Memories of Pekin’s lost hotels

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in February 2012 before the launch of this weblog.

Memories of Pekin’s lost hotels

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Modern travelers passing through Pekin or staying for a few days have a few hotels to choose from out on the east end of town, but in the past downtown Pekin had an array of hotels where visitors to “the Celestial City” could find food and a place to lay their heads at night. Following are some of the interesting details about the history of Pekin’s lost hotels may be gleaned from the files of the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room.

Gideon H. Hawley opened the first hotel in Pekin in 1830, but little is known about his venture. In 1839, the Columbia Hotel was opened at Margaret and Fourth streets, where the Windsor Hotel later was built. Another prominent hotel of early Pekin was the American, which was torn down in 1874.

In 1848, two ‘first class’ hotels were established in Pekin. One of them, the Eagle, was on the riverfront at the foot of Court Street. The Eagle’s keeper was Seth Kinman, who later achieved notoriety as a hunter and trapper, presenting Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson with buckhorn and bearclaw chairs that he had made. The other hotel was the Taylor House, later called the Mansion House, whose keeper was “Uncle Bill” Tinney, a veteran of the Mexican-American War who was one of the American soldiers who captured General Santa Ana’s wooden leg (the general leaving it behind during his escape on the back of a mule).

The late former Pekin resident Charles B. Smith in 1946 related the following anecdote he’d heard from those days, when Pekin still had much of the character of a wild frontier town:

“A traveler came off an Illinois river boat one day and went to the Eagle Hotel. There had been a little western scrimmage at the Eagle the night before and, though things had not yet been put in order, the proprietor, Seth Kinman, was sitting in front of the door playing his favorite tune, the Arkansas Traveler, with the greatest self-satisfaction. The stranger stopped and asked Seth: ‘Are you the proprietor here?’ Seth, without resting his bow, replied: ‘Wal, I reckon I be, stranger.’ ‘Do you keep tavern?’ ‘Of course I do, keep tavern like hell’ said Seth fiddling away with all his might, ‘Just pile in, hang your freight on the floor and make yourself at home.’ ‘The boys,’ continued Seth, ‘have been having a little fun but if there’s a whole table or plate in the house I’ll get you some cold hash toward night.’

“The stranger didn’t like the place and took his departure leaving the proprietor still enjoying his violin.

“Late in the afternoon the stranger presented himself at the Taylor House. Uncle Bill Tinney met him outside with his most austere expression. His greeting was: ‘Good morning, good morning, sir. Walk in, sir, and take a seat. Shave you as soon as water gets warm.’ The stranger, not requiring the services of a barber, walked away in haste and amazement and Uncle Bill swore audibly: ‘Some infernal Yankee come out west to steal honest people’s money.’

“The next steamboat that came along found the discomfited traveler on the river bank, awaiting passage for anywhere out of Pekin.”

Tinney later became Pekin’s Justice of the Peace and police magistrate, and also served terms as Tazewell County Sheriff and Coroner, acquiring the nickname “Five Dollars and Costs” because that was the fine he would hand down except in major cases. He was even better known for his stance in support of the voting rights of blacks — after the Civil War, he made a name for himself locally when he, a white man, escorted an African-American man of Pekin to the polls to exercise his newly-won right to vote.

The old Tazewell House hotel, owned and operated by Tazewell County Sheriff “Uncle Bill” Tinney, as depicted in the 1873 Atlas Map of Tazewell County

In 1859, Tinney also became the manager of the Eagle, which he renamed “Tazewell House.” Both Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas stayed at the Eagle or Tazewell House when they were in town on lawyerly business at the Tazewell County Courthouse.

Even so, business at the Tazewell House wasn’t very good, so the property passed in 1867 to Thomas K. Bemis, who rechristened the hotel “Bemis House.” Under his direction, as Charles B. Smith recalled from his own youth, Bemis House became Pekin’s preeminent hotel and the center of Pekin’s social life until the 1880s, when it suffered major damage during a tornado. The structure was repaired, but after Bemis’ death it became a boarding house and finally was razed during the 1940s.

