This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in Aug. 2012 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.
The Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887
By Jared Olar
One of the worst railroad disasters in Illinois history was the Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887.
The disaster happened in Livingston County, not Tazewell County, so at first glance one might not think it was relevant to Tazewell County history. Nevertheless, the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room has a file specifically on the Great Chatsworth Train Wreck.
A look into that file will quickly reveal the local connection. The main item in the file is a photograph of the disaster that had been reprinted in 1927. The photo caption says, “Although it happened in 1887, all of 40 years ago, one need only say ‘Chatsworth wreck’ in this part of the country and everyone knows what is meant. This picture of the famous wreck belongs to Chris Ziebold, Sr., 1213 Henrietta street, Pekin.”
Notably, this photo was the basis for one of the engravings that illustrated the Harper’s Weekly account of the wreck in the issue dated Aug. 20, 1887.
However, besides the local connection of the photograph, the disaster itself, in which at least 80 people died and probably hundreds were injured, touched the lives of many people throughout central Illinois. The train’s passengers no doubt included residents of Tazewell County.
The wreck, which happened shortly before midnight on Aug. 10, 1887, has been ranked as either the second or third deadliest train disaster of the 19th century. The number of dead has been placed at between 81 and 85 (reports at the time estimated more than 100 dead) and the number of injured anywhere from 169 to 372.
On the evening of Aug. 10, a Toledo, Peoria & Western train pulled out of Peoria, heading east through Eureka and Chenoa on the way to Niagara Falls. The train included two steam engines, six fully loaded passenger cars, six sleeper cars and three cars for luggage (and perhaps more cars). Aboard the train were as many as 700 people who had been attracted by a special offer to visit the famous falls on the New York/Canadian border.
At a point about three miles east of Chatsworth, the train began to accelerate down a slope and reached a speed of about 40 mph. At this point the train began to cross a wooden trestle bridge over a creek. The first engine made it over the bridge, which then collapsed behind it, causing the second engine to slam into a hill side. Most of the cars behind the engine telescoped into the second engine and each other.
One of the survivors, J. M. Tennery, was on the first sleeper, whose passengers escaped with only a fright or minor bruises. He said, “I got out in safety, and the scene presented to the eye and ear was one I wish I could forever efface from my memory.”
“Instantly the air was filled with the cries of the wounded and the shrieks of those about to die,” said a report in the Chicago Times. “The groans of men and the screams of women united to make an appalling sound, and above all could be heard the agonizing cries of little children as in some instances they lay pinned alongside their dead parents.”
News of the wreck quickly spread by telegraph. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of onlookers descended on the scene, and many of them claimed “souvenirs” or even robbed the dead. That led to erroneous speculation that the bridge had been sabotaged for the purpose of robbing the train. In fact, however, it was a tragedy caused indirectly by the weather.
The summer of 1887 was a drought year in central Illinois. Worried that sparks from their steam engines could start an uncontrollable brush fire, on the day of the wreck the TP&W Railroad conducted a controlled burn near the bridge. Apparently the fire was not completely extinguished, and the flames severely charred the wooden trestle under the bridge, leaving it unable to support the train’s weight.
Four days later, the TP&W gathered the debris into a massive heap and set it on fire, even though it is very likely that not all the dead had been recovered from the wreckage. The burning of the wreck is the reason for the uncertain tallies of the dead and injured or even the exact number of cars in some reports.
In the aftermath of the wreck, railroads shifted away from wooden passenger cars in favor of safer and sturdier steel. Also, not long after, musician Thomas P. Westendorf penned the folk ballad, “The Bridge Was Burned at Chatsworth” (also known as “The Chatsworth Wreck”), which was sung at a 1937 memorial service. A state historical marker was placed near the wreck site in 1954.