Pekin’s Chamber of Commerce makes it to 125

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last time we reviewed the history of the Tazewell Club, a men’s leisure group for Pekin’s professionals and business leaders that operated from 1893 to 1960. However, there is another Pekin business group that was organized at about the same time and is still going strong – the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce. Just as Illinois is celebrating its bicentennial, Pekin’s Chamber of Commerce is now preparing to celebrate its “quasquicentennial” – its 125th birthday.

Bill Fleming, executive director of Pekin’s Chamber, has graciously provided the Pekin Public Library with historical records and photographs illustrating the Chamber’s founding and history, which we’ll now review.

In October 1893, about a month after the founding of the Tazewell Club, a group of Pekin’s businessmen organized a group called the Citizens Improvement Association of Pekin, the original name for the organization today called the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce.

The association’s articles of incorporation – filed with the Illinois Secretary of State on Oct. 6, 1893 – state that the group’s purpose was “advancing the business interest and promoting the commercial growth of the City of Pekin.” It’s similar to the Tazewell Club’s purpose, except the Tazewell Club’s emphasis was on “the social enjoyments of the members of the organization,” whereas the Citizens Improvement Association of Pekin had more of a civic orientation and less of a recreational purpose.

While today’s Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce started out as the CIAP, the group went through several name changes and a merger before it reached its present form. In 1910 the organization’s members changed its name to the Commercial Club of Pekin. The following year, the Commercial Club merged with the Pekin Retail Merchants Association, which had been founded in 1900 with the aim of promoting better business practices among Pekin’s retailers.

In 1916 the Commercial Club became the Association of Commerce-Pekin, a name that stuck for the next 46 years, when in 1962 the name was changed to the Chamber of Commerce of Pekin. Sixteen years after that the Chamber, having broadened its geographical reach, made one final name-change, to “Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce.”

Five of Pekin’s leading businessmen signed the articles of incorporation on the Citizens Improvement Association of Pekin in Oct. 1893: Everett Woodruff Wilson, George Herget, Jesse B. Cooper, Henry C. Block, and Joseph Verdi Graff. All five men were active in Pekin’s economic and cultural development and advancement.

Coming from a family of Peoria distillers, Wilson later became a co-founder of the German American Bank in Pekin and first president of the American Distilling Company. He was also active in politics, serving as a Pekin alderman in the 1880s and being elected twice as mayor of Pekin in the 1890s. The grand home he built on South Fifth Street is now Abts Mortuary.

George Herget

In Pekin the Herget name has long been associated with banking. Like Wilson, George Herget was involved in distilling and later founded Herget Bank – but also invested in or headed various other companies, including the Globe Cattle Company, the Illinois Sugar Refining Company, and the Pekin Electric Light & Power Company. Herget was the first president of the Pekin Park Board and also was elected to the Pekin City Council, the Pekin School District Board of Education, the Pekin Township Board, and the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors. Herget also donated the site of the 1902 Pekin Carnegie Library.

Jesse B. Cooper

Cooper served as superintendent of the Tazewell County Poor Farm from 1872 to 1881, afterwards operating a 75-acre fruit orchard on the land northeast of 11th and Willow streets. He also served as Pekin Township Supervisor in the 1880s and 1890s, and in 1893 became Overseer of the Poor of Pekin Township as well as Township Treasurer.

Henry C. Block

Block came from a long line of merchants, working for dry-goods stores in Germany before coming to American in 1865, working for stores in Pekin and Peoria. As a valuable employee of Bonk & Company in Pekin, Block eventually became a partner in the business. After the death of the company’s founder he became head of the business, which was renamed Schipper & Block, a Pekin downtown department store that is still well-remembered.

Joseph V. Graff

Graff worked in the mercantile business in the 1870s while he studied law, operating a law practice first in Delavan and later in Pekin. At the time the Citizens Improvement Assocation of Pekin was founded in 1893, Graff’s law office was in the Marshall Building on Elizabeth Street, across the street from the Tazewell County Courthouse – the office is now occupied by the law firm of Kuhfuss & Proehl. Graff was also an inspector of Pekin public schools and later became the School Board president. In 1894, he was elected to Congress, where he served eight terms in office.

Next week we’ll take a look at two local community organizations that have both been around for 98 years – the Pekin Rotary Club, and the Pekin Kiwanis Club.

