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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Officers of the Pekin Zouaves

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On the last page of the very first Pekin City Directory, published by Omi E. Root of Peoria in 1861, is an entry for an “independent company of volunteer militia” called the “Pekin Zouaves.” This is how Root’s Directory describes this militia company:

“Organized May 16th, 1861. Number of members, 60. Annual days of parade, 22d February, 10th May, 4th July, 10th September, and 8th January. The following commissioned officers were elected, May 28th, 1861, for six years: G. W. Baker, Captain; H. P. Finigan, First Lieutenant ; L. B. Greenleaf, Second Lieutenant ; W. M. Olmsted, Third Lieutenant. C. R. Cummings, Orderly Sergeant ; appointed by the captain for one year.”

The reason this militia company was formed was one of the most important events in U.S. history – the Confederate States of America’s attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, which sparked the U.S. Civil War. Soon after, militia companies were established throughout the remaining United States to prepare to aid in the Union’s war efforts against the Confederacy, and the Pekin Zouaves were one of those companies.

But why was this company called “Zouaves”? The original Zouaves were a French army light infantry corps organized in 1830 – at first the French Zouaves were all Algerians from North Africa, and consequently their uniforms were Middle Eastern or Turkish in style. Romantically imitating the French Zouaves, other nations also established their own companies of soldiers wearing Zouave-style uniforms, including militia companies in Illinois and Missouri during the early months of the Civil War.

At the website www.infantry8thmo.org/HTMhistory.html is a “Brief History: 8th Missouri Volunteer Infantry (US) – The ‘Fighting American Zouaves.’” Following are excerpts from the “Brief History” (emphasis added):

“As a result of a direct order from President Lincoln to alleviate the prejudice against the Irish, the 8th Missouri Infantry was organized in St. Louis from June 12 to August 14, 1861. Over 600 Irish boatmen & deck hands left the St. Louis riverfront to fight under the command of Captain Morgan L. Smith. Originally from New York, he and his brother, Captain Giles A. Smith, also recruited troops from Bloomington, Illinois. The 8th MO uniform was that of the American Zouaves.

“The Peoria Zouave Cadets were organized in Peoria, Illinois 3/23/1861. They recruited up to war strength and left for St. Louis on 6/19/1861 but, upon their arrival, there was a disagreement and about half returned to Illinois to join the 17th Illinois. An under-strength company calling themselves the Pekin Zouaves from Pekin, Illinois, sent about 30 recruits from Peoria to St. Louis, and filled up the company. They mustered in as Company H. Neither company provided the ‘Zouave influence’ for the company since they were already being referred to as the ‘American Zouave Regiment.’ Company L sharpshooters were recruited in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

“The 8th MO served the duration of the Civil War and fought decisive battles under Generals Grant and Sherman. They became well known for their tenacity, displaying Zouave fighting techniques on the battlefield. Generals Grant and Sherman write about the 8th Missouri in their Memoirs. General Grant’s son, Frederick Dent Grant, writes in ‘At the Front With Dad’ about slipping into the Battle of Vicksburg at age 13 with the 8th Missouri. Eleven soldiers in 8th MO were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their actions during the Siege of Vicksburg.”

As this column has noted previously, one of the members of the Pekin Zouaves was none other than Pekin’s pioneer historian William H. Bates (1840-1930). Of the five original officers of the Pekin Zouaves, Capt. G. W. Baker is listed on page 13 of the 1861 Pekin City Directory as “BAKER, GEORGE W. F., ambrotype and photographic gallery, cor. Court and Second ; bds. Tazewell House.” Thus, Baker was, like Henry Hobart Cole, one of Pekin’s early photographers.

This photograph from the collection of Steven Schmit of Richmond, Va., shows Civil War veteran William H. Bates of Pekin wearing his old “Zouave” uniform.

First Lieut. H. P. Finigan was Henry P. Finigan, a Catholic Ulster-born Pekin attorney, land and real estate agent, and grain merchant. Finigan with his wife Margaret and Margaret’s parents together escaped the Irish Potato Famine and settled in Pekin. Henry’s date of birth is uncertain, because when he registered for the draft in June 1863, his age was written down as 31, but the 1870 U.S. Census says he was 34 at that time (that census also mistakenly gives his middle initial as “B.” rather than “P.”).

Second Lieut. L. B. Greenleaf was Luther Berge Greenleaf, born in Connecticut in 1834 or 1836, died August 1902 in Onarga, Ill. The 1861 Pekin City Directory says he was then a law student. His Onarga newspaper obituary says although he studied law, he instead became a journalist in Peoria, later moving to Kansas for a while, then finally settling down in Onarga.

Third Lieut. W. M. Olmsted was William M. Olmsted (1802-1872), who in 1861 was a clerk at Stephen Roney’s Hardware, 33 Court St., at the corner of Court and Second. Olmsted later was promoted to the rank of captain during the civil war. His grave in Lakeside Cemetery is one of the old Oak Grove Cemetery burials.

