Houses on wheels: South Pekin’s early history

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in December 2013 before the launch of this blog . . .

Houses on wheels: South Pekin’s early history

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Among the items in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection are two small volumes on the history of the village of South Pekin. One of the volumes is a reprint of Polk’s South Pekin Directory for 1937, published when Glenn Draper was South Pekin’s mayor. The other is a 48-page book entitled, “The Whirlwind History of South Pekin,” compiled Ann Fisher Bradburn and Betty Metroff Robinson for the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society.

The book’s title is a play on words, a reference to the tornado of 1938 that destroyed much of South Pekin and killed 11 of the village’s residents. At the time, South Pekin was still a young community, having existed as an incorporated village for not quite 21 years.

Settlement in the South Pekin area, however, began in the 1820s, with the first arrival of white settlers to what would soon become Tazewell County. South Pekin is located in Sections 27 and 34 of Cincinnati Township, which was formed in 1850. Originally the township stretched further north into Pekin, but those northern sections – including land first settled in 1824 by Jonathan Tharp of Pekin – later were reassigned to Pekin Township. In fact, as this column as previously related, if things had gone differently, the city of Pekin would have been named Cincinnati, after the city in Ohio, the state where the Tharps and other early Tazewell County settlers had come from.

South Pekin owes its origin to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. The village began as a railway station, and rail cars had a very prominent place in South Pekin’s area days, as Bradburn and Robinson explain in their history. Their account of the founding of South Pekin is on pages 6-7, and is excerpted here:

“The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad made a series of corporate decisions that eventually led to the founding of the village of South Pekin, Illinois. The railroad constructed its line from Nelson, Illinois (on the ‘Omaha Line’) to Peoria, Illinois in 1901. In 1904 C&NW employees discovered a large coalfield near Staunton in Macoupin County. The railroad purchased approximately 30,000 acres of the coal bearing land for $1,010,613.00. Mine shafts were sunk, and other mining facilities were built. The town of Benld was laid out to provide housing for workers. On June 4, 1903 the Macoupin County Railroad was incorporated to link with the Chicago and Alton Railroad (this line was contracted to haul coal to Peoria for the C&NW). Chicago and Northwestern quickly became dissatisfied with the reliability of that new line to supply the needed coal. A few years later C&NW determined to build a line of their own to access the coal field and carry freight between Chicago and St. Louis. The announcement of the new line from Peoria to a point near Girard was made on January 27, 1911, and the St. Louis, Peoria, and Northwestern Railroad was incorporated on February 23, 1911.

“Surveyors laid out the new line to be as straight as possible with little effort given to passing through existing communities. It missed Pekin by one mile and Springfield by three or four miles. By March of 1912, all of the right of way had been purchased and grading was started. (The new line used portions of the tracks of other incorporated railroads.) C&NW needed a water, refueling, and repair station midway on the new line. The first choice for the location of this new station was Green Valley, but protests from residents there prompted a change of plans. A new location was chosen, and the railroad and its employees began to build the new station that became South Pekin.’

The vintage photograph, reproduced in the 1967 South Pekin Golden Jubilee booklet, shows McFadden Flats, the area where South Pekin's original residents lived in what was known as Box Car Village.

The vintage photograph, reproduced in the 1967 South Pekin Golden Jubilee booklet, shows McFadden Flats, the area where South Pekin’s original residents lived in what was known as Box Car Village.

“Surveyors and the men hired by the railroad spent periods of time at the site to grade the right of way, lay track, and build facilities such as the roundhouse, water tower, etc. The workers also drained a swampy area that had been utilized by area farmers for duck hunting. The first permanent resident family, Al Casper, his wife, and daughter, arrived on Christmas Day in 1912. They moved into an existing farmhouse. At least one new resident family set up housekeeping in a tent. As more families arrived, the railroad gave them boxcars to use as homes. At first the boxcars were on the tracks of the new railyard. The cars were moved frequently, and residents had to search for their homes! Eventually the cars were moved on to a siding that became known as McFadden Flats. Mike McFadden initiated this more permanent solution for the houses on wheels. Later, some of the cars were removed from the wheels and dragged by teams of horses or mules from the tracks to lots in the new community. Connecting several cars together in various configurations made large homes. Peaked roofs, and amenities such as indoor plumbing, running water, central heating, and electricity were added when they became available, or when the families could afford to add them to their homes . . . .”

