The Tazewell County Museum hosted a 100th anniversary memorial service Thursday at Pekin Riverfront Park to honor the victims and survivors of the Illinois River’s worst riverboat disaster.
Late on the evening of July 5, 1918, the excursion steamboat Columbia struck an obstruction in the Illinois River and sank. Of the nearly 500 people aboard, 87 lost their lives in the wreck.
“Nineteen-eighteen was our centennial year, the 100th anniversary of Illinois becoming a state,” said Illinois State Rep. Tim Butler, a guest speaker for the ceremony. “On the centennial of this tragedy and Illinois’ bicentennial, I think it is important that we celebrate not only all that is good about Illinois and all the fun things about Illinois, but also talk about the tragedies in our state’s history. This (the wreck of the Columbia) is one of the most significant tragedies in the state’s history.”
Tazewell County Board Chairman David Zimmerman acted as master of ceremonies for the event, Rev. Kathy Barrett delivered the invocation, and a Tazewell Area Ceremonial Team Honor Guard presented and retired the colors.
Following the Pledge of Allegiance and the signing of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Pekin Mayor John McCabe led a moment of silence and read a 1918 city of Pekin proclamation on the Columbia disaster. Guest speakers Butler, Illinois State Rep. Michael Unes, Illinois State Sen. David Koehler and Illinois State Historical Society Executive Director William Furry addressed those in attendance.
“To those people who lost their lives (in the Columbia disaster), I am moved that they had to go through that experience,” said Furry. “To those who survived, I am so grateful that they brought the memory to you, that you could bring it forward. What is wonderful about this event today is all the children who are here. You brought them here to share a memory that they will take into the next century. It is so important to keep history alive and that is how we do it.”
Ken Zurski, author of the book “The Sinking of Columbia,” was also present to address the gathering.
“We honor those who lost their lives that fateful Friday night, July 5, 1918,” said Zurski. “But I want to bring up a part of the story that I think gets a little overlooked. We have a formal name for it now, it is ‘first responders.’ Back then, you could say it, (the first response), was from the people of this community. All of them.”
When the boat structurally collapsed and fell on itself in the middle of the river, it was just before midnight on July 5, Zurski added. Most people in Pekin, apart from some residents who had loved ones on the ill-fated excursion and were awaiting their return, were asleep. It had probably been a festive evening, because Pekinites traditionally celebrated the arrival of a riverboat with a street fair on Court Street. When news of the wreck reached Pekin, residents went door-to-door, alerting their neighbors of the tragedy.
“Witnesses say that night turned into day because of all the porchlights in the streets turned on,” he said. “What they were asking for was simply this: help. The first call of service was for swimmers to help those who didn’t know how to swim. There were 400-plus people who were in the water, struggling. They also needed rescuers. They needed donated vehicles to bring some of the survivors back home. Those who worked at the Peoria and Pekin Railway in East Peoria worked extra shifts to send a train to take those who had made it to the shoreline home. It wasn’t a knock on the door for the coal miners and the fisherman across the way from the wreck. It was the cries that night that sent them out with their jackboats and skiffs to help save those who were out in the water. If it wasn’t for those people who helped that night, it could have been much worse.”
Following Zurski’s remarks and a narrative of the Columbia wreck derived from a compilation of 1918 letters on the disaster, past president of the Peoria Historical Society Marilyn Leyland and Kingston Mines Mayor Steve Hedge read a roll of those who died in the tragedy and the Timber Hollis Fire Department rang a bell to honor each victim.
After the memorial service, Susan Beeney, descendant of Columbia survivor John Grewey, led a presentation of flowers that were laid at the base of the Illinois State Historical Marker on Main Street. Attendees were also invited to scatter flowers into the Illinois River in memory of the victims and survivors of the Columbia disaster. The family of Lucille Bruder Adcock, the wreck’s last survivor, led the flower ceremony.