Was there something fishy about Illinois’ nickname?

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Once upon a time, back in the Age of the Mississippi River Steamboat, there was a packet steamer that was named after the state of Illinois.

The boat, a side-wheeler, was designed and built in Pittsburgh, Pa., by Capt. Richard C. Grey, superintendent of construction of the Northern Line. She was a 523.77 ton vessel, 230 feet long, 36 foot beam, with a 5 foot 5 inch hold. Designed for speed, her cylinders were 22 inches in diameter and she had a 7-foot stroke, which is what made it possible for her to set a record in 1867 for the 700-mile run from St. Louis, Mo., to St. Paul, Minn., making it in just 69 hours and 48 minutes. Along with a sister steamer named after the state of Iowa, she was launched in 1860 and plied the waters of the Upper Mississippi for 12 years.

Since her sister ship was named after the state of Iowa, her sister was christened the Hawkeye State. And since she herself was named after the state of Illinois, she was given the name Sucker State.

No, really, that was her name.

“Sucker State.”

Because, though the nickname is rarely heard anymore, in 1860 it was Illinois’ best known nickname – even more popular than “the Prairie State,” which was the name of two other Mississippi River steamboats named after the state of Illinois back then, the first built in 1847 and the second in 1850. (These and other steamboat facts may be found in William J. Petersen’s paper, “Floating Namesakes of the Sucker State: Some Upper Mississippi Steamboats,” published 1940 by the Illinois State Historical Society in “Papers in Illinois History and Transactions for the Year 1939.”)

The Northern Line packet steamer Sucker State, which was christened with an old nickname of the state of Illinois, plied the waters of the Mississippi River from 1860 to 1872.

I know what you’re going to ask next. No doubt you’re wondering why our neighbors acquired nifty nicknames like the Hawkeye State, the Show-Me State, the Bluegrass State, the Hoosier State, and the Badger State, while good ole Illinois got stuck with “the Sucker State.”

One may be forgiven for supposing it has something to do with Illinois’ tradition of corrupt politics and government (a long history that our Illinois Bicentennial Series has shown to have begun in the days of the Illinois and Indiana territories). But no, that’s not reason.

The probably unsatisfying answer to the question, “Why ‘Sucker State’?” is, “We really don’t know for sure.”

But historians have made a few pretty interesting guesses, and one of their guesses seems to be most likely to be the right one.

First let’s address what looks like the least probable guess. According to the website NetState.com, this guess is found in Malcolm Townsend’s 1890 “U.S.: An Index to the United States of America.” Townsend says that some people in his days sought the explanation of “Sucker State” in common lore about the old pioneers of the Illinois prairie. “Evidently, the prairies were filled, in many places by crawfish holes. Travelers were able to suck cool pure water from these holes using long, hollow reeds. According to Malcolm Townsend, whenever a traveler would happen upon one of these holes, he would cry out ‘A sucker, a sucker!’

This guess has little to go for it, being unsupported by earlier historical witnesses. There’s no good reason to believe the nickname derives from the literal act of sucking water (something that is hardly unique or distinctive about Illinois’ pioneers).

The most common explanation for the nickname was that which is given by Charles C. Chapman in his 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” page 78:

“The low cognomen of ‘Sucker,’ as applied to Illinoisans, is said to have had its origin at the Galena lead mines. In an early day, when these extensive mines were being worked, men would run up the Mississippi river in steamboats in the spring, work the lead mines, and in the fall return, thus establishing, as was supposed, a similitude between their migratory habits and those of the fishy tribe called ‘Suckers.’ For this reason the Illinoisans have ever since been distinguished by the epithet ‘Suckers.’ Those who stayed at the mines over winter were mostly from Wisconsin, and were called ‘Badgers.’ One spring the Missourians poured into the mines in such numbers that the State was said to have taken a puke, and the offensive appellation of ‘Pukes’ was afterward applied to all Missourians.”

Townsend in his 1890 book mentions the same explanation: “An old miner said to them ‘Ye put me in mind of suckers, they do go up the river in the spring spawn, and all return down ag’in in the fall.’

In this guess, then, it’s not Illinoisans sucking water, but Illinois miners being compared to migratory sucker fish.