Having gotten off to a “rolling start,” the Village of South Pekin was incorporated on April 12, 1917.


#box-car-village, #chicago-and-northwestern, #cincinnati-addition, #cincinnati-township, #jonathan-tharp, #mcfadden-flats, #preblog-columns, #railroads, #south-pekin-history, #whirlwind-history-of-south-pekin

Cincinnati in standard Pekin historical works

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last month, in an exploration of some of the lost place names and forgotten settlements of Tazewell County’s, we reviewed a bit of the history of the proposed town of Cincinnati, which never was a separate town but instead became Pekin’s Cincinnati Addition.

This week, we’ll conveniently compile the references to the “aborted” town of Cincinnati from the standard publications on Pekin’s history.

Let’s start with “Pekin: A Pictorial History,” which was published by Herget Bank in 1998 and updated in 2003. On page 10, we find two brief mentions of Cincinnati. First is the caption to the photo of Jacob Tharp, father of Pekin’s founding settler Jonathan Tharp. The caption says:

“Jacob and a brother erected a permanent dwelling next to Jonathan and his family in 1825 and, being from Ohio, laid out a town they called ‘Cincinnati.’”

Just below that caption, we find the following text in a grey box:

“It seems appropriate to attempt an explanation of the unusual mixture of triangular intersections, jogs, and other odd features of the layout of [Pekin] city streets. In 1831, two rival land-owning groups plotted their ground next to each other, using different layouts. One plotted the town of ‘Cincinnati,’ using a strict north/south grid; the second group plotted the town of ‘Pekin,’ following the line of the Illinois River bank, which resulted in a northeast/southwest grid.”

Though there is no indication that the grey box text is a quote, in fact it comes directly from the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial, which has the following account on page 23:

“. . . but first it seems appropriate to attempt an explanation – especially for newcomers — of the unusual mixture of triangular intersection, jogs, and other odd features of the layout of city streets.

“In 1831 (after the land auction in Springfield discussed in the Overview) two rival land-owning groups plotted their ground next to each other, using different layouts. One plotted the town of ‘Cincinnati,’ using a strict north/south grid; the second group plotted the town of ‘Pekin,’ following the line of the Illinois River bank, which resulted in a northeast/southwest grid.

“Other land owners who acquired their property after the 1829 land auction did not develop their holdings into lots immediately. When they did (during the mid-1830’s), they followed the north/south grid established by ‘Cincinnati.’ Broadway, which followed the grid system of Cincinnati, separated the two original street systems. Court Street was the only thoroughfare extending out of ‘Pekin’ into ‘Cincinnati’; the intersection of this northwest/southeast street with ‘Cincinnati’s’ north/south ones accounts for many of the confusing intersections west of Eighth Street.

“When the County Seat was moved to Pekin from Mackinaw, the town ‘Cincinnati’ was made an addition to the town of Pekin by an Act of the State Legislature – hence, our present system of unusual street layouts in the older part of Pekin. (A re-reading of this section with a city map in hand would prove beneficial if you are still confused.)”

Given that we know the plats of Pekin and Cincinnati were both completed and filed in 1830, it appears the Sesquicentennial is off a year in its date of when the “two rival land-owning groups plotted their ground next to each other.”

The aborted plans for the town of Cincinnati are not discussed in the 1949 Pekin Centenary, nor in William H. Bates’ account of Pekin history which he included in the 1870-71 Pekin City Directory. However, Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” page 899, notes as follows:

“The original Town of Pekin was enlarged in 1830 by the addition of 160 lots, which was named ‘Cincinnati Addition.’”

