Finding information in the archives can sometimes feel like an expedition through time – a scavenger hunt in countless records to find the holy grail document that you’re looking for, sifting through ancient ruins and dusty boxes for the one scrap of information that will definitively answer your research question. On occasion, this digging will turn up the exact information you were looking for. Other times, you must answer your questions to the best of the ability of the extant sources, and results are not always as conclusive as we would like them to be.
Sometimes, you come across an item that raises far more questions than it answers. For me, this serendipitous moment occurred while browsing the Neil L. Block Papers (RS 35/3/418). This item, found within a folder inconspicuously labelled “Ancient Egypt – Notes On,” is a 12-page document, handwritten in a purple cursive script on lined, 3-hole punched paper. The first page contains a brief abstract about the Pharaoh Tutankhamen: his life, his reign, the discovery of his tomb, and the grave goods found within. The following 11 pages appear to record a question-and-answer session in which the responder describes exactly where and how to find a (presumably still lost) Egyptian tomb. The 67 questions in the document are addressed to “Ouija,” and the entity responding makes references to the use of a board. Mention of a medium implies that, much like the séances conducted as part of Edwin Peebles’ research (RS 35/2/50), this conversation could have been facilitated through the use of a medium as well. The questions in the document sought to clarify the location of a tomb and how to find it, but the answers are cryptic and sometimes contradictory.
Amidst the recent UFO and balloon sightings across the United States, many are turning their eyes to the sky in the quest for the unknown. The search for unidentified flying objects and their meaning is not a new trend. At least as early as the 20th century, reports of mysterious flying objects have been filed worldwide, with explanations ranging from rogue weather balloons to full-on alien invasion.
The University of Illinois campus has not been immune to UFO interest over the years. On October 7, 1965, a student reported a UFO sighting outside the Education Building. The report was difficult to verify, however: as a letter to the editor pointed out on October 12, the image of the object printed in the Daily Illini was completely invisible. Curiosity about UFOs on campus has carried on sporadically ever since. Other sightings have been reported, clubs such as the UFO and Outer Space Clubs have been formed, and talks on the subject were advertised in student publications throughout the 1960s and 70s.
For this week’s Tales from the Nitrate Negatives, please humor us for a bit as we engage in a bit of train-based role play:
Imagine with for a second that it’s the early spring, 1947 and you’re finishing up a long train journey back to Champaign from Chicago. It’s a quaint Saturday morning and you’ve been expecting a relaxing ride home after a week working in the city. As you start to see the oh-so familiar corn and soybean fields flying past as your 100 mile per hour ride is whizzing through the state. As the image of farmers riding by in tractors is starting to get a tad monotonous, you feel the train slightly lurch. Thankfully, you know this feeling well. It’s a totally normal feeling just before the train starts to decelerate on the trip into town. You feel that slightly thicker air drag on you as the body of the train begins slowing down, but you still have so much inertia dragging you forward. It’s a nice feeling, but you feel it a tad more intense than usual. Moments after that first lurch, the train lurches again. Before you can even question it, you hear the screeching wail of steel scraping against steel and you see sparks an iron go flying past these former farm-filled windows. Your cabin lurches one last time, harder than before. The rapid compression causes the windows to all shatter around you as your body is hurled over your diner car table. There is a brief moment where you are unbound by gravity just before you’re hurled headfirst into a silverware cart; your 1947 brain wonders “How in the world did some yuck, geezer, cold fish, chicken, chrome dome, 1940’s slang, train conductor just crash this train?!”. Everything goes black. You get flits of the fiery and wicked scene as you’re dragged out of the train by rescue crews and taken to a local hospital for injuries. The next morning, lying in a Champaign hospital, you check the day’s newspaper. You read that your train somehow jumped a track injuring 197 and killing 2 people. Just before the, likely over-prescribed, morphine kicks in, you ask the question, “What in the world could have happened to this train?”
