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The Sinking of the Columbia

Since the advent of steam-powered vessels, riverboats were a popular form of excursion. While somewhat dangerous at first (boiler explosions and general safety issues), riverboats had become a fairly safe way to travel by the early 1900's. One such popular vessel, was the Steamer Columbia, which sailed out of the port of Peoria, Illinois.

On what was supposed to be a routine "Moonlight Excursion" to Alfresco Park, a popular amusement destination along the Illinois river in Peoria, something went terribly wrong. On the return voyage to Pekin, Illinois, the Columbia ran into a dense fog covering the river. With pressures to have everyone home by midnight, the pilot pressed on through the murk. With no visual landmarks, two 90-degree bends in the river, and a sand bar, the boat ran aground on the Peoria County side of the river, across from Wesley City (now present day Creve Coeur). Fearing the worst, Captain Herman Mehl ordered the hull to be checked for water. The engineer and the first mate discovered the hull was flooded. Whether inflicted by a submerged stump or other debris, a decision had to be made. The captain ordered the pilot, Tom Williams to "Run her ashore!" As the river was not that deep, the pilot figured he had enough time to move the vessel to the other side of the river, where there would be help available from the small mining and fishing village. They could never have predicted what happened next.

Host Brian “Fox” Ellis steers us through the history and tragedy of the deadly event, along with Ken Zurski (author of “The Wreck of the Columbia”), producers William Baker, Todd K. Pilon and H Wayne Wilson, and a crew of others in this original WTVP production.