The Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887

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
Library assistant

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.

This photograph of the Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887 was owned by the late Chris Ziebold of Pekin, and was used as the basis for an engraving that illustrated the Harper’s Weekly report on the wreck.

This Harper’s Weekly drawing illustrating its report of the Chatsworth train crash is clearly based on the above photograph.

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.

Rescuers and searchers comb the Chatsworth train wreckage in this Harper’s Weekly drawing.

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.

Survivors attend their dead loved ones at the scene of the Chatsworth train wreck in this Harper’s Weekly drawing.

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.

A state historical marker was placed near the site of the train wreck in 1954. PUBLIC DOMAIN IMAGE FROM WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

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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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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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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.

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