Imagine looking forward to a midnight steamboat excursion on the river, only to have your plans disrupted because your employer is late coming back from an errand and you don’t get off work in time. You go to bed bitterly disappointed . . . and later wake up to the terrible news that the boat sank in the river and several of your friends and acquaintances have drowned.
The tale of a young woman who experienced such a shock is the dramatic opening to the book The Wreck of the Columbia by Ken Zurski. The Columbia was a steam-powered, paddlewheel, riverboat. At its last inspection, it had been called the safest boat in western waters, but on July 5, 1918, it suddenly sank in the Illinois River and broke apart. Of some 500 passengers aboard the vessel that night, 87 died.
Zurski has resurrected this story from the forgotten pages of history. His well-researched account includes profiles of many of the passengers aboard the steamer that fateful July night as well as a brief history of steamboats and the towns of Pekin and Peoria, which were most affected by the disaster. He recounts the heroic attempts to rescue the people who were trapped in the wreckage and later to salvage the bodies so they could be returned to their families for burial. Zurski goes on to explain the investigation into the causes of the sinking and the legal proceedings that followed. The account also contains several brief tangents to help people better understand the time period in which the accident happened.
One nice touch to the book is that each chapter opens with a photograph of a person or object of interest to the story. The images help put a human face of the disaster.
I think this book has a wide appeal. People interested in the history of the early 20th century, the Midwest (especially Illinois), and transportation should find it fascinating. And, of course, the book is a natural for anyone who’s been fascinated by the history of the Titanic or Lusitania. While the death toll from the sinking of the Columbia was much smaller than either of those two tragedies, it still made national headlines, and it had a devastating effect on the town of Pekin.
My major complaint with the book is that it doesn’t have an index. The stories of some of the passengers are told in installments in different chapters, and when I hit the later parts of those stories, sometimes I wished I could easily find the earlier mentions. Still, it was an engrossing history, and I highly recommend it.