PEKIN, Ill. —
The Great Chatsworth Train Wreck of 1887 happened in Livingston County, not Tazewell County, so at first glance one might not think it was relevant to Tazewell County history. Nevertheless, the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room has a file on the Great Chatsworth Train Wreck.
A look into that file will quickly reveal the local connection. The main item in the file is a photograph of the disaster that had been reprinted in 1927. The photo caption says, “Although it happened in 1887, all of 40 years ago, one need only say ‘Chatsworth wreck’ in this part of the country and everyone knows what is meant. This picture of the famous wreck belongs to Chris Ziebold, Sr., 1213 Henrietta street, Pekin.”
Notably, this photo was the basis for one of the engravings that illustrated the Harper’s Weekly account of the wreck in the issue dated Aug. 20, 1887.
However, besides the local connection of the photograph, the disaster itself, in which at least 80 people died and probably hundreds were injured, touched the lives of many people throughout central Illinois. The train’s passengers no doubt included residents of Tazewell County.
The wreck, which happened shortly before midnight on Aug. 10, 1887, has been ranked as either the second or third deadliest train disaster of the 19th century. The number of dead has been placed at between 81 and 85 (reports at the time estimated more than 100 dead) and the number of injured anywhere from 169 to 372.
On the evening of Aug. 10, a Toledo, Peoria & Western train pulled out of Peoria, heading east through Eureka and Chenoa on the way to Niagara Falls. The train included two steam engines, six fully loaded passenger cars, six sleeper cars and three cars for luggage (and perhaps more cars). Aboard the train were as many as 700 people who had been attracted by a special offer to visit the Falls.
At a point about three miles east of Chatsworth, the train began to accelerate down a slope and reached a speed of about 40 mph. At this point the train began to cross a wooden trestle bridge over a creek. The first engine made it over the bridge, which then collapsed behind it, causing the second engine to slam into the hill side. Most of the cars behind the engine telescoped into the second engine and each other.
One of the survivors, J.M. Tennery, was on the first sleeper, whose passengers escaped with only a fright or minor bruises. He said, “I got out in safety, and the scene presented to the eye and ear was one I wish I could forever efface from my memory.”