‘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.

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#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.

#catherine-donahue, #doomed-women-of-ottawa, #illinois-bicentennial, #illinois-occupational-disease-act, #osha, #radium-dial-co, #radium-girls, #workers-compensation-law

Prehistory and history of the Schipper and Block building

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.

Prehistory and history of the Schipper and Block building

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

In the files of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room is a newspaper clipping from the Jan. 13, 1994 Peoria Journal Star – an article written by Valari Hyatt, entitled, “Old stores haunt memories of downtown Pekin.”

The subject of the article is the old Schipper and Block building, which stands at the corner of Court and Capitol streets. “Rich in history, the building’s legacy dates back before its birth,” Hyatt wrote.

Once the location of a popular and successful clothing store, the Schipper and Block building’s history and “prehistory” reaches back to the period of the Civil War.

The business began in 1863 or 1864 as C. Bonk and Co., which ran a dry goods store with John H. Schipper as Bonk’s partner. After Bonk’s death, Henry C. Block joined the company, which became the Schipper and Block Co., located at 304 Margaret St., a block north of the corner of Court and Capitol which later would become its location. The 300 block of Margaret Street was then known as Smith’s Row, because that is where Dietrich and Teis Smith had their business operations, including their well-known Wagon Works.

In 1874, Schipper and Block moved their store to the corner of Court and Third streets – at 302 Court St., next to the post office. As their business thrived, they opened a second shop at 332 Court St., the corner of Court and Capitol streets, on Oct. 12, 1879. Some years later they opened a store in Peoria which soon after became the largest dry goods operation in Illinois outside of Chicago. The Peoria store became a Carson Pirie Scott in 1961.

The original Schipper & Block building at the corner of Court and Capitol streets opened in 1879, but was destroyed by fire in 1898.

Schipper died Sept. 25, 1893, in Louisville, Ky., while on his way home from Block Island near Rhode Island, where he had gone for a rest due to his ill health. Block continued to operate the business until the turn of the century, when the Pekin store operations consolidated at the corner of Court and Capitol streets.

That came about as the result of a fire in 1898 that destroyed the Schipper and Block store at the corner of Court and Capitol streets. A new structure was erected in its place. Then around 1900, Block sold a considerable amount of his holdings in the Pekin operation to George Ehrlicher, who had been Block’s right-hand man for many years. It was about that time that the decision was made to close the store at 302 Court St. and consolidate in the newer building at 332 Court St.

The second Schipper & Block building was erected in 1898 to replace the 1879 store after a fire, but the new building itself succumbed to flames in 1922.

The company’s name was changed to Block and Kuhl Co. on Jan. 1, 1914, when Theodore Kuhl became president – but the “Schipper & Block Co.” sign remained, so everyone continued to call it the Schipper and Block building. Another fire in Feb. 1922 destroyed the “new” building, but by December of that year the company had rebuilt at the same location. That’s the structure one can see at that corner today.

George Ehrlicher’s sons George Jr. and Arthur took over the business after their father, and they kept the business going until May 1962, when business reverses made it necessary for them to sell the store. George Jr. died in Sept. 1962, just four months after the sale. The new owners, Harold Whaley of Ottawa and William T. Malloy of Peoria, were unable to return the business to profitability, however, and the store went bankrupt in 1964, when a receiver was appointed. The store limped along for another four years, finally going out of business in March 1968. The Schipper and Block building would then remain vacant for 26 years.

The Schipper & Block building that stands vacant today is shown in this photograph taken by Ralph James Goodwin in 1966, two years before the store went out of business.

Though much of the glamour has faded,” Hyatt wrote in 1994, “the old Schipper and Block building – as it has been called for over a hundred years, no matter who owned it – still stands on solid ground. In fact, the city recently sold the property at 332 Court St. to Tobin Brothers, with a developer’s agreement. According to Lee Williams, city marketing director, the transfer of ownership occurred Jan. 4.

‘The Schipper and Block building is dear to the hearts of the mayor and (all of those on) the City Council. They had decided that the Schipper and Block building was definitely not going to be torn down . . . because of the historic background,’ Williams said, noting that Tobin Brothers is remodeling the three-story brick building for about $350,000.

Their goal is to put the building back to its original state, then lease the building to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) and several other businesses.

More recently, the State of Illinois’ budget crunch led to the closing of the Pekin DCFS office. The old building once again went vacant and is for sale.

The official logo of the Illinois Bicentennial was officially unveiled at the Old State Capitol in Springfield on Jan. 12 of this year.