This guess is both earlier and more plausible than the above mentioned one. Even so, it may strike one as a bit too creative or strained – as if someone was trying a bit too hard to explain not only why Illinoisans were known as “Suckers,” but also why Illinoisans used the derogatory term “Pukes” for their neighbors in Missouri.

In questions like these, the earliest known explanation is not always the correct one, but it usually is. For this particular question, the earliest explanation is that given by Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford in his 1854 “A History of Illinois.” Ford said the first settlers of southern Illinois came to be called “Suckers” as an analogy to the “suckers” (young sprouts and shoots) of the tobacco plant.

“These poor emigrants from the slave States were jeeringly and derisively called ‘suckers,’ because they were asserted to be a burthen upon the people of wealth; and when they removed to Illinois they were supposed to have stripped themselves off from the parent stem and gone away to perish like the ‘sucker’ of the tobacco plant. This name was given to the Illinoisans at the Galena mines by the Missourians.”

It is probably no accident that both Ford and Chapman mention the mines at Galena – it seems that really is where the nickname “Sucker” was first given to Illinoisans. Ford’s explanation appears earlier than Chapman’s explanation, which makes Ford’s explanation more likely – but it cannot be held to be certainly true.

As it happens, it was also by analogy that plant sprouts first came to be called “suckers.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says “sucker” is a Middle English word from the late 1300s meaning a young child who has not yet been weaned. By the 1570s the word had begun to be applied to plant shoots, since the shoots were like little “children” of the plant. Sucker fish aren’t mentioned in literature until 1753, and it wasn’t until 1836 that the American slang term “sucker,” meaning a fool, someone with childlike naïveté who is easily tricked, first appeared (and no, it was not in reference to Illinoisans).

Whether the nickname derives from reed straws, fish, tobacco sprouts, or fools, the Illinois General Assembly in 1955 decided the state should instead be known as the “Land of Illinois,” voting to adopt that as our state’s official nickname. Today “Prairie State” is still sometimes heard, but “Sucker State” is rare, heard very little outside the circles of Illinois historical study.

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#capt-richard-c-grey, #galena, #gov-thomas-ford, #illinois-bicentennial, #land-of-lincoln, #prairie-state, #riverboats, #steamboats, #sucker-state

Sober voters were rare in early elections

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in July 2013 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Sober voters were rare in early elections

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

We have recently recalled the story of the beginnings of permanent white settlement in Tazewell County. With the establishment of new settlements came the rudiments of governmental structures and civic life – and that means politics and formal elections.

William H. Bates wrote the first published history of Pekin, which was included in the 1870 Pekin City Directory. One of the features of Bates’ history is his compilation of Tazewell County and Pekin “firsts,” and thus on pages 7-8 of the city directory we find the story of what Bates called Tazewell County’s first election. (It would be more accurate to say that it was the first election to be held in what would later become Tazewell County.)

Bates wrote, “The first election was held at the house of Isaac Dillon (sic) on the first Monday in August, 1826, this being, at that time, a part of Peoria county. The election was for Governor and other officers. We are not informed who received a majority of the votes nor the number polled, but the day was a gala one and of sufficient importance to be commemorated by a banquet. When the voting was concluded Jesse Dillon went to a neighboring cornfield and procuring an arm-full of roasting-ears, they were boiled, together with a ham, in a fifteen gallon iron kettle, and then served to the assembled crowd of election officers and yeomanry, constituting an out-door feast worthy of the occasion and heartily and thankfully partaken of by the people.”

The 1887 Pekin City Directory, pp.11-12, repeats that account word-for-word, but adds at the end, “Nathan Dillon was elected Commissioner on this occasion.

The story of Nathan Dillon, traditionally known as the first white settler in Tazewell County, was told in a recent Local History Room column, including extensive excerpts from Dillon’s own account of his arrival that had been quoted in Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County.”

In addition to the story of his pioneer adventures, Dillon also wrote an account of the beginnings of civic institutions and elections in Tazewell County, and Chapman also incorporated that into his county history, on pages 711-712.

