Steamboat disaster on the Illinois River

This is a revised version of a “From the Local History Room” column that first appeared in March 2012 before the launch of this weblog, republished here as a part of our Illinois Bicentennial Series on early Illinois history.

Steamboat disaster on the Illinois River

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

Last month Pekin and nearby communities commemorated the 100th anniversary of one of the most tragic events seared into Pekin’s collective memory: the Columbia riverboat disaster. On July 5, 1918, the steamboat Columbia sank on the Illinois River four miles north of Pekin when it struck a submerged tree stump, ripping a gaping hole in the hull. Out of 496 passengers, 87 died, including 57 Pekin residents.

It was the last large scale river disaster in our area – but steamboats had been plying the waters of the Illinois River since about 1829, when the steamer Liberty visited Peoria, so it should be no surprise that the wreck of the Columbia wasn’t Pekin’s first steamboat disaster. On July 12, 1892, the excursion steamer Frankie Folsom capsized during a storm on Peoria Lake while bringing passengers back to Pekin from Peoria. Most passengers escaped, but 11 died.

Pekin’s first steamboat disaster was on April 25, 1852, when the boilers of the Prairie State exploded, reportedly killing more than 100 passengers.

Pekin’s first riverboat disaster, and apparently Tazewell County’s first major calamity resulting in massive loss of life, was the 1852 explosion of the steamboat Prairie State, which reportedly killed at least 110 people. This photograph was reproduced in “Pekin: A Pictorial History.”

The story of this tragedy is told and retold in several of the standard works on Pekin’s history, but, surprisingly, none of those works gives the correct date of the disaster. Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 History of Tazewell County, the 1949 Pekin Centenary, and the 1974 Pekin Sesquicentennial each claim that the Prairie State exploded on Sunday morning, April 16, 1852. The problem with that date is that April 16 was a Friday that year.

“Pekin: A Pictorial History” (2004) gets closer to the truth, placing the tragedy on Sunday morning, April 24, 1852. However, that day was a Saturday. The correct date is found in “Lloyd’s Steamboat Disasters” (1856), page 293, which says, “The steamer Prairie State collapsed her flues on the Illinois River, April 25th, 1852, killing and wounding twenty persons.” That date was, as Pekin’s history book states, a Sunday.

The number of dead reportedly was far more than 20. “Pekin: A Pictorial History,” page 176, tells the story in these words:

“. . . [T]the packet steamers, Prairie State and Avalanche, southward bound, landed almost simultaneously at the Pekin Wharf and collided. Both were carrying a high head of steam. As a result the boilers on the Prairie State exploded with terrific force. ‘It was the church going hour, but the worship of the Deity was changed to the duties of the Good Samaritan,’ according to Cole’s Guide. The 110 bodies that were recovered were placed side by side under the walnut and oak trees on the bank and every home in the vicinity became a temporary hospital. One rescued passenger, en route to Texas, reported that many of the victims he had seen on board were not recovered. A final count of those who drowned was never ascertained.”

That account repeats most of details and uses much of the same language of Allensworth’s 1905 recollection:

“The two steamers, the ‘Prairie State’ and the ‘Avalanche’ coming from the north, landed almost simultaneously at the Pekin wharf. They were evidently racing as both were carrying a high pressure of steam. The ‘Prairie State’ pulled out of the landing ahead of her competitor, and when nearly opposite our gas works, her boilers exploded with terrific force. This happened on Sunday about the time for the beginning of church services. The people went to the rescue of the injured, and the wreck of the ‘Prairie State’ was towed back to the wharf by the ‘Avalanche.’ Many bodies were recovered and laid side by side under the walnut and oak trees on the bank of the river. The citizens turned their houses into temporary hospitals in which the injured were cared for.

“Mr. James Sallee was a passenger going to Texas, and is authority for the statement that the boat was crowded with passengers, many of whose bodies were never recovered.”

The 1974 Sesquicentennial also more specifically locates the Prairie State’s explosion at “a point nearly opposite ‘gas house hill’ (in the area of 100 Fayette Street).”

The 1949 Centenary and the Sesquicentennial also repeat Allensworth’s account and recycle some of his words. The Centenary added the darkly humorous observation that, “Pekin’s population increased by a somewhat unusual method, when a large number of people literally ‘blew into town,’” explaining that many of the survivors decided to stay on in Pekin after their recovery.

One of the survivors, according to the Centenary, was “the grandfather of Paul Sallee, the present Pekin trouper,” who is called “a well-known area entertainer” in the Sesquicentennial. Paul Sallee’s grandfather, of course, was the James Sallee of Allensworth’s account.