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The Tazewell Club was the gentleman’s club of 1893

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, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

The Tazewell Club was the gentleman’s club of 1893

By Linda Mace and Jared Olar
Library assistants

What comes to your mind when you think of a “gentlemen’s club”? Words acquire new meanings or different connotations as time goes on, and what “gentlemen’s club” might mean to some today isn’t what it meant over a hundred years ago.

Perhaps I’ve watched too many movies, but hearing the words “gentlemen’s club,” I think of New York City, of elegantly appointed, hushed rooms with men dressed in their finery, a cigar in one hand and a beverage of some type in the other hand.

Established in 1893, Pekin had the Tazewell Club, and while it may not have been touted as a gentlemen’s club, for all practical purposes that seems to be what it was.

The 2004 book “Pekin: A Pictorial History” tells us that it was once the hub of social life in Pekin.

“The club promoted local business interests and offered hours of wholesome recreation for the businessman, the professional and the clerk. The building had bowling alleys in the basement, meeting rooms, a card room and billiard room on the main floor, and a ballroom on the third.”

The Tazewell Club, established in 1893, met at this building that used to stand at the corner of Fourth and St. Mary streets.

Over 200 men were members of this club, with them “allowing” the Pekin Woman’s Club and the Litta Society the use of their facility for the ladies’ afternoon meetings.

But time marches on and membership eventually declined. In 1959 the club house was sold to the Herget National Bank and was demolished in 1960 for a parking lot.

Originally located on the corner of South 4th and St. Mary streets, the Tazewell Club was a grand building, worthy of the many social events that took place there.

Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” page 927-937, provides a detailed account of the founding and early history of the Tazewell Club, written by Fred H. Robbins. The account includes a quote from the club’s constitution and by-laws explaining its purpose: “The primary object of this Club shall be to promote the business interests of the City of Pekin, and the social enjoyments of the members of the corporation.

According to Robbins, the club was founded Sept. 14, 1893, at a meeting of local businessmen and leading men of the city in Holland’s Hall in Pekin, presided over by E. F. Unland, with O. F. Weber as secretary. The interim officers were Judge George C. Rider, president, and Weber again as secretary, with an organizing committee made of up Carl G. Herget (builder of the Herget Mansion), W. L. Prettyman, Fred W. Velde, W. A. Holt, and Dr. W. H. Allen.

Once the club was organized, the members elected Unland as president, Prettyman as vice-president, Weber as secretary, James M. James (in whose honor James Field is named) as treasurer, and Holt, Henry G. Herget, D. D. Velde, F. P. Maus, and Henry Birkenbusch as members of the club’s board of managers.

Though the club house is long gone and the Tazewell Club is a thing of the past, there is another community organization that was founded around the same time that is still very much living and active, and is soon to celebrate an important anniversary – the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce.

#carl-herget, #d-d-velde, #dr-w-h-allen, #e-f-unland, #f-p-maus, #fred-w-velde, #henry-birkenbusch, #henry-herget, #illinois-bicentennial, #james-m-james, #judge-george-c-rider, #litta-society, #o-f-weber, #pekin-womans-club, #preblog-columns, #tazewell-club, #w-a-holt, #w-l-prettyman

The first railroads of Tazewell County

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, Sept. 7, at 11 a.m., in the Pekin Public Library Community Room, the library will have a showing of a video about Pekin trains, featuring footage of the old Chicago & Illinois Midland Railroad. The video, which is about 30 minutes in length, is a part of the library’s Illinois Bicentennial Series.

During the first few decades following Illinois’ admission to the Union in 1818, the new state’s growth in population and wealth was in large part driven by steam power. Initially, as indicated in last week’s From the History Room column, men and goods were transported along the waterways and canals of Illinois using riverboats, whether steamers or packet boats.

But steam-powered rail (invented in Britain in 1804, three years before Robert Fulton’s first steamboat) would soon challenge and then eclipse steamboats as the preferred means of long-distance transportation of good and people. While Illinois’ steamboats were restricted to rivers, railroad tracks could be laid across long stretches of country, crossing rivers and streams and even climbing through mountain passes.

The early rail lines of Tazewell County are highlighted in yellow on this county map from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County.”

