by Danielle Webster
Unfortunate events don't always strike larger cities, such as Chicago or New York. They don't target a specific group of people, or income either. Oftentimes, these events happen, with little to no warning. Our hometown is no exception to this. Peoria has had it's share of great losses, from the tragic Chatsworth train accident, to the sinking of the cruise ship, the "Columbia" just south of Pekin. In fact, our most famous local college, Bradley University was built only after it's founder, Lydia Moss Bradley, lost not only all of her children but also her husband in a shocking tragedy.
The Chatsworth Disaster in the summer of 1887, a popular travel destination for many American families was Niagara Falls, as it still is today. However, in those days, Peoria was much different than the metropolis we know today. Other than the obvious horse and buggies, and standard vehicles in which to make the journey in, there were boats, and then there was the railway. The Toledo, Peoria and Western Railway was the main way to make the trip so, on August 10th, 700 passengers boarded to make their expedition. The train left promptly at 8:00pm, with the 12 coach cars loaded to capacity, with 2 engines to speed the load. Unfortunately, instead of a family excursion or a fun trip out of town, the passengers were well on their way to being in one of the worst railroad wrecks in the history of the American railway.
The train was speeding down the railway, making a stop shortly after midnight at Chatsworth to pick up more passengers. It proceeded down the line at 35-40 miles per hour towards Piper City. About halfway between the two cities there was a shallow ditch which the train trestle would cross. It was filled with dry timber and leaves and was afire, however the conductor realized that too late to stop his load. While the first engine spanned the 18 foot long bridge, it's sheer weight caused the bridge to collapse. The second engine slammed into the far bank, plunging the cars one after the other into each other. 279 people were injured, with another 80 passengers killed.
Most of the passengers in the forward cars were instantly slain, their remains ground into the mangled debris and the scattered belongings of passengers. Any who had survived were now in danger of being burned alive as the fire now continued to burn with the added fuel the locomotive had gifted it. The conductor on the head engine left the scene to run for help. Men and women desperately threw handfuls of dirt upon the flames. The night was pitch black, making it harder to rescue the dying. Cries of the wounded surrounded them as they worked. The dead were laid in rows and covered in coats while all possible aid was given to the injured. Worse yet, it took 2 hours for word to come to Peoria of the accident. Finally, around 7:00am a relief train came carrying doctors and nurses.
While Chatsworth set up a makeshift hospital in their town hall, and a morgue at the railway station, here in Peoria the Rock Island Train Depot served as both. The depot began receiving bodies the morning after, packed into coffins with ice to preserve them. When the train would arrive here, the remains would be unpacked from the ice. Most were set up in the freight room for families to identify, while some went out on other trains for families to claim. Funerals continued for nearly a week. As a result of the carelessness that Toledo, Peoria and Western had given to it's railway, 255 claims were brought against the company from the families of the deceased and injured. The railroad did act promptly to compensate the families and by January 1888, all were settled at a cost of $300,000.
Railway workers admitted in an inquest on August 17th, that they had set fire to the grass and weeds in the area and left it to burn. However, they testified that the area around the trestle had been cleared so that the fire would avoid the bridge. Later it was found that the flames had spread to a nearby stack of railway ties. After a deliberating 3 hours, the coroner's jury convicted section boss Coughlin of criminal negligence and failure to inspect the track. Toledo, Peoria and Western were cited for failure to patrol the track. In the years following many have claimed to hear the sounds of twisting metal and unearthly cries at the site. Could the deceased be reliving their last moments? I'll let you decide, dear reader.
The Final Voyage Of The Columbia.In the early 1900's, one of the most booming trades in the Peoria area was to be on the Illinois River as a steamboat captain. With riverboats offering both daytime and evening cruises, it was a popular attraction for families to board and enjoy food, drinks and dancing. One of these popular steamers was the Columbia. Owned and operated by the Herman F. Mehl Excursion Company, the current captain of the ship was none other than it's stockholder, Mr. Mehl himself. Built in 1898 the Columbia had 3 decks of cabins with the pilothouse on the top and was licensed to carry up to 1,000 passengers at a time.
