Houses on wheels: South Pekin’s early history

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in December 2013 before the launch of this blog . . .

Houses on wheels: South Pekin’s early history

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Among the items in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection are two small volumes on the history of the village of South Pekin. One of the volumes is a reprint of Polk’s South Pekin Directory for 1937, published when Glenn Draper was South Pekin’s mayor. The other is a 48-page book entitled, “The Whirlwind History of South Pekin,” compiled Ann Fisher Bradburn and Betty Metroff Robinson for the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society.

The book’s title is a play on words, a reference to the tornado of 1938 that destroyed much of South Pekin and killed 11 of the village’s residents. At the time, South Pekin was still a young community, having existed as an incorporated village for not quite 21 years.

Settlement in the South Pekin area, however, began in the 1820s, with the first arrival of white settlers to what would soon become Tazewell County. South Pekin is located in Sections 27 and 34 of Cincinnati Township, which was formed in 1850. Originally the township stretched further north into Pekin, but those northern sections – including land first settled in 1824 by Jonathan Tharp of Pekin – later were reassigned to Pekin Township. In fact, as this column as previously related, if things had gone differently, the city of Pekin would have been named Cincinnati, after the city in Ohio, the state where the Tharps and other early Tazewell County settlers had come from.

South Pekin owes its origin to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. The village began as a railway station, and rail cars had a very prominent place in South Pekin’s area days, as Bradburn and Robinson explain in their history. Their account of the founding of South Pekin is on pages 6-7, and is excerpted here:

“The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad made a series of corporate decisions that eventually led to the founding of the village of South Pekin, Illinois. The railroad constructed its line from Nelson, Illinois (on the ‘Omaha Line’) to Peoria, Illinois in 1901. In 1904 C&NW employees discovered a large coalfield near Staunton in Macoupin County. The railroad purchased approximately 30,000 acres of the coal bearing land for $1,010,613.00. Mine shafts were sunk, and other mining facilities were built. The town of Benld was laid out to provide housing for workers. On June 4, 1903 the Macoupin County Railroad was incorporated to link with the Chicago and Alton Railroad (this line was contracted to haul coal to Peoria for the C&NW). Chicago and Northwestern quickly became dissatisfied with the reliability of that new line to supply the needed coal. A few years later C&NW determined to build a line of their own to access the coal field and carry freight between Chicago and St. Louis. The announcement of the new line from Peoria to a point near Girard was made on January 27, 1911, and the St. Louis, Peoria, and Northwestern Railroad was incorporated on February 23, 1911.

“Surveyors laid out the new line to be as straight as possible with little effort given to passing through existing communities. It missed Pekin by one mile and Springfield by three or four miles. By March of 1912, all of the right of way had been purchased and grading was started. (The new line used portions of the tracks of other incorporated railroads.) C&NW needed a water, refueling, and repair station midway on the new line. The first choice for the location of this new station was Green Valley, but protests from residents there prompted a change of plans. A new location was chosen, and the railroad and its employees began to build the new station that became South Pekin.’

The vintage photograph, reproduced in the 1967 South Pekin Golden Jubilee booklet, shows McFadden Flats, the area where South Pekin's original residents lived in what was known as Box Car Village.

The vintage photograph, reproduced in the 1967 South Pekin Golden Jubilee booklet, shows McFadden Flats, the area where South Pekin’s original residents lived in what was known as Box Car Village.

“Surveyors and the men hired by the railroad spent periods of time at the site to grade the right of way, lay track, and build facilities such as the roundhouse, water tower, etc. The workers also drained a swampy area that had been utilized by area farmers for duck hunting. The first permanent resident family, Al Casper, his wife, and daughter, arrived on Christmas Day in 1912. They moved into an existing farmhouse. At least one new resident family set up housekeeping in a tent. As more families arrived, the railroad gave them boxcars to use as homes. At first the boxcars were on the tracks of the new railyard. The cars were moved frequently, and residents had to search for their homes! Eventually the cars were moved on to a siding that became known as McFadden Flats. Mike McFadden initiated this more permanent solution for the houses on wheels. Later, some of the cars were removed from the wheels and dragged by teams of horses or mules from the tracks to lots in the new community. Connecting several cars together in various configurations made large homes. Peaked roofs, and amenities such as indoor plumbing, running water, central heating, and electricity were added when they became available, or when the families could afford to add them to their homes . . . .”

Having gotten off to a “rolling start,” the Village of South Pekin was incorporated on April 12, 1917.

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