Steamboat deck hands run riot in early Pekin

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Earlier this month, we reviewed “Early Times in Pekin and Tazewell County,” an essay written by Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates and published in Shade’s Monthly, May 1913 (reprinted in the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society Monthly, June 2017, page 1945).

We also recalled the Little Mine Riot of 1894, the most serious civil disturbance in Tazewell County history. That, of course, wasn’t the first time public safety and order were disrupted in our area. As it happens, Bates’ essay from May 1913 also tells of the first riot in Pekin’s history, which took place about a year after Pekin became established as a city under Illinois law:

“The first riot took place in Pekin, July 4th, 1851, when the deck hands of one of over one hundred steamboats plying the waters of the Illinois, under the influence of too much ‘fire water,’ nearly terrorized the inhabitants of the young city. The citizens rallied to the support of the marshal, and after a hard fight, the rioters were arrested and fined. The boat officials would not pay their fines, so with a ball and chain locked to a leg of each rioter, they had to work out their fines by repairing the steamboat levees.”

Pekin’s first riot in 1851 is said to have been the fault of about 30 or 40 drunken deckhands of a steamboat. Shown here at Pekin in this photograph that Henry H. Cole took circa 1890 is another later Illinois River steamboat, the Mazileon, whose deckhands were not, as far as we know, responsible for any riots.

Bates does not identify the city marshal who suppressed the riot. He refers to the same riot in the historical essay he wrote for the old Pekin City Directories, but neither does he name the city marshal in his city directories. That and one or two other details of that incident may be found in a 12-page history of the Pekin Police Department prepared in 1942 as part of an annual report for the city government. We reviewed that 12-page history in this column in March 2013, in which we told of the appointment of Pekin’s first city marshal, Thomas Cloudas, by Pekin’s first mayor, Bernard Bailey. The March 2013 column summarized the incident in these words:

“In those days, Pekin had very much the character of a rough frontier town, and the city marshall had much more to do besides rounding up stray hogs and cattle. Perhaps most of the criminal offenses in Pekin from the 1850s through the 1870s involved alcohol-fueled violence. One such incident was Pekin’s first riot on July 4, 1851, when a steamboat’s drunken deck hands ran wild throughout the city. Cloudas rapidly collected a force of Pekin citizens who engaged in a battle with the deck hands in the city streets and finally, after a hard fight, managed to subdue and arrest the offenders.”

It apparently was the same riot that Pekin old-timer Emil Schilling remembered in a newspaper article published in the July 24, 1933 Pekin Daily Times. In June 2013, this column discussed that article and Schilling’s 1933 recollections of the riot and the punishment that the court imposed on the rioters, whom Schilling said were black (a detail not mentioned by Bates). Schilling believed (whether rightly or not) helped to foster Pekin’s reputation as a place where blacks were unwelcome.

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