developed on inherited land to house and entertain the new working-class inhabitants. In December 1907, former teacher and local politician and businessman Amos Benbow incorporated a tract of land he owned near present-day Wood River that became known as Benbow City.
What began as an encampment of tents and shacks quickly grew into a town. Standard Oil employed hundreds of new workers during early construction and eventually would house thousands. Lots for residences and business sold quickly in Benbow City. Billed as the largest refinery in the world, they not only refined oil, but also built their own cars for shipping. Barrels were to be manufactured at a cooperage in Benbow. Anheuser-Busch, East St. Louis and New Athens, Wagner, and Columbia Brewing Companies built cold storage plants in Benbow. A-B also built residences and East St. Louis and New Athens built a two-story hotel. It was predicted Benbow City would have 5,000 residents in a few years. The area and residents were described as having the spirit of hustle and energy. The future “great city” was not a dream but a reality.
But that’s not what happened. The city did grow, as would any city that develops around new industry. However, Benbow became more like Tombstone. The Clantons and the McLaurys weren’t gunning for the Earps down at the OK Corral, but it must have seemed that way, at least, to the law-abiding citizens of Wood River and the surrounding towns. Lawlessness, debauchery, robberies, gun fights with police, a very active gambling and prostitution circuit accompanied the several dozen taverns that lined the streets of that small town. Proof can be found in downtown Wood River today. Remaining from the old town are some iron jail cells that sit behind the Wood River Historical Museum and Visitors Center. These terrifying, latter-day Skinner Boxes are a reminder of the lawlessness that permeated old Benbow City.
Mr. Benbow’s pursuit was noble and necessary. He went on to become a successful politician in the area, but his town disappeared. Heavy rains had flooded Wood River Creek in August 1915. Benbow City was inundated, as were parts of Standard Oil. Many of the city’s buildings were too damaged to consider rebuilding. Benbow’s necessary existence faded into obsolescence. Wood River annexed Benbow in 1917. What begins with glorious potential often vanishes, never to emerge again. No longer was it incumbent on Benbow to develop; Standard Oil took over. In the end, Wood River continued to grow and thrive. Sears built houses, a high school was constructed, and a community swimming pool was opened. Many of the houses remain. The high school’s athletic nickname is still “the Oilers,” and although refurbished, the Aquatic Center continues to bring the community together.