The groundwork for the railroad’s eclipse of riverboat transportation in Illinois was laid at a time when river transportation was preeminent. In Tazewell County, interest in laying down a rail line had already arisen by the mid-1830s, but the first attempts to build a railroad in our county were abortive. Here how those efforts are described on page 732 of Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County”:

“Among the very first charters granted to railroads, perhaps the second one, by the State of Illinois, was the one granted to the Pekin & Tremont Railroad. This company was incorporated by the Legislature, Jan. 13, 1835. Madison Allen, Harlan Hatch, J. L. James, John H. Harris, George W. Brodrick and Aronet Richmond were constituted a body corporate, with capital stock of $50,000, for the purpose of building said road. It ran, according to the charter, from Pekin to Tremont, in this county. The company was given the power ‘to erect and maintain toll houses along the line.’ The road bed was graded and track partially laid, but the hard times of 1837 and the failure of the grand internal improvement scheme of the State put a stop to further progress on the P. & T. road. About a year after the P. & T. road was chartered a grander scheme was undertaken, and the Legislature incorporated the Pekin, Bloomington & Wabash Railroad, Feb. 16, 1836. This was a continuation eastward of the P. & T. road. Considerable enthusiasm was at first manifested in regard to the matter, but, like many other railroad schemes, it was never carried out.”

Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates told of continued efforts to get a railroad line to Pekin in his narrative of Pekin’s early history that was included in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory. The following excerpts from Bates’ narrative demonstrate that Pekin’s city officials were willing to commit great sums of public funds to railroad projects, which were necessarily massive and expensive undertakings.

“On the 3d of June, 1853, the City Council ‘engaged to use its means and credit to the amount of one hundred thousand dollars to co-operate with the city of Canton, Fulton county, to secure the construction of the Mississippi and Wabash Railroad,’ provided said road was located so as to pass through the city of Pekin.” (Bates, page 32)

“On the 8th of September [1856], the Council ‘Resolved, That the city of Pekin, as a stockholder in the Mississippi Railroad Company, give their consent to the consolidation of the Mississippi and Wabash Railroad Company with the Pekin and Bloomington Railroad Company.’ . . . On the 23d of October the city decided by a vote of three hundred and one votes for and five against, to subscribe one hundred thousand dollars to the capital stock of the Illinois River Railroad.” (Bates, page 36)

For all that trouble, it wasn’t until 1859 – less than two years before the Civil War – that Pekin finally saw rails being laid. The city’s leaders thought that was worth celebrating, so Pekin’s Fourth of July celebrations that year included a joyous – and hopeful – inaugural ceremony of the driving of the first spike, as Bates tells:

“On the 4th day of July, 1859, the first rail was laid and the first spike driven on the prospective Illinois River Railroad. This was a gala day, full of momentous events for the future, and the birth-day of unnumbered hopes and anticipations yet to be realized. The leading citizens participated in celebrating the new enterprise on such an auspicious day as the Fourth of July.

“The road was never really completed until it passed into the hands of the present company, when the name was changed, and it is now the flourishing and well-managed Peoria, Pekin and Jacksonville Railroad.” (Bates, page 38)

Not only because it cost so much to build and operate a railroad, but also due to the interruption of the Civil War, most of Tazewell County’s railroad companies did not become fully operational until the latter 1860s. What had begun as the abortive Pekin & Tremont Railroad Company in Jan. 1835 later was taken up as a part of the Indianapolis, Bloomington & Western Railway in Aug. 1869, a road that stretched 202 miles from Indianapolis to Pekin (later being extended to Peoria).

Similarly, the Illinois River Railroad Company, whose first spike in Pekin was driven on July 4, 1859, eventually became the Peoria, Pekin & Jacksonville Railroad Company. Chapman’s Tazewell County history includes historical accounts of that company as well as the Indianapolis, Bloomington & Western Railway and five other railroad companies that had lines through Tazewell County: the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad, the Pekin, Lincoln & Decatur Railway, the Toledo, Peoria & Warsaw Railroad, the Illinois Midland, and the Chicago, Pekin & Southwestern Railroad.

The investors, directors, and employees of these railroad companies were among the preeminent men of Tazewell County and central Illinois – such as Benjamin S. Prettyman, Teis Smith, John B. Cohrs, James M. James, Gordis R. Cobleigh, or Columbus R. Cummings. A review of the names on the boards of directors of the early railroad companies will, not surprisingly, show many of the same names showing up on the lists of city mayors, aldermen, and successful businessmen and local attorneys.