On the fateful night of July 5th, 1918, the steamer was booked by both the South Side Social Club of Pekin and the Peoria, Pekin and Western Railroad. The railroad was hosting a family night for it's employees while the social club had simply booked a night of dancing by the light of the moon. Cap. Mehl and pilot Tom Williams were looking for an easy river excursion that evening, leaving Pekin for Peoria's AL Fresco Park. The first part of the trip went uneventful, with the Columbia arriving at the park and passengers disembarking to enjoy themselves in the evening's festivities. A silent fog had moved off the river onto the deck by the time the Columbia set off on it's return trip to Pekin at 11:00pm.
Pilot Tom Williams was at the wheel and had entered a narrow river bend around the area of modern day Creve Couer. Storms the previous weekend had raised the river level about a foot and now the river forced the Columbia over the bank, where it glanced off a submerged tree stump. At the time, the cruise ship had been going full speed. Captain Mehl assumed at first they'd simply hit a sandbar, and halted the ship. Williams then telephoned the engine room to reverse the ship, and as it pulled away out onto the open river, the two men realized their mistakes. The Columbia began listing as water flooded the lower level. Mehl descended to find the boat sinking, and they were roughly now 200 yards from shore. Williams headed in vain for the shoreline but too late. Passengers climbed over each other in sheer panic in an effort to jump overboard and swim to shore. Captain Mehl tried to calm the crowd, but his voice was lost over their voices. Complete panic broke out in the aftermath. As the boat collapsed, 87 people drowned from being trapped under wreckage or pinned while trying to escape. Watches of two deceased pinpointed the time of the disaster to be at 12:05am. A mother was pulled from the wreckage, still gripping a baby buggy with a small child within. Once the bodies were recovered, they were taken to Pekin and unloaded into the now vacant Empire building on Court St. Some were identified with tags, other's were covered with white sheets until they too could be taken to Pekin on barges and unloaded.
As the sun rose, the gruesome scene was outlined for all to see. The Columbia lay, listlessly in the water close to shore. Various objects floated in the water, from slippers to hats, and handbags while hundreds of unused life preservers laid in the muddy shoreline. Entire families perished, such as the Witchers. Clyde, the father was found clutching his wife and two small children for support as bodies were recovered the following day. Funerals from this disaster filled the next week, as divers and volunteers tore away the decks of the wreckage, recovering more bodies. Parts of the hull were left in the water, as both a memorial to the lost and as a warning to other riverboats.
Captain Mehl and Williams were both accused of operating the ship under the influence of alcohol and the National Guard had to be called in after threats to lynch them both. Following an official investigation though, no evidence had been found to indicate either and it was concluded that the unfortunate accident was solely to improper seamanship. In the resulting investigation however, both men would lose their riverboat licenses. Captain Mehl was fined $800 and had to relinquish the remaining hull of the Columbia. In 1918 the hull came to the surface as attempts were made to remove it, then floated downstream about a hundred yards and grounded itself upon a sandbar until volunteers split it apart and removed the wreckage. Today there's been multiple reports of a phantom steamboat in the vicinity where the Columbia wrecked. Another popular tale is that of a ghostly green light which appears in the water where the boat sunk. Some believe that this eerie glow is from those still searching for an exit, or perhaps, a lost loved one.
The Bradley Legacy lives On most residents of Peoria are familiar with Bradley University. But few know the importance of it, let alone the story behind it's legacy. Lydia Moss Bradley was born in Indiana originally, and her father gave each of his children 200 acres each once they reached the age of 18. She was the youngest of 6 children, and after receiving her share, went on to invest in real estate and purchase 40 more acres of land. Later she would use a portion of this money to purchase the land for Bradley University. When she married Tobias Bradley the couple received $1,000 in gold from her grandfather as a wedding gift. Eventually the couple moved to Peoria in 1847 with their 4 year old daughter, Clarissa and son Tobias Jr, after Lydia's brother gave Tobias a role as a steam captain. Tobias would go on to become a prosperous trader, leading the couple to acquire extensive farmland.