Lastly, Orderly Sgt. C. R. Cummings was none other than Columbus R. Cummings (1834-1897), a prominent Pekin businessman and land owner who subsequently served as Pekin’s 20th mayor (1875-1876), later moving to Chicago, where he became a Gilded Age railroad tycoon and banker. It was the heirs of C. R. Cummings’ great estate who in 1916 gave the Pekin public schools an athletic field with the stipulation that it should be named after the estate manager James M. James (1849-1918).

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City shuts down for pioneer’s funeral

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

City shuts down for pioneer’s funeral

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Readers of the Pekin Daily Times in the spring of 1918 found a remarkable and attention-grabbing change in the layout of the front page of the Wednesday, May 8, edition.

A large portion of the top half of that day’s front was taken up by a man’s portrait framed within two large square boxes. Within the frame were the man’s name and the dates of his birth and death, along with an inscription in his honor: “James Morris James; Living, He Earned Respect; Dead, We Do Him Honor; February 14, 1849; May 5, 1918.”

The prominently displayed portrait of James Morris James accompanied a very lengthy story about his funeral. The story, which included the complete text of the remarks and eulogy given by Rev. E. C. Hawkins of First Methodist Episcopal Church, had three headlines: “ALL PEKIN PAUSES TO HONOR PIONEER,” “City Stops Activities this Afternoon for J. M. James funeral,” and “ENTIRE COMMUNITY FEELS BEREAVEMENT.”

But just who was James Morris James, and what was it about him that his death at the age of 69 from heart trouble brought the city of Pekin to shut down for a few hours in the middle of the week?

This portrait of James M. James was published in B.C. Allensworth’s “History of Tazewell County.”

In finding to the answer to that question, we can gather a few initial clues by noting the list of pall bearers at his funeral. One of pall bearers was none other the Pekin’s mayor, Charles Schaefer. Besides the eight actual pall bearers, 20 other men were named as honorary pall bearers. Together, the list of active and honorary pall bearers included most of Pekin’s community leaders.

An even clearer indication of James’ prominence in his community is found in the text of Mayor Schaefer’s proclamation, dated Tuesday, May 7, 1918, which said, “Out of respect to the memory of the late Col. James M. James, who for half a century was closely identified with the progress of our city and this community and who always showed a willingness to aid every cause or improvement which tended to the betterment of our city and its people, the business men of our city are requested to suspend business for one hour, between 2:30 and 3:30 Wednesday afternoon, the time of the funeral of our departed worthy citizen.”

Rev. Hawkins’ glowing tribute to James’ memory is one more indication of just how highly esteemed he was. So also was James’ obituary, which was published in the Monday, May 6, 1918, edition of the Pekin Daily Times. His obituary was unusually long and included a detailed biography, and nestled beside the obituary was a paid advertisement – an expression of appreciation from Farmers National Bank and an announcement that the bank would close at noon Wednesday for James’ funeral. As his obituary states, James joined the bank’s board of directors in 1884, became its vice president in 1905, and became the bank president in 1911.

The following passages from his obituary tell of James’ other activities in Pekin’s business life and economic development:

“Mr. James . . . . in November, 1861, began working at the printing business on a local paper, and later, for a short time, was employed on the old Illinois River Railroad (now Chicago, Peoria & St. Louis Railroad.) In October, 1863, he secured employment as a clerk in the dry goods store of C. B. Cummings & Brother, remaining with them until 1870, when he became bookkeeper for Columbus R. Cummings, railway contractor and builder. His duties including the caring for the local affairs of his employer, and since 1879 he has had charge of both the bank and extensive farm interests of Mr. Columbus R. Cummings, after the removal of the latter to Chicago. Mr. James was a member of the Cummings Harvester Company and its president, while it was in business, from 1889. . . .

“He was also president of the Pekin Mutual Building & Loan Association, and was active in all improvements made at Lakeside cemetery of which association he has been treasurer since its organization.”

James also was directly involved and especially involved in the reclamation of the Lima Lake Drainage District. His obituary says, “About five years ago, in company with a friend, he saw the possibilities of reclaiming this large body of land on the Mississippi, near the city of Quincy, and making it a productive garden spot in place of a waste swamp. He interested Mr. David Mark Cummings in this project, and to show the confidence Mr. Cummings had in his agent, Mr. James purchased from time to time tracts of land aggregating about eight thousand acres, and at the time of his demises, plans for the reclamation of this and the adjoining district were just about to be perfected. . . . His interest was so intense in its success that he seemed to forget that he was unconsciously overtaxing his physical strength in the effort he was making to serve the interest of Mr. Cummings in the development of this drainage district. Even upon his deathbed he expressed an intense desire to live until this matter should have been brought to a successful termination.”

It is evident, then, that his prominent place in the community was chiefly due to his role as agent and custodian of the vast Cummings estate in Pekin and the surrounding areas. As this column has previously noted, Columbus R. Cummings was one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Pekin, and served a single term as Pekin’s mayor. Stung by the failure of his bid for reelection, however, Cummings abruptly gave up the mayoral office, not even finishing out his term, and moved to Chicago, where he became a powerful railroad tycoon. After leaving Pekin, Cummings employed James to manage his estate.

