The greatest disaster on the Illinois River occurred in the early hours of July 5, 1918, when the steamer Columbia sank just south of Wesley City (now Creve Coeur) between Peoria and Pekin. The Pekin South Side Social Club had hosted a Fourth of July excursion with 563 attendees. Tickets were 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.
Eighty of the passengers boarded at Kingston Mines and the remainder were picked up at Pekin, where at 8:15 p.m. the boat departed and headed upstream.
The Columbia docked at Al Fresco Park, along the river north of the Narrows, and then returned downstream at 11:30 p.m. Just after passing under the Peoria and Pekin Union Railway Bridge, upstream from Wesley City, the boat encountered dense fog. Shortly after midnight, at a point half a mile below Wesley City, the steamer got so close to the Peoria side shore that branches of willows, growing close to the shore, swiped the side of the vessel near the stern and smashed several window panes.
Officers and passengers felt the momentum of the steamer, checked and it appeared to be scraping the bottom of the river. There was no perceptible jolt. The pilot backed the Columbia to clear the sand bar and swung her nose downstream. The captain observed that she was listing slightly and ordered the pilot to run her ashore. With the boat’s nose now pointed at the Tazewell shore the pilot attempted to reach that location. But, the steamer sank in deep water with her decks collapsing one on top of another before the shore could be reached, resulting in the deaths of 87 men, women and children.
The Columbia was a wooden hulled sternwheeler built at Clinton, Iowa, in 1897 as a packet boat and converted to an excursion boat in 1905. In 1912, a well-respected captain, Herman F. Mehl of Peoria, formed the Herman F. Mehl Excursion Company, and bought the Columbia from Capt. Walter Blair of Davenport, Iowa. In autumn 1917, the ship was rebuilt at the Howard Ship Company’s Mound City yards, in time for the 1918 excursion season.
Mehl spent almost $18,000 on renovations to meet safety standards, after which the federal inspectors called the Columbia “the safest boat on western waters”. She was three decks tall, featuring long walkways with gingerbread trim, an ornate pilot house, twin smokestacks and was licensed to carry 1,000 passengers. She was valued at $35,000 but at the time of the accident was uninsured. Her owner, when asked by an insurance underwriter why he carried no insurance, replied, “What would I want insurance for to travel the muddy creek” (meaning the Illinois River). “It is impossible for a serious accident to happen.”
It is believed the Columbia rammed a submerged stump resulting in an 11-foot gash in the starboard side of her hull and the breaking of one of her hog chains. The hulls of wooden river boats were held in shape by a system of wire trusses, called “hog chains." These were not chains at all, but rather iron rods 1 to 2.5 inches in diameter, which ran from strong points in the hull to vertical timbers, called “hog posts,” which looked like masts, rising above the hull. The pilot instead of letting the boat lay on the sandbar until it was found where she was damaged, backed up into deep water. Then without the hog chain support on one side, the boat buckled and not only started to sink, but its superstructure collapsed. Each deck pancaked on top of the other, and most of the people who died were on the middle dance deck.
Both Capt. Mehl and his pilot Tom Williams lost their licenses, and although implicated by the coroner, the case never went to trial. This accident brought about the demise of excursion boats on the Illinois River.
Compiled August 2016 by Frank Borror
The East Peoria Historical Society is located at 324-326 Pekin Ave. It is dedicated to the collection and preservation of local history. If anyone has any information or pictures regarding East Peoria they would share with the community please contact Frank Borror at 696-9227 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.