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.


#a-b-sawyer, #adwell-corporation, #c-r-cummings, #columbus-r-cummings, #cornelius-b-cummings, #david-mark, #david-mark-cummings, #james-field, #pekin-history, #preblog-columns, #railroads

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