Dillon’s recollections begin with his tale of the election at Springfield in August 1822. According to Dillon, whiskey (that is, the excessive consumption of whiskey) was the fuel that powered the engine of state and local elections in those days, as politicians tried to win elections by getting the voters drunk out of their minds. (Perhaps not too different than elections today?)

Dillon said that the candidates, Kinney, Parkinson and Edwards “had a long bench ranged along side of the court-hose, on which they set their liquors. The polls were held in the interior. We all got plenty to drink . . . and a general frolic occurred; but what has surprised me as I have reflected upon these early days, we had no fighting. The great evil was, that every candidate had to fill his portmanteau with whisky, and go around and see and treat every voter and his wife and family with the poisonous stuff, or stand a chance of being defeated. . . .

In the winter of 1823, I emigrated to what is now called Dillon Settlement, in this county, 10 miles from Pekin, and 17 miles from Peoria, where I spent the season in quietude; my nearest neighbor living in Peoria, except one by the name of Avery, who had raised his cabin at Funk’s Fill. But things did not remain in this condition long; for during the same winter the Legislature made a new county, with Peoria for the county-seat, embracing all the country north of Sangamon county. Phelps, Stephen French and myself were appointed Justices of the Pace, for the new county, which extended east as far as Bloomington and north and west to the State line. We sent our summonses to Chicago and Galena, and they were promptly returned by our constables.

March, 1824, we held an election at Avery’s, Wm. Holland, Joseph Smith and myself were elected County Commissioners. The whole county was embraced in one election district. The number of votes polled was 20; had some whisky on the occasion, but it was well tempered, having been imported a long way by water; and we did not succeed in getting on as great a spree as we did at Springfield.”

Dillon’s account ends at that point. Chapman then tells of the August 1826 election – but Chapman’s account is almost a verbatim transcription of Bates’ story from the 1870 Pekin City Directory, even though Chapman didn’t using quotation marks. The only real differences between Bates and Chapman are that Chapman corrects Bates’ mistaken reference to “Isaac” Dillon (which was an error for “Nathan” Dillon), and also adds to Bates’ statement about the feast “thankfully partaken of by the people.”

To that, Chapman added the tongue-in-cheek comment, “nor do we know that whisky was served, yet we cannot say it was not.”

#drunk-voting, #early-elections, #illinois-bicentennial, #jesse-dillon, #nathan-dillon, #stephen-french, #voting, #whiskey, #william-holland

The Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in Aug. 2012 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

The Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

One of the worst railroad disasters in Illinois history was the Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887.

The disaster happened in Livingston County, not Tazewell County, so at first glance one might not think it was relevant to Tazewell County history. Nevertheless, the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room has a file specifically on the Great Chatsworth Train Wreck.

A look into that file will quickly reveal the local connection. The main item in the file is a photograph of the disaster that had been reprinted in 1927. The photo caption says, “Although it happened in 1887, all of 40 years ago, one need only say ‘Chatsworth wreck’ in this part of the country and everyone knows what is meant. This picture of the famous wreck belongs to Chris Ziebold, Sr., 1213 Henrietta street, Pekin.

Notably, this photo was the basis for one of the engravings that illustrated the Harper’s Weekly account of the wreck in the issue dated Aug. 20, 1887.

This photograph of the Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887 was owned by the late Chris Ziebold of Pekin, and was used as the basis for an engraving that illustrated the Harper’s Weekly report on the wreck.

This Harper’s Weekly drawing illustrating its report of the Chatsworth train crash is clearly based on the above photograph.

However, besides the local connection of the photograph, the disaster itself, in which at least 80 people died and probably hundreds were injured, touched the lives of many people throughout central Illinois. The train’s passengers no doubt included residents of Tazewell County.

The wreck, which happened shortly before midnight on Aug. 10, 1887, has been ranked as either the second or third deadliest train disaster of the 19th century. The number of dead has been placed at between 81 and 85 (reports at the time estimated more than 100 dead) and the number of injured anywhere from 169 to 372.

On the evening of Aug. 10, a Toledo, Peoria & Western train pulled out of Peoria, heading east through Eureka and Chenoa on the way to Niagara Falls. The train included two steam engines, six fully loaded passenger cars, six sleeper cars and three cars for luggage (and perhaps more cars). Aboard the train were as many as 700 people who had been attracted by a special offer to visit the famous falls on the New York/Canadian border.