Though James’ funeral had brought Pekin to a temporary standstill, today, 95 years after his death [NOTE: now 99 years], probably few Pekin residents remember him. Yet there is a lasting public memorial to his life: James Field, across Broadway from the former Pekin Community High School West Campus. David Mark Cummings and his wife Ruth were two of the four people who, on June 5, 1916, sold nine lots in Pekin’s old Colts Addition to Pekin School District of Tazewell County, the predecessor of Pekin Public School District 108. The land was sold to provide an athletic field and playground for the school children of Pekin, with the stipulation that it would be named for James. It was only a few years ago that the field was restored through the efforts of the Save James Field Committee. It is now supervised and maintained by the Pekin Park District.

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Columbus R. Cummings, 20th Mayor of Pekin

Here’s a chance to read one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in May 2012 before the launch of this blog . . .

Columbus R. Cummings, 20th Mayor of Pekin

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

After Pekin was incorporated as a city in 1849, for the first 25 years its history the city of Pekin was headed by mayors who served one-year terms. During that time, 18 men were elected mayor, several of them winning a second term. In 1874, however, the people of Pekin decided city government would operate more smoothly if city hall didn’t have a changing of the guard every year. That’s when Pekin began to elect mayors who would serve two-year terms.

Columbus R. Cummings (1834-1897), Pekin’s 20th mayor, was the first of our mayors to be elected to a two-year term, holding office during the years 1875 and 1876. The following biographical sketch of his life is drawn from the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room collection, including the 1894 “Portrait and Biographical Record of Tazewell and Mason Counties, Illinois,” the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial, “Pekin: A Pictorial History” (1998, 2004), and Cummings’ obituary published in the New York Times.

Columbus R. Cummings (1834-1897)

Cummings was born in Canton, St. Lawrence County, New York, on Oct. 14, 1834, one of the 11 eleven children of James P. Cummings and Clarissa Wilson. His father was a well-known attorney. When he was 16, Cummings became a school teacher, later working as a store clerk in Ogdensburg, N.Y. Leaving that job, he moved to Chicago and worked in the store of Potter Palmer for a short time. In 1859, however, he got a better job working for the Illinois Harvesting Machine Company in Pekin. His brother Cornelius B. Cummings came to Pekin at the same time, and the brothers went into business together as dry goods merchants under the name of C.B. Cummings & Co.

Their partnership ended in 1861, but Columbus went on to other successful endeavors, becoming a prominent businessman and landowner. Through his wife Sarah Caroline Mark, Columbus became the heir of David Mark, whose real estate holdings were the largest in Tazewell County at the time of his death. “C.R.” was one of the owners of the Pekin Railway Construction Co. and later was president of the Pekin, Lincoln & Decatur Railway. He also was one of the founding trustees of the Pekin Agricultural and Mechanical Association.

The 1974 Sesquicentennial summarizes his political career in Pekin in this way:

“With due credit, during his administration Pekin paid off all bonds on the due date – a rare achievement in those days, as already indicated. However, when Cummings sought re-election, he was defeated by 33 votes in a hard-fought campaign against A. B. Sawyer. Cummings became embittered, never again appeared at city hall, did not preside over the vote canvass, and shortly thereafter left Pekin and moved to Chicago. An Englishman in a predominantly German community, Cummings may have had other reasons for his dissatisfaction.

“He became even wealthier after his move to Chicago, and both he and his descendants were quite philanthropic through the years, making sizeable endowments to many institutions. But nary a penny was given to Pekin, which paid handsomely for much of the land which later was purchased from the Cummings estate. Until quite recently, the Cummings estate, now known as the Adwell Corporation, still maintained an office in Pekin, but that has recently been moved to Jacksonville, Illinois.”

The words “became even wealthier” are an understatement. In fact, “C.R.” became one of the nation’s millionaire tycoons of the Gilded Age, and the New York Times obituary calls him “the Well-Known Chicago Capitalist.” He was president of Union National Bank and a large stockholder in First National Bank, and was a member of the syndicate that sold the New York, Chicago & St. Louis Railroad to W.H. Vanderbilt. The town of Cummings, now a part of Chicago, was named after him in 1882. Originally called Irondale, the town was rechristened Cummings when a Nickel Plate Railroad station was established there, because Cummings was the first president of the Nickel Plate. He also was president of the Lake Erie & Western Railroad and of the Peoria & Evansville Railroad. He died at his Chicago home at 1641 Indiana Ave. on July 12, 1897.

Today, one visible remnant of the Cummings estate remains prominent in Pekin – James Field. Columbus’ son David Mark Cummings, born 1866, married Ruth Dexter in 1893, and had two daughters, Edith and Dorothy, and a son, Dexter. David and Ruth were two of the four people who, on June 5, 1916, sold nine lots in Pekin’s old Colts Addition to Pekin School District of Tazewell County, the predecessor of Pekin Public School District 108. The land was sold to provide an athletic field and playground for the school children of Pekin. A few years ago it was restored through the efforts of the Save James Field Committee, and is now supervised and maintained by the Pekin Park District.

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