Despite their growing ventures, the Bradley family had repeated tragedies at home. Their daughter Rebecca had died before their relocation to Peoria, but shortly after arriving, 7 month old Tobias died. Clarissa fell ill shortly after and died 16 days after young Tobias. Another daughter, Mary was born in 1851, but died only 10 months later. Another son was born, William and lived to be 2 before he too, passed away. Laura Bradley was their only surviving child at this point, and so both parents fixed their hopes on the young girl. Tobias and William built the family home at 122 Moss Ave in 1868, while they invested in Peoria's distilleries, railroads and sawmills. With these investments, each year their income prospered more. However, tragedy struck again when 15-year-old Laura fell ill and died as well. She is buried with the younger 4 Bradley children in Springdale Cemetery.
Lydia would go on to donate land to the newly created Peoria Pleasure Driveway and Park District with the proviso that the park be named Laura Bradley in honor of her daughter. Lydia never recovered from Laura's death and was said to develop and interest in spiritualism and seances. Supposedly she continued to set a place for Laura at the family table until her own death. With Laura's death, Tobias and Lydia turned their fortune, time and energy into local business ventures and civic improvements. Not even 3 years after losing her though, Tobias would found kneeling by the side of the road after a trip from Groveland to Peoria with blood running down his face. He lapsed into a coma and died 3 days later without regaining consciousness. An examination of his carriage showed an axle had broken and he'd fallen onto the roadway. The horse which was still attached had kicked him, causing his fatal injury.
Mrs. Bradley was now left a widow and with nothing to tie her down, she went on to travel a great deal. Upon visiting the Rose Polytechnic Institute in 1877, she would go on to model Bradley after it. Although Lydia had a limited education, she knew the value of it, accompanied with a strong work ethic and common sense would help young people prosper in business ventures. She focused on providing a quality, affordable education to students completing at least 8 years of primary school. A nearby site on Main Street was chosen and on November 13th, 1896 the charter for Bradley Polytechnic Institute was incorporated. The purpose of the institute was to maintain a school for both young men and women to go and be educated in the pursuit of arts, music, science, mathematics, languages, engineering, literature, ethics, history and many other studies. This school would eventually evolve from an academy into the 4 year college it is today.
The first year brought only 105 students, and classes began while the building was still under construction. Scholarships were awarded to students who lacked the income to pay the tuition but were deemed academically deserving. Lydia herself had chosen the school's colors, red and white after a centerpiece of carnations the same colors, had been displayed during a trustee dinner. However, as the school prospered, her health declined. Towards the end of her life, she developed lung inflammation and influenza. Despite the pain, however she declined the use of opiates to keep her mind clear to make decisions.
Before she slipped into a coma, she called in her attorney to give directions regarding her estate. Lydia Moss Bradley passed away at the age of 92 on the morning of January 16th, 1908 as the sun rose. Her legacy lives on to this day in her beloved institute, Bradley University. However, perhaps her spirit still resides in her beautiful mansion. After her passing, her nephew reported hearing her cane descending the main staircase of the home. Sometimes this sound would be accompanied with the scent of roses, her favorite flower. Despite if his claims were true, her presence is felt by those attending the University or striding on the beautiful paths marked in the nearby Bradley Park.
Regardless of if spirits linger after death or move on, often in places of great tragedies or accidents, oftentimes they can be seen, or even felt. I can't say for certain if they haunt us, to warn us, remind us or to watch over us, but in some places their presence can be overpowering. Especially in places with great sadness or hopelessness, such as hospitals or graveyards. That is where my next tale will play out readers, and I hope you do return to read "Living Among The Dead". Until next time readers, sweet nightmares!