#benjamin-prettyman, #columbus-r-cummings, #gordis-r-cobleigh, #illinois-bicentennial, #james-m-james, #john-b-cohrs, #pekin-railroads, #railroads, #tazewell-county-railroads, #teis-smith, #william-h-bates

Steamboat disaster on the Illinois River

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

Steamboat disaster on the Illinois River

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last month Pekin and nearby communities commemorated the 100th anniversary of one of the most tragic events seared into Pekin’s collective memory: the Columbia riverboat disaster. On July 5, 1918, the steamboat Columbia sank on the Illinois River four miles north of Pekin when it struck a submerged tree stump, ripping a gaping hole in the hull. Out of 496 passengers, 87 died, including 57 Pekin residents.

It was the last large scale river disaster in our area – but steamboats had been plying the waters of the Illinois River since about 1829, when the steamer Liberty visited Peoria, so it should be no surprise that the wreck of the Columbia wasn’t Pekin’s first steamboat disaster. On July 12, 1892, the excursion steamer Frankie Folsom capsized during a storm on Peoria Lake while bringing passengers back to Pekin from Peoria. Most passengers escaped, but 11 died.

Pekin’s first steamboat disaster was on April 25, 1852, when the boilers of the Prairie State exploded, reportedly killing more than 100 passengers.

Pekin’s first riverboat disaster, and apparently Tazewell County’s first major calamity resulting in massive loss of life, was the 1852 explosion of the steamboat Prairie State, which reportedly killed at least 110 people. This photograph was reproduced in “Pekin: A Pictorial History.”

The story of this tragedy is told and retold in several of the standard works on Pekin’s history, but, surprisingly, none of those works gives the correct date of the disaster. Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 History of Tazewell County, the 1949 Pekin Centenary, and the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial each claim that the Prairie State exploded on Sunday morning, April 16, 1852. The problem with that date is that April 16 was a Friday that year.

“Pekin: A Pictorial History” (2004) gets closer to the truth, placing the tragedy on Sunday morning, April 24, 1852. However, that day was a Saturday. The correct date is found in “Lloyd’s Steamboat Disasters” (1856), page 293, which says, “The steamer Prairie State collapsed her flues on the Illinois River, April 25th, 1852, killing and wounding twenty persons.” That date was, as Pekin’s history book states, a Sunday.

The number of dead reportedly was far more than 20. “Pekin: A Pictorial History,” page 176, tells the story in these words:

“. . . [T]the packet steamers, Prairie State and Avalanche, southward bound, landed almost simultaneously at the Pekin Wharf and collided. Both were carrying a high head of steam. As a result the boilers on the Prairie State exploded with terrific force. ‘It was the church going hour, but the worship of the Deity was changed to the duties of the Good Samaritan,’ according to Cole’s Guide. The 110 bodies that were recovered were placed side by side under the walnut and oak trees on the bank and every home in the vicinity became a temporary hospital. One rescued passenger, en route to Texas, reported that many of the victims he had seen on board were not recovered. A final count of those who drowned was never ascertained.”

That account repeats most of details and uses much of the same language of Allensworth’s 1905 recollection:

“The two steamers, the ‘Prairie State’ and the ‘Avalanche’ coming from the north, landed almost simultaneously at the Pekin wharf. They were evidently racing as both were carrying a high pressure of steam. The ‘Prairie State’ pulled out of the landing ahead of her competitor, and when nearly opposite our gas works, her boilers exploded with terrific force. This happened on Sunday about the time for the beginning of church services. The people went to the rescue of the injured, and the wreck of the ‘Prairie State’ was towed back to the wharf by the ‘Avalanche.’ Many bodies were recovered and laid side by side under the walnut and oak trees on the bank of the river. The citizens turned their houses into temporary hospitals in which the injured were cared for.

“Mr. James Sallee was a passenger going to Texas, and is authority for the statement that the boat was crowded with passengers, many of whose bodies were never recovered.”

The 1974 Sesquicentennial also more specifically locates the Prairie State’s explosion at “a point nearly opposite ‘gas house hill’ (in the area of 100 Fayette Street).”

The 1949 Centenary and the Sesquicentennial also repeat Allensworth’s account and recycle some of his words. The Centenary added the darkly humorous observation that, “Pekin’s population increased by a somewhat unusual method, when a large number of people literally ‘blew into town,’” explaining that many of the survivors decided to stay on in Pekin after their recovery.

