By Jared Olar
Last week’s column featured the Civil War discharge paper of William H. Bates of Pekin, a notable item from the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society’s recently acquired Bates collection. Another remarkable document in the Society’s Bates collection is a relic from the early period of the Era of the Railroad – it’s a payroll ledger sheet for the Pekin, Lincoln & Decatur Railway.
Bearing the date of October 1870, and browned, creased, and partly crumbling with age, the payroll sheet records the wages paid out on Oct. 15, 1870, to men who worked for the Pekin Railway Construction Company. It’s not clear how this page ended up in the possession of Bates, who was then engaged in the newspaper and printing trades. Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” pages 735-740, tells of the founding and construction of the P., L. & D. Railway, but Bates is not named among the men involved in the company, nor do his published biographical essays mention any connection with this railroad. Perhaps he acquired this sheet while compiling Pekin’s history for one of his local publications.
Chapman’s account goes to great lengths to stress how important this particular railroad was to the people of Tazewell County. “No other of the several railroads traversing this county seem so closely identified with the interests and history of Tazewell county as the P., L. & D. It is a road in which every one takes a commendable local pride,” Chapman says. The 1873 Atlas Map of Tazewell County traces the railroad’s route south out of Pekin through Cincinnati Township, then through Sand Prairie Township to the west of the lost town of Circleville, down to Green Valley where the road veered east through Malone Township to Delavan in Delavan Township, finally heading southeast out of Tazewell County on the way to Lincoln and ultimately Decatur.
The company was chartered in 1867, and its founding members were Benjamin S. Prettyman, Teis Smith, Peter Weyhrich, R. B. Latham, A. M. Miller, John Wyatt, M. Wemple, J. F. D. Elliott, S. C. Bean, Henry B. Durfee, and Luber Burrows. Prettyman was the company’s first president. Subsequently, in 1869, other prominent and wealthy investors joined the venture, including Columbus R. Cummings (founder of the Cummings Estate which donated James Field to Pekin’s public schools), Gordis R. Cobleigh, and John B. Cohrs (whose wife was one of the founding members of the Ladies Library Association, predecessor of the Pekin Public Library). Cobleigh became the general superintendent of the P., L. & D Railway.
While Chapman’s account lists the investors and directors of the company whose money and influence made the construction and maintenance of this railroad possible, this payroll ledger sheet provides a list of 26 men who actually did the work of building the railroad, doing the grading work and laying down the ties and steel rails. Most of the workmen were paid at a rate of $1.75 a day or $2 a day, but a few only a dollar a day. The workmen’s names are handwritten, though, and the handwriting is often not easy to make out – not only the names that were written (and often misspelled) by the company staff member who drew up the ledger sheet, but especially the employees’ signatures that testify they had received their wages.
Among the names that are easier to make out are Thomas Doyle, John Leitz, John Coakley, John O’Brien, James Simcack (as spelled by the staff member, though the signature looks more like Simpcott), Ubbo Blompot (signed Bloempott), L. Cramar (signed Cremer), Albert Ubben, and D. Sathoff. The Bloempott and Ubben families were German immigrants who settled in the Pekin area around that time, and long-time Pekin residents will recall Bloompott Florist & Greenhouse at the corner of Hamilton and Eighth streets, which went out of business about 10 years ago and is now the location of Trouble Free Plumbing.
Next week’s From the Local History Room column will spotlight the contents of one of the old daybooks from the TCGHS Bates collection.