Teepees along the railroad tracks?

Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in December 2011 before the launch of this blog . . .

Teepees along the railroad tracks?

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

This week we’ll revisit a few recent “From the Local History Room” columns as we see what we can learn from a copy of a vintage Pekin photograph on file in the library’s Local History Room. The photo is remarkable because it shows a long row of teepees or wigwams between some railroad tracks.

The copy of this photo, a halftone image, was clipped from a newspaper or magazine, and is accompanied by a caption that informs us that the photographer was none other than Pekin’s own Henry Hobart Cole, whose life we have reviewed in this column previously.

In this vintage photograph taken by Henry H. Cole (1833-1925), a row of wigwams stretches northward between the railroad tracks in an area of northwest Pekin just to the west of Second Street.

The caption does not say when Cole took the photograph, but several clues both in the photo and the caption help us to narrow down the period when it was taken. These clues also show where the photo was taken, and suggest who placed the wigwams in that unlikely location – or rather, who didn’t place them there.

The caption says, “The long row of wigwams, as you look northward along the tracks of the Peoria & Pekin Union Railway, east of Pekin Lake, represents the site of the largest village of Pottowattamie Indians in this region at the advent of the white settler . . .”

By consulting some of the library’s old maps of Pekin and tracing the rail lines, we can see that the foreground of the photo shows the area where Second Street and Market Street used to intersect – today that stretch of Market Street is a bicycle path. The row of wigwams appears to start around the area of Catherine and State streets.

Obviously the wigwams were not actual Native American dwellings — no one can live in the dangerous plot of ground between two lines of rail. Also, as mentioned in previous columns, Pekin’s Indian population was deported to Kansas in the mid- to late 1830s, while the railroad did not come to Pekin until 1859. These wigwams, rather, indicated the area of Pekin where an Indian village formerly was located. Perhaps they were a display for a community fair or celebration.

The caption provides two more clues as to when Cole took the photo. It says the village was “fully one-half mile in length” and “on the high ground leading along Main street from the present gas works southward.” Similarly, W.H. Bates’ 1902 essay, “Historic Pekin!,” says the village was “on the high ground just east of the Gas Company’s coal sheds, on what is today First Street.”

Gas lights were installed on Pekin’s streets in 1866, so the gas works were constructed by that year, which means the photo can be no older than 1866. Similarly, the caption’s reference to “the Peoria & Pekin Union Railway” suggests a date no earlier than 1880, the year that railroad company was incorporated.

An 1877 aerial “View of Pekin Ill.” in the Local History Room collection depicts the area shown in this photo, including the frame house on the right and the large brick structure on the left. Both the 1877 aerial view and the photo show an overall absence of houses and industrial or business structures in that part of Pekin. Cole went into semi-retirement in 1911, but we would expect to see more buildings in the photo if it was taken that late in his career.

From what we’ve seen, it seems most likely that Cole took the photo during the 1880s or perhaps the 1890s. Pekin’s first street fair opened on Oct. 12, 1898, and a second street fair ran from Oct. 11-14, 1899. Could these wigwams have been an attraction at one of those fairs?

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