The date of 1830 given by Allensworth agrees with the known dates associated with the surveying and recording of the Pekin and Cincinnati plats, thus supporting the conclusion that the date of 1831 found in the Sesquicentennial and in “Pekin: A Pictorial History” is in error.

Allensworth’s history, page 834, provides a history of Cincinnati Township which includes an account of the plans for the town of Cincinnati. This account was in fact reprinted verbatim from page 416 of Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County”:

“In 1850, on the eve of adapting the township mode of conducting affairs, the commission appointed to divide the county into townships, laid off Cincinnati a full congressional township, which included 36 sections. Subsequently the northern tier of sections was cut off and added to Pekin township. In this portion of the township, near where the P. L. & D. Railway shops are now located, Jonathan Tharp settled in 1824. He was the first settler both in the city of Pekin and in this township, in that that section he located upon, was afterwards included in Pekin. Jacob Tharp Sr., came in 1826 and erected the second house, south of the corner of Broadway and Court streets. Jonathan Tharp laid his farm off into town lots, and named his prospective village Cincinnati, whence the present name of the ‘township.’ Pekin was laid off and the two places so close together, were known as Pekin and Cincinnati. Finally they were united under the name of Pekin.”


Pekin’s Cincinnati Addition is shown as the southwest section of the city in the 1864 wall map of Tazewell County.

#cincinnati-addition, #jacob-tharp, #jonathan-tharp, #pekin-history

Dead and aborted towns of Tazewell County

Judging from the number of “likes” and “shares” on Facebook and Twitter, a great deal of interest was generated by the column last month on Pekin’s mysterious and ephemeral suburb of “Hong Kong,” marked on an 1857 wall map of Tazewell County but appearing on no other map nor in any other known historical document.

Hong Kong, of course, is far from the only toponym that has vanished from the map. In April 1979, the late local historian Fred W. Soady Jr. prepared a “Preliminary Master List of Settlements in Tazewell County, Illinois” for the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society. Soady’s list includes many place names that have long since disappeared, some of the settlements existing for a short time before dying out, others flourishing for a good while before succumbing to trends and pressures of migration and economics. The town of Circleville south of Pekin is a better known example of a town that was founded early in Tazewell County, flourished for many years (being on an old stage coach route), but later faded and died.

In other cases, the places on Soady’s list are still inhabited today but were renamed at some point. As this column has discussed in the past, the old neighboring settlements of Fond du Lac (Fondulac) and Blue Town merged to become Hilton, which later was renamed East Peoria. Other nearby settlements we’ve discussed include Wesley City, which later adopted the name of Creve Coeur, while North Pekin formerly was called Radio City.

As for the village of Mackinaw, which was Tazewell County’s first county seat, its original name was “Mackinawtown.” Soady’s list includes an entry for “MACKINAW TOWN” (two words), with a note saying, “oldest name (1827-28) for MACKINAW.” However, an old copy of a plat in the TCGHS archives, probably drawn during the 1850s from an original plat legally filed and recorded in the 1830s, shows the name as “Mackinawtown” (one word).

The copy of the Mackinawtown plat, along with another copy of a plat for the “Town of Mackinaw” (made from an original plat filed May 26, 1830, with Tazewell County Recorder of Deeds Isaac Perkins) are among the old land records and plats in the TCGHS archival collection. One set of historical hand-drawn copies of Tazewell plats in the TCGHS collection was preserved by being interleaved long ago among the map plates of an old 1855 “Mitchell Universal Atlas” (published by Charles DeSilver) that was donated to the TCGHS in 1990. These plats, most of them drawn in the 1850s, are of towns and settlements with familiar names – such as Tremont, Delavan, Dillon, Groveland, Armington, Morton, Spring Lake, Hopedale, Washington – or else show additions to area towns, such as the Colts, Haines, and Cincinnati Additions to Pekin, or the Semples and Dorseys Additions to Washington, or Bacons Addition to Groveland.

