The history of the village of Roxana is intertwined with that of the Wood River Refinery.
Before the village existed, Roxana Petroleum built six homes at the plant for supervisors and several dozen cottages nearby for refinery employees. But most workers lived in Alton. Laborers rode the streetcar to the end of the line in Hartford and then walked another mile to the refinery. When construction contractor Raymond O. Hancock & Co. built new housing near the refinery, the “Hancock Houses” enticed more laborers to live in the otherwise unpopulated area.
Construction of “Hancock Houses” near the Roxana Petroleum refinery circa 1917-1918. Photograph by Mr. Koch of Alton. MCHS photograph 1985-175.
In early 1921, community residents petitioned the county and state to incorporate as the village of Roxana. The 1930 United States Census counted 1,140 residents in Roxana; two-thirds of those employed worked at the oil refinery. The refinery hired engineers, foremen, pipefitters, firefighters, machinists, electricians, welders, and painters. The census also recorded chauffeurs, clerks, janitors, and even a gardener and a registered nurse who all worked at the refinery.
The monthly rent for Roxana families averaged $24.69 in 1930. On Roxana Terrace, white-collar refinery workers paid about $34.75 in rent each month. Refinery manager E. Herman Schippers’ rent was $60 per month. He also employed two live-in maids.
Over the next decade, the village’s population grew by 20%. In 1941, Roxana’s children attended local schools and could catch a movie at the Roxana Theatre. The village also had its own fire department. The refinery contributed more than 90% of the tax revenue funding these amenities.
The village continued to grow. In 1957, Roxana treasurer W.R. Armes boasted of its amenities:
[T]here are now three large grocery stores, two garages, dry goods store, lumber yard, hardware store, two coal and ice dealers, service station, two cabinet and wood-working plants, real estate and insurance offices, two electrical and appliance dealers, dry cleaners, bicycle shop, a general fix-it shop, several beauty shops and numerous small enterprises. There is also a large theater and two photo shops.
Source: “Village of Roxana began and grew with Shell refinery,” The Journal 38, no. 3 (Sept. 19, 1957).
According to census records, 2,090 people lived in Roxana in 1960. Living near the refinery meant tolerating frequent noxious odors and occasional dangerous explosions. Lightning strikes posed the greatest fire and explosion threat to the Wood River Refinery’s “tank farm” of petrochemical storage tanks. Explosions shook the homes of refinery neighbors.
The aftermath of a fire at the Wood River Refinery. The photograph was taken May 15, 1941. The fire started when a bolt of lightening struck an oil storage tank the previous morning. MCHS Edwardsville Intelligencer photograph collection.
But by 1980, automation had rendered many refinery jobs obsolete. Employment at the refinery dwindled to a total workforce of 1,800 by 1985. Roxana’s population declined and aged. During the first decade of the 2000s, Roxana’s population remained steady at about 1,545 residents; one in four were 55 or older.