CI MUDWATER ARCHAEOLOGY SOCIETY COLUMBIA STEAMBOAT DISASTER 100TH YEAR ANNIVERSARY ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY
- The Columbia was a 125' flat bottomed sternwheel steamer built as a packet boat in 1897 and converted to a excursion boat in 1905.
- In 1918, US federal safety inspectors labeled the Columbia "the Safest Boat in the West."
- At midnight July 5, 1918 while returning from Al Fresco Park in Peoria, the Columbia struck an unknown object-possibly a submerged log or the shore. The boat began immediately taking on water before its upper decks pancaked collapsed crushing and trapping many of its occupants. The Columbia sunk in 16-18 feet of water.
- The vessel carried 497 people of which 87 people were killed. It was the worse disaster in Illinois River history and largely affected the population of Pekin, Illinois where most of the passengers resided.
- The disaster effectively ended the steamboat excursion business on the Illinois River.
- The owner of the Columbia, Capt. Herman Mehl, was in the process of selling the vessel for a large profit and had let the insurance lapse, in part due to its stellar government safety report.
- After the sinking, the US Marshal Sevice took possession of the wreck after Mehl's lawyers were able to claim the benefits of US Admiralty law.
- Both the Tazewell and Peoria County cororners were anxious for the vessel to be raised to determine the cause of sinking. There was an enormous amount of intrigue involving the events of that night and conflicting accounts of the vessel's condition-described as neglected and rotting by some and the most safe well-kept boat on the river by others.
- After many weeks in the river, the Columbia rolled and moved 100 yards downstream before grinding to a halt in a spilt pile of its own 50-100 ton coal supply.
- After 5 months sitting in the river, the US government was finally able to sell the Columbia to a local Peoria junk man named Ruben Bruce. Mr. Bruce was able to salvage most of the mechanical equipment and top decks. He attempted to refloat the Columbia by removing coal but failed. Nor could he drag the boat to shore due to the steep sides of the channel.
- The Columbia was abandoned and remained in the river for over a year.
- There are no records of how the Columbia was ultimately removed but there were reports of local residents, tired of the tragic reminder, tearing the boat apart with hand tools. Many months later, only the paddle wheel remained on shore until eventually it was burned. It is currently unknown if the Columbia's hull still remains in the river.
- The tragedy was national news and left the entire town of Pekin, Illinois in mourning. The criminal trials of Capt. Mehl and scapegoat pilot George Williams was held up due to lack of evidence and Pilot Williams being institutionalized in a mental asylum. Eventually, the charges were quietly dropped.
There were many unanswered questions from the event:
- Was the Columbia really "the Safest Boat in the West" or was she rotten through and through?
- Did the Columbia strike a submerged log that tore a hole in the boat or did a weakened rotten hull fail after contacting the shore?
- Was there corruption or negligence on the part of the federal steamboat inspectors?
- Was the bow of the vessel overloaded with a double load of coal (a time and cost saving measure) that made the Columbia unmanageable?
The Mudwater Archaeology Society is currently working with archaeologists from the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Illinois State Preservation Office, and the Nautical Archaeology Society in order to create a sound research design (goals/ plan) and file the appropriate permits.
Goals of the Survey:
- Ascertain if the hull of the Columbia still remains- If found, legal steps can be immediately made to protect the site from dredging, looters, salvagers, private development, etc.
- Measure and examine coal pile to see if the vessel was, indeed, bow heavy and overloaded-negligence on the part of Capt. and crew
- Examine boat timbers for hull damage- if the hull is located, new evidence may shed light on whether the boat struck a submerged tree stump (tragic accident/ poor seamanship) or showed signs of rot (negligence of capt/owner)
- Perform a basic archaeological survey of the hull (if located). Maritime archaeologists are always interested in hull design due to boat's of this time period being marked out on the ground and built without formal plans. Often times, building techniques are discovered to be well in advance of the time period the vessel was created. Other times, construction flaws are revealed that lead to tragedy (eg. the Titanic's use of less expensive iron bolts in hull construction that contributed to hull failure)
- To recover and preserve any artifacts from the disaster. Fresh low oxygenated silted waters are an excellent preservative of ferrous/ non ferous metals, wood, leather, etc. Period articles from the tragedy sited a large debris field. There is a very good chance that many personal belongings, boat components, and other artifacts of that day still remain.
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