A boat named the ‘City of Pekin’

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

This week we shine a spotlight on a boat that hauled grain on the Illinois River in the early 20th century. Named the “City of Pekin,” the boat’s history was featured in a story on the front page of the Jan. 8, 1981 Pekin Daily Times, titled, “‘City of Pekin’ Once Plied The Illinois River.” A clipping of the story is on file in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room.

The Daily Times writer, Mary Ann Castelluccio, says, “The ‘City of Pekin,’ originally a canal barge later rebuilt for river use, was owned by the Illinois River Packet Co. or the Turner Hudnut Company of Pekin. The captain was Joseph W. Foster, who was born on a canal boat between Morris and Seneca in the 1860’s …”

According to Castelluccio, it is uncertain what the boat’s name was before she was rebuilt for river use. Joe Lamb, president and chief organizer of the Illinois Canal Society at Lockport, Ill., told the Daily Times that the boat was probably originally “The Clyde,” a mule-hauled barge, but others think she was a different canal barge named the “City of Henry.”

Whatever her original name, she was built in Chicago in 1875, and was renamed “City of Pekin” when she was rebuilt in 1911. A 15-foot high pilot house was added, which made it “impossible to clear bridges on the Illinois and Michigan Canal or the Hennepin Canal.” Instead, she worked the Illinois River.

Captain Foster’s daughter, Mrs. Helen Poole, grew up on the “City of Pekin,” and she left the following description of the boat, detailing the furnishing that her family used when they went out on the river with their father on long hauls:

“The fore cabin was sleeping quarters for the deck hands. The walls were tongue and groove lumber painted cream color. There was a board floor with a rag rug. As you stepped down into the cabin, there was a bunk bed on either side; windows were sliding ones with green shades. Under the window at the back was a shelf with a washbasin, and there was a small mirror on the wall and a couple of hooks for hanging ‘go-to-town clothes.’ A towel hung on the door. A lantern used for lighting was stored on the shelf. Sheets and pillowcases were dark blue with small white figures (calico) and dark blankets.

“The main cabin or captain’s quarters had three rooms. The front half was dining room and kitchen. The back was divided in half with bunk beds on either side. Again sliding windows with shades, no curtains. Between the two bedrooms was a door and the doors from the dining room-kitchen had curtains made of drapery material. Not much privacy, but this was mostly a family affair. There was space for storage under the bunks, for a trunk and cases of canned goods. There were a few hooks for hanging extra clothing.

“As you entered the cabin there was a step down. Near the door was a speaking tube for communication between the pilot house and the cabin. There was brown and cream-color linoleum in a square design on the floor. Between the windows on the right side as you faced the bow of the boat was a built-in table covered with oilcloth. Stools were used instead of chairs. Dishes were white ironstone.

“Across the front of the cabin was a cupboard for dishes and a small sink. The cookstove was on the left side. There was an open shelf at the side. Iron frypans and kettles hung on hooks behind the stove. There was a sewing machine in the corner and a rocking chair. On the back wall at the right was a mirror, and at the left a large calendar.

“Menus were simple – meat, potatoes, a vegetable and a ‘sauce;’ bacon and eggs and bread with coffee for breakfast, and sometimes ‘steamboat strawberries’ (prunes) … My father put a Yeast Foam box with one side removed across the corner of the window on the left side of the pilot house where I could stand and help him ‘steer’ the boat.”

After a couple of decades on the Illinois River, in 1936 the state of Illinois hauled the old vessel to Channahon on the Illinois and Michigan Canal. The idea was to restore her as an exhibit or perhaps even have it hauled up and down the canal by mules. Nothing ever came of those ideas, though, and the “City of Pekin” was left to rot, and in 1941 a fire burned her to the waterline.


‘The City of Pekin,’ shown here, was a rebuilt canal barge that hauled grain up and down the Illinois River in the early 20th century.

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