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Sinking of the Columbia Steamboat

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A notable catastrophe in the history of United States inland waterway navigation was the sinking of the Columbia steamboat, which occurred near Pekin on July 5, 1918. On that day, the South Side Social Club of Pekin had planned an excursion aboard the Columbia for that evening. It was the club's big event of the year, with 496 people aboard, mainly families from Pekin and Kingston Mines. The Columbia departed at 7:30 p.m. from Kingston Mines. More passengers were picked up at Pekin, and the boat departed at 8:15 p.m. to continue the cruise to its destination, Al Fresco Park, in Peoria.

After a few fun-filled hours at the amusement park, the passengers re-boarded the Columbia. The evening's festivities continued on the boat with a lively orchestra providing music for entertainment and dancing.

Veteran river pilot Tom Williams guided the Columbia along the Illinois River and out of Peoria. It was not quite midnight when the boat struck something in the water on the Peoria side of the river, just across from Wesley City. The boat began to shudder from stem to stern, and then it lurched to the side. The music stopped, and the dancers became frightened. An officer's command recommenced the music, and the crowd's fear subsided briefly. Just a few moments later, the boat began to list and the dancers tumbled to the floor. The lights went out, and the boat collapsed. The ceiling of the dancing pavilion crashed down and large steel I-beams fell across the dance floor pinning many of the dancers under its weight. Water gushed in and drowned many, with some of the survivors breaking the deck windows and climbing to the deck above.

The catastrophe was largely caused by a submerged stump, which had torn a gaping hole eleven feet by two feet in the ship's hull. This caused the vessel to collapse and partially sink. The ship never went completely underwater, as the river was fairly shallow at this point. The next day's Peoria Star reported that 100 people had drowned; in actuality the final count was 87 dead with one deck hand missing.

Since the disaster, a number of memorials have been placed near the river. In July of 1992 a memorial park to the disaster was dedicated in Creve Couer by the Wesley City Historical Society. An additional historical marker, serving as a memorial to the tragedy, was dedicated in Pekin by the Tazewell County Historical Places Society and the Illinois State Historical Society in July of 2003.

-Submitted by Jennifer S. Everett

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