At a point about three miles east of Chatsworth, the train began to accelerate down a slope and reached a speed of about 40 mph. At this point the train began to cross a wooden trestle bridge over a creek. The first engine made it over the bridge, which then collapsed behind it, causing the second engine to slam into a hill side. Most of the cars behind the engine telescoped into the second engine and each other.

One of the survivors, J. M. Tennery, was on the first sleeper, whose passengers escaped with only a fright or minor bruises. He said, “I got out in safety, and the scene presented to the eye and ear was one I wish I could forever efface from my memory.”

Instantly the air was filled with the cries of the wounded and the shrieks of those about to die,” said a report in the Chicago Times. “The groans of men and the screams of women united to make an appalling sound, and above all could be heard the agonizing cries of little children as in some instances they lay pinned alongside their dead parents.

Rescuers and searchers comb the Chatsworth train wreckage in this Harper’s Weekly drawing.

News of the wreck quickly spread by telegraph. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of onlookers descended on the scene, and many of them claimed “souvenirs” or even robbed the dead. That led to erroneous speculation that the bridge had been sabotaged for the purpose of robbing the train. In fact, however, it was a tragedy caused indirectly by the weather.

The summer of 1887 was a drought year in central Illinois. Worried that sparks from their steam engines could start an uncontrollable brush fire, on the day of the wreck the TP&W Railroad conducted a controlled burn near the bridge. Apparently the fire was not completely extinguished, and the flames severely charred the wooden trestle under the bridge, leaving it unable to support the train’s weight.

Four days later, the TP&W gathered the debris into a massive heap and set it on fire, even though it is very likely that not all the dead had been recovered from the wreckage. The burning of the wreck is the reason for the uncertain tallies of the dead and injured or even the exact number of cars in some reports.

Survivors attend their dead loved ones at the scene of the Chatsworth train wreck in this Harper’s Weekly drawing.

In the aftermath of the wreck, railroads shifted away from wooden passenger cars in favor of safer and sturdier steel. Also, not long after, musician Thomas P. Westendorf penned the folk ballad, “The Bridge Was Burned at Chatsworth” (also known as “The Chatsworth Wreck”), which was sung at a 1937 memorial service. A state historical marker was placed near the wreck site in 1954.

A state historical marker was placed near the site of the train wreck in 1954. PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE FROM WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

#chris-ziebold-sr, #great-chatsworth-train-wreck, #illinois-bicentennial, #j-m-tennery, #railroads, #the-bridge-was-burned-at-chatsworth, #thomas-p-westendorf, #toledo-peoria-western, #tpw-railroad

A further look at Pekin’s old fire companies

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in Sept. 2011 before the launch of this weblog, under the title “Pekin Fire Department has a blazing history,” republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

A further look at Pekin’s old fire companies

By Linda Mace and Jared Olar
Library assistants

The Pekin Public Library’s Illinois Bicentennial video series continues next Friday, Nov. 2, with the showing of a video with a topic perhaps fitting for the season of Hallowe’en and All Souls Day: on-the-scene footage of the archaeological excavation of the former Tharp Pioneer Cemetery that used to be located at the site of the Pekin Schnucks grocery store.

In the 1980s the old Douglas School building was torn down and replaced by K’s Super Saver (now Schnucks), and during construction human remains were discovered that had been overlooked when the former cemetery was closed and its burials transferred to Lakeside Cemetery. The video is about 70 minutes in length, and will be shown at 11 a.m. in the library’s Community Room.

Earlier this month we recalled the Great Fire of 1860 which sparked the formation of Pekin’s original volunteer fire companies. This week we will take a further look at the early days of Pekin’s fire companies and municipal fire department.

This photograph from the May 15, 1921 Peoria Journal-Transcript shows Pekin’s municipal fire house and trucks. In those days the Pekin Fire Department was based in the old City Hall building at the corner of Fourth and Margaret streets.

Another vintage photograph from the latter 1800s shows Pekin’s old City Hall building and fire house at the corner of Fourth and Margaret streets, with firemen posing with their horse-drawn equipment.