One of the survivors, according to the Centenary, was “the grandfather of Paul Sallee, the present Pekin trouper,” who is called “a well-known area entertainer” in the Sesquicentennial. Paul Sallee’s grandfather, of course, was the James Sallee of Allensworth’s account.

#illinois-bicentennial, #james-sallee, #paul-sallee, #prairie-state, #preblog-columns, #steamboat-disasters, #steamboats, #wreck-of-the-columbia, #wreck-of-the-frankie-folsom, #wreck-of-the-prairie-state

Abraham Lincoln slept, stood and walked here

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

Abraham Lincoln slept, stood and walked here

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The Union barely had time to celebrate Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865, before the nation was horrified by the assassination of its Commander-in-Chief, President Abraham Lincoln, at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C., on April 14 – a mere five days later.

One of Pekin’s pioneers was in Washington, D.C., during those days of sorrow: Seth Kinman, who formerly operated a hotel in downtown Pekin, claimed to have been an eye-witness of the president’s assassination, and contemporary newspaper accounts say Kinman took part in Lincoln’s funeral cortege.

As a result of his assassination, Lincoln came to be revered as a martyr for the cause of preserving the Union and for the abolitionist cause. The people of Illinois in particular have held his memory in the highest esteem ever since. It is in the state capital, Springfield, where he is entombed, and in towns and cities throughout the state Illinoisans are still proud to point to buildings and locations where Lincoln once lived, worked, or stayed. This is especially true of communities in central Illinois.

One of our county’s Lincoln sites unfortunately was destroyed by fire in May 2014 – the approximately 180-year-old Lilly Inn in eastern Tazewell County, one of the county’s oldest buildings, was a local link to President Abraham Lincoln, who stayed at the inn while riding the circuit as an attorney in central Illinois from the 1830s to the 1850s.

The Lilly Inn was, of course, far from the only site in our area with ties to Lincoln. For example, his work as a lawyer sometimes brought to him Mason County, where he is known to have stayed in the home of his friend Samuel C. Conwell on Washington Street in Havana. Conwell’s home, which he built in the early 1850s, is still standing.

In Tazewell County, Washington also boasts of its connection with Lincoln. At the old Washington Hotel, which stood where a BP parking lot is today, Lincoln made a stump speech during a stop on the way to Galesburg to debate Stephen A. Douglas. Some years ago, Washington placed five Bronze footprints at locations in Washington where Lincoln is known to have stopped in his travels.

Lincoln’s work brought him to Tazewell County two or three times a year, and he represented clients at the county’s courthouses in Tremont and Pekin. Naturally this work produced numerous Tazewell County legal documents bearing Lincoln’s signature or handwriting or name, and most of these precious mementos of Lincoln’s life, while remaining the possession of Tazewell County, are now in the keeping of the state of Illinois in Springfield.

One of Lincoln’s more important cases was Bailey vs. Cromwell (1841), in which Lincoln appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court in Springfield and won the freedom of Nance Legins-Costley (“Black Nance”) of Pekin, a slave of Pekin pioneer co-founder Nathan Cromwell. Lincoln successfully argued that Costley and her children had to be recognized as free under Illinois law since there was no legal documentation establishing that they had ever been the property of the principals involved in the case, or that Costley had ever agreed to a temporary contract of indentured servitude.

When he came to Pekin for court, Lincoln often stayed at the old Tazewell House hotel, which stood from 1849 to 1904 at the corner of Court and Front streets (Gene Miller Park today). After the Tazewell House hotel was demolished, its threshold was preserved at the Tazewell County Courthouse, and was inscribed with words commemorating the fact that “Hereon trod the great Abraham Lincoln – Stephen A. Douglas – John A. Logan – Robert G. Ingersoll – David Davis – Edward D. Baker and others.

Tazewell House presumably was the Pekin hotel in the lobby of which, according to Tom Wheeler’s article, “The First Wired President,” published on a New York Times blog in May 2012, Lincoln first saw a telegraph key in 1857.

Lincoln’s legal career created another tangible link between Lincoln and Tazewell County – Lincoln sometimes would purchase his clients’ land and hold it for them in his name, later returning it when cases were concluded. That’s how Lincoln came to own several parcels of land in Tazewell, including the land at the intersection of Allentown and Springfield roads (where Morton has held the annual Punkin Chuckin event).

