Peter Weyhrich, Pekin’s pioneer German settler

This is a reprint of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in October 2014 before the launch of this weblog.

Peter Weyhrich, Pekin’s pioneer German settler

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

As mentioned before in this column, the first Pekin city directory was published in 1861. One of the Pekin Public Library’s copies of the 1861 directory is a precious and fragile edition that was formerly owned by none other than Pekin’s own pioneer historian William H. Bates, who prepared the first formal history of Pekin for inclusion in the 1870-71 Sellers & Bates Pekin City Directory.

The pages of Bates’ copy of the 1861 directory are amply annotated in Bates’ own hand. These notes were probably added while Bates was working on later editions of the city directory. One of the notes, on page 70 of the 1861 directory, has to do with an early Pekin city official named Peter Weyhrich Sr.

On that page is a list of the directors of the Pekin and Cincinnati Union District Schools, who were elected to three-year terms. In 1861, the school directors were “Peter Weyhrich, sr.,” whose term of office was to expire in August 1861; William Stanbery, who term was to expire in August 1862; and John Haas, whose term was to expire in August 1863. A handwritten note in Bates’ copy of this directory at bottom of this page says, “Peter Weyhrich, sr., was the pioneer German settler of Pekin.”

Thus, we see that Weyhrich, who arrived in Pekin in 1831 or 1832, held the special place in Pekin’s history as the first of a great wave of German immigrants who would choose Pekin as their new home in America during the 1800s. To be sure, Weyhrich was not the only person of ethnic German descent to arrive during those earliest years of Pekin’s history, but he was the first of them who had been born in Germany. By the latter half of the 1800s, the number of German settlers in Pekin was so large that the city had more than one German-language newspaper and many businesses had signs in their windows telling people that German was spoken there.

Peter Weyhrich Sr. was born in 1806 in Hesse-Darmstadt. A biographical sketch of the life of Peter’s nephew Adam is included in the 1894 “Portrait and Biographical Record of Tazewell and Mason Counties,” on pages 565-566. The sketch says Adam’s grandfather (identified in Weyhrich family histories as Peter’s father) Jacob Weyhrich, a native of Hesse-Darmstadt, settled in Tazewell County in 1828 and was later followed by other members of his family. Peter had arrived in Pekin by 1832, but Adam didn’t emigrate until the 1850s, at or around the same time that his father Philip Weyhrich, Peter’s brother, decided to join Jacob and Peter in America.

Beginning his new life in America in Pekin, the early city directories indicate that Peter was active in the community’s life and commerce. He served as Pekin’s mayor in 1858 and 1859. Peter also took part in the formation of Pekin’s first railroad companies, according to Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County.” Most of the Weyhrich family, however, acquired land in Sand Prairie Township to the south of Pekin. Peter died Jan. 2, 1879, and is buried in Lakeside Cemetery in Pekin.

This detail of the map of Sand Prairie Township south of Pekin from the 1873 Atlas Map of Tazewell shows land owned by the Weyhrich family, a pioneer Pekin family that included Pekin’s first German-born settler, Peter Weyhrich.

Early Tazewell County history tells of another Peter Weyhrich, but that Peter – apparently another nephew of the elder Peter – is only mentioned due to the sensational circumstances surrounding and following his death. Chapman tells the story briefly in two paragraphs on pages 298-299 of his Tazewell County history:

“Peter Weyhrich, an old resident of Sand Prairie, died very suddenly Wednesday night, June 20, 1877. The sudden death and incidents attending it caused grave suspicion of foul play. A jury was impanelled and a post-mortem examination made of the deceased, and the stomach sent to Chicago for examination, where it was decided that he came to his death by poison. Mrs. [Anna E.] Weyhrich, wife of the deceased, was arrested and tried for the murder. The case was taken from this to Logan county and tried the last week in March, 1878. States Attorney [William L.] Prettyman and J. B. Cohrs prosecuted, and Messrs. Roberts & Green defended.

“The trial was a long and tedious one, and the prisoner was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years in the penitentiary. A motion for a new trial was made and denied, when an appeal to the Supreme Court was taken. This tribunal reversed the decision and remanded the case for a new trial, which took place in July, 1878, and resulted in her acquittal.”

As an aside, the prosecutor J. B. Cohrs is none of than Illinois State Sen. John B. Cohrs, a Pekin attorney whose life was previously treated in this space, and whose wife was active in the founding of the Ladies’ Library Assocation, predecessor of the Pekin Public Library.

#adam-weyhrich, #germans-in-pekin, #john-b-cohrs, #pekin-history, #peter-weyhrich, #preblog-columns, #william-h-bates

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.

#benjamin-prettyman, #columbus-r-cummings, #gordis-r-cobleigh, #illinois-bicentennial, #james-m-james, #john-b-cohrs, #pekin-railroads, #railroads, #tazewell-county-railroads, #teis-smith, #william-h-bates