As we saw previously, in the aftermath of the Great Fire, three independent fire companies were formed: the Independent Hood and Ladder Company No. 1, Rescue Company No. 1, and Defiance Hose Company.

In 1880 two more volunteer companies were organized: the “Wide Awake” and “Protection.” By 1894 the “Wide Awakes” had a partially paid department. Fire stations were built and torn down as they became obsolete. Equipment was purchased and modernized.

Pekin fire company volunteers show off their 1884 Ahrends “Eagle” steam pumper, a horse-drawn fire-fighting machine.

In those days fire-fighting machinery was brought to the fires on horse-drawn wagons. But with the advent of the automobile toward the end of the 19th century, before long the days of horse-drawn fire wagons were at an end. By the early 1920s Pekin’s fire department had converted to automotive ladder trucks and pumper trucks.

But how did the public get word to Pekin’s early fire companies that they were needed to put out a fire?

The answer is found in “Pekin: A Pictorial History,” which says that by 1884 “the city had installed a Gamewell Street Box Fire Alarm system. This system allowed the public to communicate alarms directly to the fire department from pull boxes located throughout the community.”

And just how would one operate these? The 1903-1904 City Directory listed the instructions, as follows:

FIRE ALARM STATIONS, PEKIN, ILLINOIS. TO KEY HOLDERS: RULE ONE. Upon positive information of a FIRE near your signal station. BREAK THE GLASS, UNLOCK THE DOOR AND PULL THE HOOK DOWN, THEN LET GO. RULE TWO. Should you hear the small bell ringing inside (which is an indication that an alarm is being sent over the lines), wait until small bell stops ringing: then close outer door, which puts box in circuit. Now open door and pull hook down once and alarm will be sent in. * THIS RULE IS IMPORTANT AND SHOULD BE OBSERVED. * RULE THREE. DO NOT PULL THE HOOK DOWN MORE THAN ONCE. RULE FOUR. Never leave the Station from which you give the alarm until the Fire Department arrives, and then tell them where the fire may be, unless the fire will show itself. RULE FIVE. In using a TELEPHONE FIRE ALARM STATION CALL up the TELEPHONE OFFICE. When they answer, you repeat slowly and distinctly: “FIRE! FIRE! Station No.–, giving the number of the station you are at.”

Our modern “9-1-1” emergency system is obviously much faster and more efficient.

Pekin firemen test the hoses on the fire departments new $13,000 fire truck in this Jan. 29, 1928 Peoria Journal-Transcript photograph.

#1884-ahrends-eagle-steam-pumper, #gamewell-street-box-fire-alarm, #illinois-bicentennial, #old-pekin-city-hall, #pekin-fire-companies, #pekin-fire-department, #preblog-columns

Over a century of Pekin Hospital history

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in May 2013 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Over a century of Pekin Hospital history

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The occasion of the Illinois Bicentennial is an ideal time to recall that Pekin’s hospital celebrated its own centennial just a little over five years ago. The history of this hospital – redubbed by its current corporate owners as “UnityPoint Health-Pekin” – began in 1913, when the community’s need for a public hospital led to the formation of a non-profit Pekin hospital corporation.

That is not the year Pekin Hospital opened its doors, however. Rather, that year the hospital’s board, headed by Presidents G. A. Kuhl and J. M. Rahn, commenced fundraising campaigns to raise money for the construction of a hospital. Those efforts enabled the construction of a hospital building in 1918, which therefore would be 100 years old if it still existed.

Shown is the original Pekin Hospital, built in 1918, photographed in 1928 from a path in the Sunken Gardens. Eventually this structure was torn down, but the main entrance was salvaged and is now attached to the north side of the 1931-2 addition, beneath a large clock.

The original hospital as seen from Park Avenue and 14th Street.

A closeup of the south end of the original Pekin Public Hospital building as seen from the area of 14th Street and Park Avenue about 1938.

Built by Ed F. Lampitt & Sons building contractors, the 1918 facility was erected on 14th Street between Court Street and Park Avenue on land donated by three Ehrlicher brothers and their wives, George Jr. and Mary, Henry and Amelia, and Otto D. and Minnie. (Henry and Otto were Pekin’s first pharmacists.) It should be noted that “Pekin: A Pictorial History” (1998, 2004), p.142, mistakenly substitutes the surname of “Herget” for George Jr.’s real surname.

