This mural, painted by Mark Monken, depicts the Coles County Courthouse within the Charleston downtown square as it appeared around the turn of the century (c. 1900) - a time when Charleston was a booming city. In an excellent use of perspective, this mural illustrates a lively courthouse square, bustling with activity. If you look closely at the individuals painted in the foreground, you will see the faces of current Charleston residents.
The Historic Charleston mural depicts a town that has not yet been affected by the automobile age. During the period shown here, the central courthouse square was still the political, economic, and social center of the region. Most of the town's activity remained on the square as the courthouse and major businesses attracted many visitors from the surrounding countryside. This mural is based on a panoramic photograph taken sometime during the first decade of the twentieth century (shown below in two sections).
The photograph illustrates that Charleston was still a horse-and-buggy town at the turn of the century. Within the mural though, the trolly line (called the Interurban) is depicted. The Central Illinois Traction Company opened the interurban railway in 1904, which connected Charleston and Mattoon with electric trolleys. Cars ran every hour from 5:30am to 11:30pm and not only hauled passengers, but mail and freight as well. It reveals one of many innovations in transportation that occurred throughout the nation during the turn of the century.
An accident on August 20, 1907, resulted in the collision of a freight car with a passenger car. Eighteen people died and 50 were injured in what was described at the time as the "world's worst interurban wreck." The incident reveals that sometimes technological innovations come with a high price.
In 1926, the interurban was abandoned for a number of reasons - one of which was the advent of the automobile.
Further questions: How has downtown Charleston changed since the turn of the century? How did the transportation revolution affect the town and its inhabitants? What is the significance of the central courthouse square in American history and life? How does the study of the built environment contribute to our understanding of American history?