#illinois-bicentennial, #james-sallee, #paul-sallee, #prairie-state, #preblog-columns, #steamboat-disasters, #steamboats, #wreck-of-the-columbia, #wreck-of-the-frankie-folsom, #wreck-of-the-prairie-state

Seeds of Illinois’ religious faith

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

On Friday, July 6, at 11 a.m., the Pekin Public Library will present the seventh video in its Illinois Bicentennial Series in the Community Room. Pekin’s first railroad was christened in a special ceremony on July 4, 1859. With that in mind, July’s video will be “History of Pekin Railroads and Depots,” which is 54 minutes in length.

The first week of July holds special meaning this year as Pekin and other area communities mark 100 years since the riverboat Columbia disaster of July 5, 1918, in which 87 of the 500 passengers drowned, most of the victims from Pekin. To commemorate the wreck of the Columbia, the library will host a talk by Ken Zurski, author of “The Wreck of the Columbia,” at 11 a.m. Tuesday, July 3, in the Community Room. Afterwards, at 2 p.m. that day the library will present a showing of WTVP’s new documentary, “The Sinking of the Columbia,” in the Community Room. Admission to these library events is free and the public is invited.

All day on July 3, the library will display articles and photographs of the disaster in the Community Room, including a 48-star U.S. flag from the Columbia that was salvaged the day after the wreck by Columbia survivor Roscoe Maxey of Pekin. The flag was donated to the Pekin Public Library in 1986 by Roscoe’s son Justin Maxey.

Pekin is hosting a memorial service for the Columbia’s victims and survivors at 10 a.m. Saturday, June 30, at the foot of Court Street, while on Sunday, July 1, at 7:30 p.m., the Pekin Park Concert Band will offer a concert in memory of the Columbia. Pekin’s churches have been invited to toll their bells on Saturday in conjunction with the riverfront service.

A solemn moment of memory and prayer is a fitting tribute to the Columbia’s victims, especially considering that religious faith and its public expression have always been a pillar of life in Pekin and Tazewell County – and statewide as well, from Illinois’ earliest days.

Before the arrival of European explorers and settlers in the Illinois Country, religion here took the form of the ancient nature-based or animist pagan religions of the Native American tribes. Catholic French explorers and missionaries introduced Christianity to Illinois in the 1600s, and French villages in Illinois often included chapels or churches – including La Ville de Maillet (Peoria) – and in places such as Cahokia or Prairie du Rocher religious missionaries offered Masses and provided religious instruction.

The Church of the Holy Family in Cahokia, Ill., is the church of the oldest continuous Catholic parish in the U.S. and the oldest church west of the Allegheny Mountains, having been established in 1699. The church building, still in use today, was first erected in 1786 using the French colonial poteaux-sur-solle log cabin style, and is little changed from when it was first built.

Catholic missionaries baptized many Native Americans, but sometimes the native tribes were not wholly converted from their ancient beliefs. One notable example was the influential Kickapoo prophet Kannekuk, who began a religious movement among Illinois’ native peoples in 1825 that mixed Catholic Christian doctrines and practices with Kickapoo religious beliefs and concepts. Though Kannekuk’s zealous preaching saved many of his people from the evils of alcohol abuse, Catholic priests in Illinois were grieved by his syncretistic approach which led members of their flocks to embrace beliefs that the Church condemns as heretical.

Despite the work of the Catholic missionaries, the regular practice of religious faith and the lasting establishment of churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques in Illinois did not really take root until the 1800s. This is not because Illinois’ early settlers were generally irreligious or secular in their outlook. Far from it – most of them were Catholic and Protestant Christians who had come from communities where religious practice and catechesis were a regular part of life. It rather had to do with the stark realities of pioneer life. As Illinois Gov. Edward Dunne explained in the first volume of his 1833 “Illinois: The Heart of the Nation,” pages 252-253:

“The prime necessity of the frontiersman was the preservation of his life and the lives of his dependents. To preserve life he needed shelter, food and clothing. To secure these he was compelled to give his whole time and energy. He had to build his cabin and shelter for his live stock, to watch the Indians, to track the wild game, and to make his traps and fish nets in order by hook or crook to keep hunger from his door. He had no time for education or for following the outward forms of religion. He built no schools or churches, nor had he the means to pay others for so doing.”