The new edifice was formally dedicated Sunday afternoon, June 2, 1918, in ceremonies that were attended by a crowd of about 5,000. In its front page story on June 3, 1918, the Pekin Daily Times estimated that about 10,000 people toured the newly opened hospital that day.

This detail from the front page of the 3 June 1918 Pekin Daily Times shows the first part of the story about the formal dedication of Pekin’s new hospital.

The standard historical publications on Pekin’s history offer differing figures on the first hospital’s capacity. The 1949 Pekin Centenary says in one place that the hospital had a capacity of 20 beds, but elsewhere in the same book it says the capacity was only 18 beds, while the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial says the hospital had a capacity of 30 patients. The Pekin Daily Times story of the dedication ceremonies says the hospital had “18 patients’ rooms, fully equipped.”

Whatever the correct figure was, within a few years the need was evident for a larger hospital. “In 1931, a $150,000 fundraising drive (no small feat during a depression) resulted in additional construction and remodeling which boosted the capacity to 75 beds. This portion of the hospital is on Park Avenue, and for many years the main entrance was from that street,” says the 1974 Sesquicentennial.

Pekin Public Hospital in a view looking across Park Avenue, from the 1949 “Pekin Centenary” volume.

As Pekin continued to grow, Pekin Public Hospital again had to be expanded. In the early 1950s, $750,000 was raised locally and was matched by a federal grant, enabling the construction of a six-story $1.5 million addition on Park Avenue that increased the hospital’s capacity to 150 beds. The expansion was formally dedicated on June 19, 1955.

“But Pekin’s growth continued, and some of the older parts of the hospital became outmoded, so in the early 1960s another drive was undertaken,” says the Sesquicentennial. “This one succeeded in raising $1 million locally, and hospital officials borrowed another $1.5 million from a firm in Wisconsin, thus providing the necessary funding for the most recent expansion on Court Street. The main entrance once again was moved, and presently leads into this new six-story addition. Total capacity is now over 230, and plans call for the erection of a sixth and seventh floor on this newest addition which will house an intensive care unit and the obstetrics ward. As these floors are made ready, other areas of the older parts of the hospital will be closed (in fact, at least two floors are not in use now), and the total capacity will be around 250.”

Pekin Memorial Hospital as photographed in 1966 by Ralph James Goodwin. Note that the original hospital building is still there, though wood paneling covers the north wall indicating construction work under way. The old building was torn down subsequently, but its entrance was salvaged and later installed on the north wall of the Park Avenue addition.

It was in 1976 that those additional two stories were built, housing intensive and coronary care as well as obstetrics and pediatrics. Then, from 1979 to 1981, areas of the 1932 and 1954 additions were renovated to make room for pharmacy, medical records, a medical library, electrocardiography, respiratory therapy and radiology.

On June 23, 1985, ground was broken on a $10.1 million addition that would include surgery and radiology as well as a lobby, pharmacy, gift shop, restaurant and Park Court Medical Center. The building program moved the main entrance from Court Street to 13th Street, where it is today.

In Jan. 2018, Pekin Hospital completed the process of affiliation with Des Moines, Iowa-based UnityPoint Health, joining a system that now includes Methodist Medical Center (“UnityPoint Health-Methodist”) and Proctor Hospital (“UnityPoint Health-Proctor”) in Peoria. A year later a state-of-the-art Pekin physicians center opened at Griffin and Veterans Drive on Pekin’s east end – a building project initiated by Pekin Hospital in 2015, before the hospital affiliated with UnityPoint Health.

#amelia-ehrlicher, #ed-f-lampitt-sons, #g-a-kuhl, #george-ehrlicher-jr, #henry-ehrlicher, #illinois-bicentennial, #j-m-rahn, #mary-ehrlicher, #minnie-ehrlicher, #otto-d-ehrlicher, #pekin-hospital, #pekin-memorial-hospital, #pekin-public-hospital

‘The Great Fire’ and Pekin first fire companies

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in December 2014 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

‘The Great Fire’ and Pekin first fire companies

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

More than three years ago, this column recalled “the Great Fire” of 1860 that obliterated a large part of downtown Pekin. As mentioned previously, the aftermath of that fire saw the formation of independent fire companies to ensure that the community would be better prepared to prevent structure fires from blazing out of control and so save lives and property.