This 2008 Pekin Daily Times informational graphic chart describes 22 sites in Pekin that have direct or indirect links to President Abraham Lincoln. The list was researched and compiled by Dale Kuntz.

In 2008, retired teacher Dale Kuntz of Pekin, who served on the Tazewell County Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission preparing for the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1809, proposed that the city of Pekin create a historical “Lincoln Walk” in downtown Pekin to help visitors and residents learn more about Lincoln’s ties to the city.

Kuntz’s historical research had identified 22 sites along the proposed route that can be shown to have direct and indirect Lincoln connections, starting at the bank of the Illinois River where Lincoln had landed in 1832 when his oar broke while he returned from the Black Hawk War, then heading along Front Street south to Cynthiana, then east to Broadway, out to Sixth Street, then back west along Court Street to end at Gene Miller Park, the former site of the Tazewell House hotel.

#abraham-lincoln, #black-hawk-war, #black-nance, #dale-kuntz, #illinois-bicentennial, #lilly-inn, #nance-legins-costley, #nathan-cromwell, #preblog-columns, #robert-e-lee, #samuel-c-conwell, #seth-kinman, #tazewell-house-hotel, #washington-hotel

Illinois in the Civil War

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Not even two whole generations had elapsed since Illinois’ admission as the 18th state in the Union when America split apart, divided between the industrialized and increasingly anti-slavery northern states of the Union and the agrarian, pro-slavery southern states of the Confederacy.

Leading up to the dreadful conflict was the collapse of the compromises and constitutional balances that had appeased the concerns of the pro-slavery and abolitionist elements. Thus, as we have previously noted, where an earlier generation had crafted the Missouri Compromise of 1820, by the 1850s that compromise had been scrapped, supplanted by the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act of Illinois Sen. Stephen A. Douglas.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was preceded by the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which sought to counter the effectiveness of the Underground Railroad by obliging citizens to assist in the capture of runaway slaves and imposing stiff penalties on those who assisted runaways. While the act itself was a compromise between Southern slave-owners and Northern free-soilers, abolitionists found the law intolerable. Even more outrageous to the abolitionists was the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention in the controversy with its infamous pro-slavery Dred Scott decision of 1857 – but rather than settle the question, Dred Scott only fanned the embers that soon erupted in the flame of war.

In the presidential election of 1860, the Democrat Party broke apart into pro- and anti-slavery factions, a circumstance that helped make possible the election of the Republican Party’s candidate, a former Illinois Congressman of abolitionist principles named Abraham Lincoln.

Frustrated at their inability to elect a favorable candidate, and expecting Lincoln to curtail slavery, most of the slave-holding states of the South broke away from the Union, starting with South Carolina on Dec. 20, 1860. The states that seceded organized themselves as a separate country, the Confederate States of America, on Feb. 8, 1861, and elected their own president, former Mississippi Congressman and Secretary of War Jefferson F. Davis.

Lincoln was inaugurated as president the following month. Rejecting the legitimacy of the Confederacy, Lincoln insisted that the Union had to be preserved and declared the Confederate states to be in rebellion against the recognized federal government. Hostilities began on April 12, 1861, when the Confederacy, having demanded that the U.S. withdraw all troops and surrender all military posts, attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina.

So began four long years of bloodshed and sorrow in which Lincoln strove to bring the breakaway southern states back into subjection to the federal government. Usually known as the American Civil War, the conflict has also been called the War Between the States or the War of the Rebellion, while in the South it has been called the War of Northern Aggression. Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” includes an account of the Civil War, which Chapman called “the War for the Union.”

A lone Union soldier stands and watches over the graves of his fallen comrades at Pekin’s Civil War Memorial in Lakeside Cemetery. PHOTO COURTESY OF CANDY REED

The different names indicate the cultural and political disputes over what the war was about. For the Confederacy, it was their Revolutionary War or a failed War of Independence, but Lincoln and Northern leaders at least initially said it was a fight to preserve the Union. As the war dragged on, however, Northerners began to see it as a holy crusade to end slavery in the United States. In his Tazewell County history, Chapman commented, “The house was indeed divided against itself, but [that] it should not fall, nor should it long continue divided, was the hearty, determined response of every loyal heart in the nation. The accursed institution of human slavery was the primary cause for this dissolution of the American Union. Doubtless other agencies served to intensify the hostile feelings which existed between the Northern and Southern portions of our country, but their remote origin could be traced to this great national evil.”