#arthur-ehrlicher, #block-and-kuhl-co, #c-bonk-and-co, #george-ehrlicher, #george-ehrlicher-jr, #harold-whaley, #henry-c-block, #illinois-bicentennial, #john-h-schipper, #schipper-and-block, #theodore-kuhl, #william-t-malloy

Nearly a century of service – Rotary and Kiwanis

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

While Illinois is celebrating its bicentennial this year, and the Pekin Area Chamber of Commerce will celebrate its quasquicentennial (125 years) next month, there are two other Pekin community organizations that have almost, but not quite, made it to their centennials: the Pekin Rotary and Pekin Kiwanis clubs.

Enthusiasm for social clubs and service organizations apparently was very high in Pekin in 1920, only two years out of the First World War. Several social clubs then active in Pekin (such as the Tazewell Club) no longer exist, but the Pekin Rotary Club and the Pekin Kiwanis Club, which both were christened in the spring of 1920, are still going strong today.

The Pekin Rotary Club – one of tens of thousands of clubs that belong to Rotary International – was organized in April 1920. The first Rotary Club was founded by Paul P. Harris and three of his friends in Chicago on Feb. 23, 1905, only 15 years before Rotary came to Pekin. The name “rotary” was chosen because the club’s meetings would rotate among the members’ business offices.

Pekin’s Rotary Club was started by five businessmen: Harry Wilmot, Walton T. Conover, Frank Beyer, Carl E. Kraeger, and Louis C. Moschel. The club began with 25 charter members, and Moschel served as the club’s first president for four consecutive annual terms before he was succeeded by Carl G. Herget in 1924. For much of its early history, Pekin Rotary met weekly in the old Tazewell Hotel located at the corner of Fourth and Elizabeth streets near the courthouse.

In its early years, the Pekin Rotary Club held its regular meetings in the old Tazewell Hotel on Elizabeth Street in downtown Pekin.

With a motto of “Service Above Self,” the purpose of Rotary is to encourage business persons, professionals, and community leaders to be active in works of service and charity. Its service projects and programs over its history have included tree planting, fishing derbies, the Pekin Mobile Diner, scholarship awards, and the sponsoring and hosting of foreign exchange students.

The Pekin Kiwanis Club was organized about a month after Rotary. The Pekin Daily Times printed a story in its May 20, 1920 edition with the title, “Pekin Men Put Kiwanis Club Over the Top,” in which it was reported that “The Kiwanis Club of Pekin is in progress of formation with a membership of over fifty representative men of this city.” According to that news story, Pekin’s Kiwanis Club was the 19th Kiwanis Club in Illinois. Kiwanis was founded in 1915 in Detroit, Mich. – the name is derived from a Native American phrase, Nunc Kee-wanis, meaning “We trade [our talents].}

Pekin Kiwanis held its organizing meeting on May 24, 1920, and a story reporting that meeting appeared on page 8 of the following day’s Pekin Daily Times. “With over forty men present last night the Kiwanis Club of Pekin was formerly (sic – formally) organized in the circuit court room of the Tazewell court house,” the story said. W. S. Prettyman was elected temporary chairman for the organizing meeting.

Shown here is a detail from the May 25, 1920 Pekin Daily Times story on the organizing meeting of the Pekin Kiwanis Club which had taken place the evening before.

At the meeting, Dan Wentworth, lieut. governor of the Illinois and Eastern Iowa districts, explained the club’s purposes and aims, “declaring that the organization stood for the square deal, for service ‘to the other fellow,’ for the Golden Rule in business, and for the building up of the community, the state and the nation.” Kiwanis and Rotary thus have much the same purpose and aims.

At the first meeting, the following officers were unanimously elected: Jesse Black Jr., president; J. C. Aydelott, vice president; Ben P. Schenck, treasurer; and seven directors, W. S. Prettyman, H. J. Rust, Nelson Weyrich, R. E. Rollins, Louis Albertsen, O. W. Noel, and J. T. Conaghan.

The first regular meeting, where the club charter was presented, was then set for Wednesday evening, June 2, 1920, at the Pekin Country Club house (then located where Pekin Community High School is today), with plans made for weekly luncheon sessions.

The long years of service to the community of Rotary and Kiwanis is memorialized by the Pekin Park District, which oversees Rotary Park at the former site of Garfield School and Kiwanis Park near L. E. Starke School.

#carl-herget, #illinois-bicentennial, #jesse-black, #pekin-kiwanis-club, #pekin-rotary-club, #william-s-prettyman

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.

#association-of-commerce-pekin, #chamber-of-commerce-of-pekin, #citizens-improvement-association-of-pekin, #commercial-club-of-pekin, #everett-woodruff-wilson, #george-herget, #henry-c-block, #illinois-bicentennial, #jesse-b-cooper, #joseph-verdi-graff, #pekin-area-chamber-of-commerce, #pekin-retail-merchants-association, #schipper-and-block, #tazewell-club

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.

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