The earliest surviving account of the Great Fire is found in the history of Pekin included in the 1870 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory, pages 39-40, which says:

“On the night of the 22d of March, 1860, Pekin was visited by a disastrous and frightful conflagration. The fire originated in the grocery store of [Charles] Grondenburg, on the north side of Court street. From thence it spread up nearly to Capitol street and down to Third street, when it crossed to the south side, sweeping nearly all the buildings between Capitol and Third on that side, and some dwellings on Elizabeth street, south of Third. The fire was not checked until over thirty of the principal business houses, offices and other buildings were destroyed, almost completely paralyzing the business of the city, and involving a loss of over one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

$150,000 was a very sizable sum in those days.

After a lengthy tally of the buildings and businesses destroyed and their damage costs, the 1870 account continues:

“The whole number of buildings destroyed was thirty-one, fourteen on one side and seventeen on the opposite side of Court street. The fire was a terrible blow to the city, but, Phoenix-like, it rose from the ashes, and now Court street, from Third to Capitol, is rebuilt on both sides with substantial brick business houses. Many of them are very fine and imposing structures, while some others reflect neither honor, enterprise nor liberality upon their owners.”

On pages 40-41 of the 1870 city directory, this historical account goes on to tell of how Pekin’s first fire companies were organized. According to the 1870 city directory, the first one, founded in November 1860, was “Rescue Fire Company No. 1,” headed by first foreman H. F. Spoonhoff, followed the same month by “Hook and Ladder Company No. 1,” headed by first and second assistant foremen John Stolz and Martin Dolcher. Then in December 1870 a third company, “Defiance Fire Company,” was established, headed by Thomas Edds, president.

In fact, the 1861 Roots city directory reveals that all three of these companies were organized in 1860 — “Rescue Fire Company No. 1” was founded in July 1860, but “Hook and Ladder Company No. 1” was founded in June 1860, while “Defiance” came along in December of that year.

This detail from a page from the 1861 Roots City Directory of Pekin provides information about Pekin’s early fire companies that functioned before the formation of the Pekin Fire Department.

The 1949 “Pekin Centenary,” pages 17 and 19, relates some colorful anecdotes about these first fire companies, including this tale about the rivalry between the first two companies, both of whom wanted to be “No. 1”:

“The fire had another by-product in that it created a fever for the organization of fire companies in the city, which, in turn produced new evidence of the growing size and strength of the German element and of the clash between the new and the old citizens of Pekin. A fire-fighting company was quickly organized after the fire and made application for a fire engine to be purchased for their use. Then a group of German population got together, and they too organized a fire company and made a similar request to the council. Both asked to be designated as the Number One company.

“The arrival of the engines by steamboat was the occasion for a public celebration. All the townspeople turned out and the two companies donned their uniforms, fell in, and marched down Court street to the dock. There it was found that the engine designated for the German company had a big ‘No. 1’ painted on it, and the engine designated for the original company was similarly painted ‘No. 2.’

“At this discovery, the original company fell into ranks again, announced that ‘Our engine isn’t here,’ and marched away, leaving the unwanted ‘No. 2’ sitting on the dock.”

Another anecdote in the 1949 Pekin Centenary tells of dangerous and unethical conduct on the part of the city’s original fire companies:

“The fire companies proved to be more social than anything else, staging a grand parade once a year and a victory celebration after each blaze; and after a time these celebrations came to be a problem too. The city offered $10 to the company that was first to reach a fire and douse it, and at that time this was about the right sum to stage a sizable victory party, with liquor about 25 cents a gallon.

“Immediately, the city was visited with a record-breaking series of fires, many of which started in a suspicious manner.

“It is said that a fire company that felt a celebration was due would muster its men, line them up at the ropes of their engine, open the door, send out a chosen member to start a fire, and then stand by, waiting for the alarm to come in. In this manner, the old companies sometimes reached fires in a remarkably short time. Facing this sort of practice, the city council withdrew the $10 bonus, which was getting expensive in more ways than one, and the number of fires was promptly reduced.”