Bemis House, at one time Pekin’s preeminent hotel, is shown in this early 20th-century photograph. Under its original name of Tazewell House, the hotel once hosted Abraham Lincoln and other notable local attorneys when they came to Pekin on legal business at the Tazewell County Courthouse. The site at the corner of Court and Front streets is now a part of Gene Miller Park, adjacent to Pekin’s Riverfront Park. PHOTO COURTESY THE TAZEWELL COUNTY CLERK’S OFFICE

In 1879, Mrs. E. Barber converted a building into a hotel on Elizabeth Street across the street from the courthouse. This was Woodard House or Woodard’s, which burned down in 1899. The Tazewell Hotel was built in its place. In 1962, the building was sold to Herget National Bank, which razed it to make way for a parking lot. At the time, the Tazewell was the only remaining major hotel in downtown Pekin.

Woodard’s Hotel on Elizabeth Street across the street from the courthouse was opened by Mrs. E. Barber in 1879. It burned down in 1899 and was later replaced by The Tazewell Hotel.

The Tazewell Hotel stood until 1962, when it was purchased by Herget Bank and demolished to make space for a parking lot.

Around the turn of the century, the Tazewell was one of seven hotels in the city. One of them, the Illinois Hotel (formerly called Sherman House), outlived the Tazewell by little more than a year, being torn down in the spring of 1963. Sherman House was built in 1874 by John Weber at the corner of Second and St. Mary streets. The Union House was opened in 1881 by Leonhard Dietrich. Two others, the Central House and the Columbia (opened in 1893), were torn down in the 1950s. By then, however, the era of Pekin’s grand downtown hotels was already past.

The Illinois Hotel, originally called Sherman House in the 1800s, was located at the northeast corner of Second and St. Mary streets. It was torn down in the spring of 1963. The block of St. Mary Street between Second and Third streets no longer exists, now occupied by public housing.

Central Hotel, or Central House, was operated by the Rossi family at 333 Margaret St. It was demolished in the 1950s.

The Columbia Hotel, at the corner of N. Fourth and Margaret streets, was opened in 1893 by William H. Lauterbach. It was demolished in the 1950s.

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Pekin from the old water tower

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Following up on our comparison last month of two old aerial views of Pekin from circa 1950 and 1988, this week let’s stretch our view even further back in time – all the way back to the last couple decades of the 1800s.

Around that time, Richard Acton of Chicago prepared and published a collection of photographs of Pekin buildings and vistas, in a book entitled, “Pekin and Environs.” As we noted about a month ago, recently the library received a donation of Benjamin S. Prettyman’s own copy of “Pekin and Environs.”

Among the photos in this book are two aerial views of Pekin – or “semi-aerial,” because in those days it wasn’t that easy for photographers to get themselves airborne, so instead they would have to settle for perching atop tall buildings or towers or hills.

In this case, the photos – called “birdseye views” – were taken from the old water tower of the Pekin Water Works, which was located exactly where the “water works” of Illinois-American Water are still located today – at the southwest corner of Broadway and Capitol.

Whereas the 1950 and 1988 aerial views start at the Illinois River and look eastward over downtown Pekin and beyond, these two birdseye views look westward toward the river. One of them looks somewhat northwestward over downtown Pekin, while the other looks southwest toward the industrial district (still an industrial area today).

The downtown view encompasses an area from around Broadway out to Court St., and from the 300 block of Pekin’s downtown streets down to the river. Then as now, railroad tracks ran parallel with Third St., but there’s not much else that is the same or similar. You may notice that the streets were unpaved and much narrower than they are today. The tall white building in the middle of the photo is the old Illinois Hotel, which can be seen in the circa 1950 aerial view of Pekin, but was torn down in the 1960s. The block in the center of this photo, packed with homes that had sheds, pens and coops for livestock, is now occupied by the State of Illinois Driver’s Facility, while the block to the east of that is now occupied by Davison-Fulton-Woolsey Funeral Home.

The birdseye view to the southwest looks toward some of Pekin’s old alcohol distilleries, once the backbone of the city’s economy. As you can see, the way the factories belched out smoke and fumes over the city indicates that this was long before the Clean Air Act. Even in those days, prevailing winds carried the exhaust of factory smoke stacks out over the city – but placing the distilleries downstream at least meant Pekin’s residents wouldn’t have to drink the effluent which factories discharged into the river.

These two photographs above from the circa 1890 volume “Pekin and Environs” show two “birdseye” views of Pekin looking northwest and southwest from the old water tower that was located near the southwest corner of Capitol and Broadway.

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