Further on in his account, Dunne sketches this picture of the religious landscape of Illinois in the days of the first European settlers (pages 253-254):

“The first waves of pioneer settlers in the state naturally by outward action showed but little evidence of the inner feelings of these hardy men towards religious ceremonies. The clergymen and Sunday school teachers of their old homes had not accompanied them into the wilderness. Except among the French habitants there were no preachers, teachers or houses of worship in the new land. Instead of hunting for churches which were non-existent for non-Catholics, they acquired the habit of hunting for game, which was abundant. This non-attendance at religious meetings was not proof that they were all irreligious. As soon as clergymen of their own respective religious [traditions] began to arrive and as soon as these reverend men secured churches or even temporary houses of worship, thousands of them felt and responded to the call to return to the teachings of their youth and filled the churches with zealous believers in the Christian faith.”

According to Dunne, many of Illinois’ newcomers in the early 1800s came from Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian backgrounds. Methodist clergy were among the most energetic in evangelizing the new state, and by 1824 the Methodists of Illinois already had a presiding elder, nine circuits, 11 preachers, and a membership of 3,705 European Americans and 27 African Americans. By the following year, the Baptists reported that they had 58 preachers and “exhorters” in Illinois. That same year there were 16 Presbyterian preachers in the state. Other Protestant denominations such as the Brethren (“Dunkards”), Covenanters, and Independents each had a single minister active in Illinois. Besides the orthodox Catholic and Protestant groups, a few Universalist ministers were also working in Illinois. As for the Catholics, almost all were of French origin in the first three decades of the 19th century, but a few Irish families had begun to arrive by the 1820s, and there were three English-speaking Catholic mission churches in Illinois by 1830.

Next week we will offer an overview of the development of religion in Pekin during the 1800s.

#baptists, #brethren, #cahokia, #catholic-missionaries, #church-of-the-holy-family, #covenanters, #dunkards, #illinois-bicentennial, #illinois-religion, #kannekuk, #methodism, #poteaux-sur-solle, #prairie-du-rocher, #presbyterians, #universalists, #wreck-of-the-columbia

Two generations of tragedy and loss

EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s another chance to read this old Local History Room column, first published on 18 May 2013 before the launch of this blog and then posted here on 16 Nov. 2016. We’re re-posting it here to help draw attention to our upcoming program on the riverboat Columbia disaster. At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 30, local author Ken Zurski, who published a book in 2012 entitled, “The Wreck of the Columbia,” will come to the Pekin Public Library to talk about the disaster which claimed the lives of 87 of the boat’s 500 passengers. Most of the victims were from Pekin. For Mr. Zurski’s program, the library will display articles and photographs of the disaster, along with the 48-star U.S. flag from the Columbia which was salvaged the day after the wreck by Columbia survivor Roscoe Maxey of Pekin. The flag was donated to the Pekin Public Library in 1986 by Roscoe’s son Justin Maxey.

Articles and photographs pertaining to the 1918 wreck of the riverboat Columbia are currently on display in the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room. Local author Ken Zurski will give a lecture on the Columbia disaster at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 30 March 2017, in the library’s upstairs Community Room.

Two generations of tragedy and loss

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

This weekend, the Tazewell County Genealogical & Historical Society will conduct a cemetery walk remembering victims of the July 5, 1918, Columbia riverboat disaster. The cemetery walk will be from 2 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, May 19 (with a rain date of Sunday, June 2), at Lakeside Cemetery in Pekin, where most of the 57 Pekin residents who died in the wreck of the Columbia are buried.

Local interest in the Columbia disaster was renewed last year [2012] with the publication of Ken Zurski’s “The Wreck of the Columbia,” the first book-length treatment of this tragic event that brought grief to a great number of families in Pekin and the surrounding areas. Eighty-seven people drowned when the Columbia struck a sandbar and collapsed and sank near Wesley City (Creve Coeur).

In his book, Zurski tells the stories of several of the victims and survivors, and of some who avoided falling victim to the disaster through unforeseen circumstances that prevented them from going on the fatal cruise. Among the stories not told in Zurski’s book is that of a Columbia victim named Hazel Marie Bowlby, who was 21 when she died.

The photograph of Hazel Marie Bowlby was taken the winter before she drowned in the wreck of the Columbia. PHOTO PROVIDED BY GAYLA ERLENBUSCH, LUCILLE'S GRANDDAUGHTER

The photograph of Hazel Marie Bowlby was taken the winter before she drowned in the wreck of the Columbia. PHOTO PROVIDED BY GAYLA ERLENBUSCH, LUCILLE’S GRANDDAUGHTER

In January, Hazel’s relatives supplied the Pekin Daily Times with copies of old photographs of Hazel, along with a copy of a letter that Hazel wrote to her sister about a year before the disaster. Copies of the photographs and letter have been forwarded to the Pekin Public Library to be added to the library’s Local History Room collection.