Several of these plats, however, are of settlements that no longer appear on our maps, or may never have appeared on any map or in any atlas or plat book. We have already mentioned Circleville, which no longer exists, and Wesley City, now called Creve Coeur. The Wesley City plat inserted in the “Mitchell Universal Atlas” is chiefly remarkable for showing a grid of streets and lots that is obviously and purely a fantasy of the plat owners, and is frankly impossible geographically, for the plat fails to account for Creve Coeur’s hills, gullies, and hollers.

A number of these plats are of settlements that probably never got off the ground – “aborted towns” that never made it past the planning stage of the land speculators – or perhaps only existed for a short time, or later were merged into neighboring settlements. Among these “dead” and “aborted” towns of Tazewell County shown in this collection of plats are Liberty (surveyed July 22, 1835, plat filed June 17, 1836), Spring Garden (plat recorded by its proprietor S. A. Bumstead), Hancock (surveyed October 1836), Madison, Hamilton (surveyed August-September 1836), Cleveland (plat filed Feb. 15, 1836), Montpelier (surveyed Sept. 8-9, 1836), and Danforth (located along the old T & P railroad, surveyed by William S. Morgan for proprietors E. W. Cantwell and W. F. Evans).

The town of Cleveland, on Peoria Lake, existed – or would have existed – about where East Peoria’s Walmart is located today. Soady’s preliminary list of Tazewell County toponyms suggests that Liberty may have been another name for Dillon, which, however, has its own plat in this collection separate from the Liberty plat. Soady’s list also suggests that Danforth may have been renamed Tullamore. But Spring Garden, Hancock, Madison, Cleveland, and Montpelier do not appear on Soady’s list.

One of the “aborted” towns in this collection of plats was to be named Cincinnati. Like the proposed town of Cleveland, it was to bear an Ohio place name – many pioneer settlers of Tazewell County in general and Pekin in particular came from Ohio. The plat owners of the prospective town of Cincinnati were Jonathan Tharp and Jesse Dillon. Tharp is famous locally for settling in 1824 at a spot that is now the foot of Broadway in Pekin, where the former Franklin School now stands. The published works on Pekin’s history mention that two rival groups of Pekin settlers wished to establish a town here along the Illinois River. While one group, including Nathan Cromwell, Isaac Perkins, and William Haines, proposed a town with streets running perpendicular to and parallel with the river, Tharp and Dillon proposed their town with streets running north-south and east-west.

Tharp and Dillon filed their plat for the town of Cincinnati on July 11, 1830 (Soady’s list says Tharp laid out the plat in 1827). Cromwell, Haines, and their associates drew up their own town plans in 1829 and also formalized a plat in 1830, apparently in such a hurry to file it that they didn’t have time to think of a name – they called their desired settlement simply “Town Site” and only came up with the name “Pekin” later in 1830. Meanwhile, the plans of Tharp and Dillon failed to bear fruit. Instead, their proposed town was recast as the Cincinnati Addition to Pekin, the northern border of which was Broadway, with Tharp’s home lot (No. 160) at the northwest corner of the Addition. The “Mitchell Universal Atlas” collection includes a cartographer’s fragile template and accompanying legal description for a plat of “Cincinnati,” as well as a later plat copy of Cincinnati Addition which was drawn and recorded May 28, 1857 – tellingly, the plat copy of Cincinnati “Addition” is in fact still titled “Town of Cincinnati.”

Although the town of Cincinnati never came to fruition, “Cincinnati” is, of course, still an extant Tazewell County toponym – it’s the name of the township located to the south of Pekin Township.

The photo gallery below features selections from the “Mitchell Universal Atlas” collection of plats, all images courtesy of the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society.

#blue-town, #cincinnati-addition, #circleville, #creve-coeur, #fondulac, #hilton, #hong-kong, #jonathan-tharp, #mackinaw, #mackinawtown, #mitchell-universal-atlas, #nathan-cromwell, #plats, #tazewell-county-history, #wesley-city, #william-haines