When a disaster occurs, there seems to be an irresistible urge to lay blame at someone’s door, and so it was with the sinking of the steamboat Columbia that claimed 87 lives.
Gov. Frank Lowden demanded answers as did federal investigators and Tazewell County Coroner Lawrence Clary.
Soon rumors began to circulate that the boat was in poor condition. Concern grew that some might take the law into their own hands. As a precaution, the captain and crew were given special protection.
Captain Herman Mehl repeatedly denied assertions the Columbia’s hull was rotten or that there was anything amiss with the keel. Rumors also circulated that the steamboat had once been condemned and her name changed. “The Columbia was purchased from Capt. Walter Blair of Davenport,” Mehl was quoted as saying. “She never was condemned. That report is untrue. She never went under any other name.” Official records verified Mehl’s account.
Federal steamboat inspector Reese Downs of St. Louis observed: “The safety of a wooden boat depends altogether on the skill with which it is handled. (Pilots Tom) Williams and (Dell) Sivley were experienced pilots – the best on the river. They knew every eddy and current of the stream. We considered the Columbia the safest boat on the river.” Furthermore, the Columbia had undergone $18,000 in repair and improvement work only months before the disaster.
Yet, W.F. Dunscombe of St. Louis, a diver called in by state officials to investigate the wreckage, told Clary’s coroner’s jury the Columbia was unsafe, claiming timbers inside the hull were rotten. Passenger Pearl Harvey testified Mehl and his officers did not tell passengers what they should do. As the inquest continued, additional blame was piled on Mehl, Williams and Purser August Mehl, the captain’s brother.
To no one’s surprise, the coroner’s jury ruled the disaster a homicide, citing Herman and August Mehl as well as Williams. Subsequently, the Tazewell County Grand Jury indicted the trio. For many reasons the case languished. Then came the celebrations marking the end of World War I, followed by the Spanish flu epidemic that swept through Pekin with a vengeance. The Columbia case never went to trial most likely because the state’s attorney knew convictions would be impossible.
Still, federal investigators determined Mehl and Williams were negligent by not following safety rules. While some felt the captain and the pilot should have been jailed, they were punished by the loss of their river licenses. The need for scapegoats had been satisfied even though the evidence showed the Columbia was safe and Mehl, Williams and the rest of the crew acted responsibly.
Remember 18-year-old Lucille Bruder of Pekin and her brother John? Well, she survived the wreck by clinging to a flag pole until rescuers arrived. John cheated death, as well.
In 1921, Bruder married William Adcock. She had two sons and seven daughters. For many years, she owned and operated the Maid Rite restaurant in Pekin. When she passed away on Aug. 13, 2006, she was the last known survivor of the Columbia disaster.