Two days after the Confederacy’s firing on Fort Sumter, Lincoln requested the remaining Union states to provide 75,000 men organized in six regiments. Over the next few months, the president requested additional volunteers and the organization of more regiments, until in July 1861 he made his first request for 500,000 troops. From May to July, a total of 17 infantry regiments and five cavalry regiments were raised, with Illinois alone providing 13 infantry regiments and three cavalry regiments in July.

At the close of 1861 Illinois had sent to the field nearly 50,000 men, and had 17,000 in camp awaiting marching orders, thus exceeding her full quota by 15,000,” Chapman said. With Illinois having exceeded its quota, many of our state’s young men volunteered with Missouri’s regiments, so eager were they to fight for their country.

The following summer, Lincoln called for the states to provide 600,000 men, of which Illinois’ quota was 52,296. As war casualties increased, the president continued to call for troops. “On the 21st of December, 1864, the last call for troops was made. It was for 300,000 . . . . Illinois put into her one hundred and eight regiments 256,000 men, and into the United States army, through other states, enough to swell the number to 290,000,” Chapman said.

By the time Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865, a total of about 620,000 American soldiers had died in combat or from war-related disease. The casualty numbers for the Civil War are vastly greater than any other U.S. war. Illinois alone lost 31,000 men, two-thirds of them from disease. According to the 1949 Pekin Centenary, Pekin alone had sent about 3,000 men off to fight for the Union.

The Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection includes a great number of resources on the Civil War and Illinois’ part in it. To name just a few, Chapman’s account of the “War for the Union” is found on pages 125-141 and 336-383 of his Tazewell County history, with rolls of Tazewell County’s Civil War volunteers on pages 351-383. In addition, the Local History Room has three volumes of Illinois regimental and unit histories drawn from the Illinois Adjutant General’s Report. Our Tazewell County cemetery indexes also include a compiled list of all of the Civil War soldiers (whether casualties or veterans) who are buried in Lakeside Cemetery.

Pekin’s Civil War heroes are listed by name on the Tazewell County War Memorial erected on the lawn of the Tazewell County Courthouse. Like vast numbers of cities and towns, Pekin also has a Civil War Memorial. In the years following the end of the Civil War, a monument of a standing Union soldier was erected in Lakeside Cemetery “IN MEMORY OF OUR SOLDIERS OF PEKIN ILL.,” like monuments of the Civil War fallen that may be found throughout the country.

A final curiosity regarding Illinois in the Civil War: the August 2018 issue of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society’s Monthly, page 2269, reprints notes from a talk by late local historian Fred Soady, in which Soady observed that “The closest the war came to Tazewell County was the Battle of Lake Peoria, April 16, 1862.” Further information on this obscure and apparently minor battle would be appreciated.

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Tales of Tazewell’s Underground Railroad

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in February 2015 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Tales of Tazewell’s Underground Railroad

Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last week we surveyed the history of the pre-Civil War slavery abolition movement in Pekin, spotlighting local abolitionists such as Dr. Daniel Cheever of Pekin and the Woodrow brothers, Samuel and Hugh.

As we saw previously, Cheever engaged in Underground Railroad activities from his home at the corner of Capitol and Court streets, (and whose farm near Delavan was a depot on the Underground Railroad, by which runaway slaves were helped to escape to freedom and safety in Canada. At the same time, the Woodrow brothers were early Pekin settlers (Catherine Street was named for Samuel’s wife and Amanda Street was named for Hugh’s) who later lived in Circleville south of Pekin, where they aided runaway slaves at their homes.

In his 1879 “History of Tazewell County,” Charles C. Chapman devotes an entire chapter of his book – chapter IX – to the running of the Underground Railroad in Tazewell County, on which the “freight” were human beings. As Chapman explains, abolitionists in Illinois frequently encountered fierce and violent opposition from pro-slavery settlers.

Those whose moral convictions spurred them to assist runaway slaves also risked punishment, since both federal and state law prescribed stiff penalties not only for anyone who helped a runaway slave gain his freedom but also for anyone who refused to help recapture runaways.

