With her brother John in tow, 18-year-old Lucille Bruder ran through the streets of Pekin to catch the steamboat Columbia.
Friday, July 5, 1918, had been a perfect summer day and for a few hundred folks from Kingston Mines and Pekin, the evening promised to be even better. An excursion aboard the Columbia would be the big event of the year for the South Side Social Club of Pekin.
Built as a packet boat in 1897 at Clinton, Iowa, the Columbia had been converted to an excursion boat during the winter of 1905. According to records, she was 166 feet in length, coal-fired and both her hull and superstructure were wooden. Typical of excursion boats, she was quite ornate.
Captain Herman Mehl of Peoria purchased the Columbia in 1912 for a reported $14,500. Mehl formed the Herman F. Mehl Excursion Co. to own and operate the Columbia. Mehl was highly respected by his peers and the people of Peoria.
According to contemporary accounts, the Columbia was well maintained. In fact, $18,000 (some sources give $20,000) – a significant sum at that time – had been spent on repairs and general maintenance during the autumn of 1917. The work had been performed at Mound City. Federal officials called the Columbia the “safest boat on western waters.”
With the whistle blaring and the orchestra playing a rousing melody, the Columbia left the Kingston Mines landing at 7:30 p.m. Bruder and her brother arrived at the Pekin landing just minutes before the sternwheeler departed at 8:15 p.m. Nearly 500 people paid 50 cents each (25 cents for children) to ride the steamer.
The boat was headed for the wharf at Peoria Height’s popular Al Fresco Amusement Park. There, children rode the park’s great 65-foot Ferris wheel. Adults danced the night away in the pavilion, while lovers strolled hand in hand through the grounds. It was a great evening to be alive.
Along toward midnight, the crowd returned to the Columbia. Weary children fell asleep on chairs and on the floor while their elders lined the rails to watch the lights of the city or danced to the orchestra music.
The Columbia made a fine sight as she steamed back down river. Her brilliant electric lights reflected off the water and smoke poured from her stacks.
With pilot Tom Williams at the helm, the boat glided along near the right bank of the river. They were about opposite of Wesley City (now known as Creve Couer) when Williams recalled the boat struck something in the dark water.
The entire steamboat shuddered and it seemed to lurch to the starboard side. The orchestra abruptly stopped and frightened dancers started for the exits. Then one of the boat’s officers ordered the music to resume. For a moment, calm returned.
Next: Death on the Illinois.