In time, the old fire companies would give way to a professional municipal fire department, a development that was at least partly a response to the corruption that early on had infected the independent fire companies.

#charles-grondenburg, #h-f-spoonhoff, #illinois-bicentennial, #john-stolz, #martin-dolcher, #pekin-fire-companies, #pekin-fire-department, #the-great-fire, #thomas-edds

Remembering the ‘doomed women of Ottawa’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Over the coming weeks, the Pekin Public Library and Pekin Community High School are presenting a programming series spotlighting a tragic facet of Illinois’ history beginning in the first half of the 20th century with repercussions continuing to the present day – the women remembered as the “Radium Girls,” who had suffered and died as a result of radium poisoning on the job in Ottawa, Ill.

The programming series opens at the library at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11, with “Marking Time: The Radium Girls of Ottawa,” in which Heinz Suppan will present his book “Marking Time” and tell of the plight of the young women who worked for the Radium Dial Co. in Ottawa, where the women used radium-laced paint to create watches and clocks that glowed in the dark. Through their work, the women were exposed to radioactive radium both externally and internally, as their employer, although aware of the dangers of radium, misled the women and even encouraged them to lick the ends of their paint brushes to form a fine point.

Women are shown at work in a radium dial factory. PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE FROM WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

As the next program in the series, the library’s Book2art book group will read Kate Moore’s book “Radium Girls.” The group will meet at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, to discuss Moore’s book and do a craft related to the book.

The next day, at 11 a.m. Friday, Oct. 19, the library will show the “Radium City” film documentary upstairs in the Community Room. Later the same day, at 2 p.m. actors from the Pekin Community High School show “Radium Girls” will come to the library and perform scenes from their show.

The series will conclude with the high school’s stage production of “Radium Girls” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 1, 6:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2, and 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 3, at Pekin Community High School’s F. M. Peterson Theater.

All of the library’s programs are free and open to the public. Tickets for the high school’s three showings of “Radium Girls” are $5 for adults and $3 for students. Tickets are available at the PCHS Branch Finance Office or may be purchased at the door prior to performance.

Earlier this year, NPR Illinois published a report by Tara McClellan McAndrew entitled “The Radium Girls: An Illinois Tragedy,” in which McAndrew drew upon authorities such as Kate Moore’s book.

“Some of the Ottawa painters,” McAndrew observed, “despite their long, agonizing illnesses with crippling sarcomas, crumbling jawbones, crushed spines, amputated limbs and other maladies, were among the luckier ones. Because of Illinois’ progressive workers’ compensation laws, some of the Radium Dial workers received financial awards.”

The progress of the Ottawa Radium Girls’ lawsuit frequently made the front page of newspapers across the country in the latter 1930s – including the Pekin Daily Times, which referred to the radium-poisoning victims as the “doomed women of Ottawa.”

The plight of Ottawa’s Radium Girls made the front page of the Feb. 11, 1938 Pekin Daily Times, in a report of a workers compensation hearing that took place at the side of what would soon become the deathbed of radium poisoning victim Catherine Donahue.

According to McAndrew, dial painters who died from radium poisoning probably numbered in the thousands across the country, but only in Illinois did victims obtain legal compensation for the suffering caused by their employer’s negligence and lack of compassion. This was possible because in 1911 Illinois was one of the first states to adopt a workers compensation law, which led to the establishing of the Illinois Industrial Commission in 1917.

The first attempt of Ottawa’s Radium Girls to win compensation was denied, so the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illlinois Occupational Disease Act, which enabled the victims to obtain compensation.

McAndrew said, “Although dial painters in other states sought retribution for their fatal illness, those in Ottawa were the only ones ‘to win state sanctioned compensation for radium poisoning,’ wrote Claudia Clark in Radium Girls: Women and Industrial Health Reform, 1910-1935.”

The terrible suffering of the Radium Girls and their families was not in vain, as their plight contributed to the eventual establishment by President Richard Nixon in 1970 of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Since 2011 a statue commemorating the Radium Girls has stood at the northwest corner of Clinton and West Jefferson streets in Ottawa.

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