We drove down to Peoria this past weekend to help a friend celebrate his 70th birthday. Which doesn’t seem old at all now that both of the inhabitants of the Matile Manse are getting close to the same milestone.
Lots of folks who go to Peoria wonder what’s playing there. Me, I can’t help but think about Capt. Henry Detweiller.
Detweiler is a human historical link between the old Frink and Walker stagecoach line, naval operations on the Mississippi during the Civil War, and the annual Illinois State Cross Country meet that so many Kendall County student-athletes have attended during the last several decades, which is held at the Peoria park named in his honor.
Henry Detweiller was an almost-prototypical resident of Illinois during the pioneer era. He grew up fast and in doing so rubbed elbows with some of the most famous of the state’s residents, eventually becoming a respected Peoria riverboat pilot, businessman, and politician.
Like most Illinois residents of the 1830s, Henry Detweiller was born somewhere else—in his case at Lorraine, France on June 19, 1825. His father, a Bavarian transplant, was a farmer, miller, and freight hauler. He married Catherine Schertz of France, and the couple had several children. But the senior Detweiller suffered reverses during the Napoleonic wars and was financially strapped when he died in 1832.
Five years later, Catherine Detweiller and her four children—three daughters and young Henry—immigrated to the United States. After landing in New York, they traveled west to Peoria where Catherine’s older son owned an inn. Henry worked for his brother and, off and on, went to school. But it was the stories the riverboat captains and pilots told when they stayed at the inn that most interested him. Henry badly wanted to become a riverboat crewman, but, as he wrote years later: “My brother was strongly opposed to let me go on the River, and forbid all the Captains to let me go on their boats.”
Deciding on direct action, he stowed aboard the steamer Motto as she was leaving the Peoria riverfront. Gawking at the steamboat’s engine, young Henry was spied by Capt. Grant, the boat’s master, who said, “Hallo youngster, what in the Devil are you doing here, and who told you to serve on this boat?” After hearing the youngsters’ story, the captain agreed to let him travel to St. Louis and then back to Peoria, but no further. And Henry’s brother again strongly advised him to find steady employment ashore. Angered at his brother’s attitude, Henry left the inn to work in a Peoria shoe store.
For the next year, he waited for an opportunity to join a riverboat crew. That’s when John Frink entered the picture. By 1840, Frink and his partner, Martin O. Walker, were well on their way to dominating the stagecoach business in Illinois. Detweiller met Frink while working at his brother’s inn and later asked him for a job. Frink and Walker decided a passenger steamer would be a natural compliment to their stage business. During much of the year, the Illinois River was free of ice and boats could usually ascend as far as Peru, and sometimes as high as the rapids at Ottawa. Stage passengers and mail arriving from points north (including towns here in Kendall County) could transfer to a steamer for quick passage downriver to Peoria and then on to St. Louis. When the boats couldn’t run due to low water or ice, stagecoaches ran the entire distance.
Frink and Walker bought the small steamer Frontier, whose shallow draft allowed her to run as a daily mail packet between Peru (and sometimes Ottawa) and Peoria. Most steamers didn’t sail until their passenger list and cargo deck were full, but packets like the Frontier sailed on regular schedules, full or not. On April 13, 1840, Frink agreed to hire Detweiller as a pilot trainee to learn the river from experienced pilot Milton Hasbrouck. His pay was $10 a month—a nice raise from the $6 a month he was making ashore clerking at Samuel Voris & Company.
Riverboat pilots, as Mark Twain noted, were the kings of river culture, memorizing the locations of shallows, bars, sunken islands, and snags to safely steer their fragile boats on the nation’s rivers. Henry was soon appointed second pilot, but then in 1842, disaster struck. In the early morning hours of Sept. 2, the steamer Panama ran into and sank the smaller Frontier just above the tiny village of Little Detroit at the extreme north end of Lake Peoria. Quick action by Hasbrouck ran the Frontier ashore before she could sink in the river, saving all of the 40 or so passengers aboard as the crew of the Panama helped carry everyone to safety.
Frink and Walker immediately built a new steamer, the Chicago, on which Detweiller again sailed as second pilot until she was withdrawn from service in 1844. That’s apparently when Detweiller left Frink and Walker to make his own way. He continued as a second pilot until 1847 when he was appointed captain of the Gov. Briggs. In 1848 and 1849 he was first pilot on a variety of boats, going on to become one of the most experienced pilots and captains on the Illinois and Mississippi rivers. During the Civil War, Detweiller joined the U.S. Navy’s river fleet, where he was involved in the Vicksburg campaign and running cargo past Confederate forces down the river to New Orleans.
With the advent of railroads, river traffic waned, and Detweiller decided to retire ashore and concentrate on the ice business. Described as an “ardent Republican,” the former riverboat captain served six terms as Peoria City Treasurer, and was one of the city’s most solid citizens upon his death in 1908. And Detweiller Park? Capt. Detweiller’s last surviving son, Thomas, bought the rugged land that’s now Detweiller Park and donated it to the city as a lasting memorial to his father–and a grueling test for generations of Illinois high school athletes including dozens from here in Kendall County.