Pro-slavery men complained bitterly of the violation of the law by their abolition neighbors, and persecuted them as much as they dared: and this was not a little. But the friends of the slaves were not to be deterred by persecution,” Chapman writes.

Here are some of Chapman’s stories of Tazewell County’s Underground Railroad, from pages 317-319 of his history:

“The main depot of the U. G. Road in Elm Grove township was at Josiah Matthews’, on section 24. Mr. Matthews was an earnest anti-slavery man, and helped to gain freedom for many slaves. He prepared himself with a covered wagon especially to carry black freight from his station on to the next. On one occasion there were three negroes to be conveyed from his station to the next, but they were so closely watched that some time elapsed before they could contrive to take them in safety. At last a happy plan was conceived, and one which proved successful. Their faces were well whitened with flour, and with a son of Mr. Matthews’ went into the timber coon-hunting. In this way they managed to throw their suspicious neighbors off their guard, and the black freight was safely conducted northward.

“One day there arrived a box of freight at Mr. Matthews’, and was hurriedly consigned to the cellar. On the freight contained in this box there was a reward of $1,500 offered, and the pursuers were but half an hour behind. The wagon in which the box containing the negro was brought was immediately taken apart and hid under the barn. The horses, which had been driven very hard, were rubbed off, and thus all indications of a late arrival were covered up. The pursuers came up in hot haste, and, suspecting that Mr. Matthews’ house contained the fugitive, gave the place a very thorough search, but failed to look into the innocent-looking box in the cellar. Thus, by such stratagem, the slave-hunters were foiled and the fugitive saved. The house was so closely watched, however, that Conductor Matthews had to keep the negro a week before he could carry him further. This station was watched so closely at times that Mr. Matthews came near being caught, in which case, in all probability, his life would have been very short.

The homestead of Josiah Matthews, southwest of Tremont in Elm Grove Township, is shown in thise detail from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County.” Matthews was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and at his home he secretly helped fleeing African-American slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

“Mr. Uriah H. Crosby, of Morton township, was an agent and conductor of the U.G.R.R., and had a station at his house. On one occasion there was landed at his station by the conductor just south of him, a very weighty couple, — a Methodist minister and wife. They had a Bible and hymn book that they might conduct religious exercises where they found an opportunity along the way. On conducting them northward Mr. Crosby was obliged to furnish each of them an entire seat, as either of them were of such size as to well fill a seat in his wagon. The next station beyond was at Mr. Kern’s, nine miles. He arrived there in safety, and his heavy cargo was transported on to free soil — Canada.

“The next passenger along the route that stopped at Crosby station arrived on election day. A company had passed on northward when a young man hastily came up. He had invented a cotton gin, and was in haste to overtake the others of the party as they had the model of his invention. He was separated from them by fright. J. M. Roberts found this young man in the morning hid away in his hay-stack, fed him, and sent his son, Junius, with him in haste to Mr. Crosby’s. On his arrival Conductor Crosby put him in his wagon, covered him with a buffalo robe, and drove through Washington and delivered him to Mr. Kern, who took him in an open buggy to the Quaker settlement. He overtook his companions.

The homestead of Uriah Crosby, northwest of Morton in Morton Township, is shown in this detail from the 1873 “Atlas Map of Tazewell County.” Crosby was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, and at his home he secretly helped fleeing African-American slaves escape to freedom in Canada.

“One of the saddest accidents that ever occurred on the U.G. Road in Tazewell county was the capture of a train by slave hunters. Two men, a woman and three children, were traveling together. The woman and children could journey together only from Tremont toward Crosby station, as they had only one buggy. The negro men concluded to walk, but stopped on the way to rest. Waiting as long as they dared for the men to come up, Messrs. Roberts started on with the women and children, but had not gone far before they were stopped by some slave hunters and their load taken from them. The mother and her three children, who were seeking their liberty, were taken to St. Louis and sold, as the slave hunters could realize more by selling them than by returning them to the owner and receiving the reward.

“When the two men came up it was thought best to take them on by a different route, the people determining they should not be captured. J. M. Roberts arranged to take them on horseback to Peoria lake. Several men accompanied them, riding out as far into the water as they could, and by a preconcerted signal parties brought a skiff to them, into which the men were taken and conveyed across the river and sent on the Farmington route in safety. All other routes were too closely watched.”

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