Hazel, born in 1897, was a daughter of John C. and Susie Wertz Bowlby. She had an older sister named Lucille and a younger brother named Elmer. “She was my grandmother’s only sister,” said Gayla Erlenbusch, Lucille’s granddaughter.

Shown are (back row) Lucille Bowlby and Hazel Marie Bowlby, and (front row) Susie Wertz Bowlby, Elmer Bowlby, and John C. Bowlby. PHOTO PROVIDED BY GAYLA ERLENBUSCH, LUCILLE'S GRANDDAUGHTER

Shown are (back row) Lucille Bowlby and Hazel Marie Bowlby, and (front row) Susie Wertz Bowlby, Elmer Bowlby, and John C. Bowlby. PHOTO PROVIDED BY GAYLA ERLENBUSCH, LUCILLE’S GRANDDAUGHTER

From the copy of the letter that Hazel’s relatives have supplied, we know that in the summer of 1917 Hazel worked for the Pekin Daily Times – writing to her sister Lucille, Hazel typed the letter on stationery bearing the newspaper’s letterhead, and mailed it in a Pekin Daily Times printed envelope. In her letter, Hazel says she may need to borrow $5 from Lucille, and indicates dissatisfaction that the Times’ general manager and managing editor Charles Utter had not given her any raises in pay.

Erlenbusch said that her grandmother Lucille could have ended up as one of the Columbia’s victims along with her sister, if it weren’t for a sisterly spat.

“Hazel and her sister were both supposed to go, but they got into an argument. Apparently they both wanted to wear the same blouse. So my grandmother got mad and decided to stay home,” Erlenbusch said. Hazel went alone, the last time any of her family saw her alive.

Hazel was one of the many victims who had been on the boat’s dance floor. Her body was one of the last to be recovered, according to Erlenbusch. “My great-grandparents sent my grandmother to identify her,” she said. Hazel was buried in Green Valley Cemetery.

Lucille Bowlby stands at the grave of her sister Hazel the day of her funeral, at Green Valley Cemetery. PHOTO PROVIDED BY GAYLA ERLENBUSCH, LUCILLE'S GRANDDAUGHTER

Lucille Bowlby stands at the grave of her sister Hazel the day of her funeral, at Green Valley Cemetery. PHOTO PROVIDED BY GAYLA ERLENBUSCH, LUCILLE’S GRANDDAUGHTER

We can well imagine how painful Hazel’s death was to her loved ones, but it must have been especially hard on her father, John C. Bowlby, as it was the second time death had shockingly struck someone close to him.

As told in Ben C. Allensworth’s 1905 “History of Tazewell County,” on Feb. 19, 1895, John’s first wife Belle Wallace Bowlby was shot to death by her own brother Albert Wallace, who was living with his sister and brother-in-law on the old Wallace homestead in Dillon Township. John and the Bowlbys’ hired man Lawrence Lyman also suffered very serious gunshot wounds in the incident.

What led up to the crime was the death of Belle’s and Albert’s father, Andrew Wallace, who was killed in 1890 by James Connell in self-defense. Andrew left his estate to Belle, which “led to bickering between Mr. and Mrs. Bowlby and Albert Wallace, who made frequent demands for money, and when refused, is said to have made threats against Mr. and Mrs. Bowlby,” Allensworth writes.

Finally, one night Albert took a shotgun and, aiming through a window, fired at John’s head. “Bowlby, whose hand was on his forehead, had several fingers blown off and a number of shot entered his head. Mrs. Bowlby sprang and opened the door, when she was shot in the stomach. Lyman was shot twice in the leg, and was badly burned in the face by the powder,” according to Allensworth. Belle died two days later, while Lyman lost an eye. John eventually recovered and remarried.

After the shooting, Albert borrowed a neighbor’s horse and rode to Pekin, where he surrendered to the sheriff. Asking why he was turning himself in, he said, “You will find out later.” He was convicted of murder on Oct. 28, 1895, and sentenced to death by hanging. He was executed on March 14, 1896 – the last legal hanging in Pekin.

#albert-wallace, #charles-utter, #elmer-bowlby, #hazel-bowlby, #john-c-bowlby, #ken-zurski, #last-execution-in-pekin, #lawrence-lyman, #lucille-bowlby, #murder-of-belle-wallace-bowlby, #pekin-daily-times, #susie-wertz-bowlby, #wreck-of-the-columbia