Well, the story of the City of Miami Streamliner is a graphic, yet interesting tale. On Saturday April 19th, train conductor Charles H. Redus noticed that the remote-control track switch meant to bring his train into into Champaign was hasn’t been flipped. In his reports to the investigators just before his passing, Redus noted that he’d seen a green light shine on the switch relay. While that traditionally meant he was clear to go, he saw from the front of the train that the switch itself had not actually flipped. He did his best to slow the train down in the 300 feet before the incoming disaster, but it was too late. The train hit the switch, jumped the track, and rolled itself off the train tracks. The Champaign News-Gazette of April 20, 1947, reports that it tore up more than a quarter mile of track as the entire streamliner “went up in a nest of steel and a ball of flame.” On April 27th, a Daily Illini Article reported on an investigation by Amtrak and city officials. Their results found that an improper installation of electrical relays on the track was the culprit. Two relays, installed the morning just before the wreck occurred, were incorrectly installed. The signal was mistakenly inverted. So, when it was meant to flash yellow and signal to slow down, it shined green, and vice versa. If it weren’t for Redus’ keen eyes of the track itself, this mistaken relay could have brought the train full force into the crash zone. Just a simple electrical mistake that brought this 85 mile per hour (136 KMpH) missile of a train flying off the tracks into a ripped steel, diesel fireball.
Despite the coalescence of mistakes, the casualty numbers were thankfully very low. Initial reports said 197 people were injured, but the number was lowered to 107 by the 20th with only 32 hospitalized. The 2 casualties of the accident were the two men at the further points front and back of the train. The final car’s bagman, Charles N. Wood, and the engineer, Charles H. Redus, were the only people who lost their lives as a result of the crash. Many reports note that the tables bolted to the floor and chars adhered to the walls prevented massive structures from crushing people throughout the train. The bagman, Charles Wood, was killed instantly. The lurches of the train and the collapse of the final car brought the bagging compartment crashing down on him. An eyewitness to the bag car reported that Wood was crushed by the luggage instantly and he couldn’t save him. The conductor, Charles Redus, was thrust into the control panel and his leg was badly injured. In a report from the April 25th Daily Illini, a passenger that rushed to his aid had to apply a tourniquet to his leg to stop the bleeding. Ambulances arrived 15 minutes after the crash when two different farmers plowing their nearby fields witnessed the explosion. The blast and sounds could be heard for miles and the response was thankfully almost instantaneous.
Within the hour, wrecking crews, garbage train cars, and Strauch himself were on scene. The images of these collection were taken around 15:00 when the wreck itself occurred at 13:15. His images capture both the astonishment of investigators, the shock on the eyes of the rescued passengers, and the grim visages of the wrecking crews. While one wouldn’t expect a series of just 31 images about a train crash to carry such emotion, Strauch captured the grueling ambiance of the scene. Gray clouds had rolled in, and the sheer carnage of a vehicle formerly so pristine is intense.
The speed at which Strauch arrived on scene allowed for history to be captured when it could have been just as easily lost to time. Almost a century later we can look back on a story so well preserved in the heart of these images. It makes us reflect on what images of the modern day tragedies we face will persevere, and what stories will be told of those caught in our versions of the train wreck? We approach a century since Strauch’s first pictures were taken, yet we still deal with the same feelings of loss and the same accidents that beget tragedy. So, the burden placed on us all is to think of how we can learn from the past to venerate those lost in the present.
For this week’s Tales from the Nitrate Negatives, we wanted to try something a bit different from usual. Instead of focusing on a single historical event documented through nitrates, we’re tracing the evolution of a house. More specifically, we follow the history of the houses of the presidents of the University of Illinois as captured in Bernard Strauch’s nitrate films. It’s been an expectedly tricky process to track down a couple house from over a century ago, especially if half houses were torn down in the mid 1900s. It is no walk in the park strolling through 18th and 19th century city housing directories so detailed that they person’s race, marriage status, and even their job. Thanks to a century and a half of Champaign-Urbana growth, what was 905 East Green Street back in 1890 could be halfway through the 1400 block of West Green Street in 2022. With directories, photographs, and even presidential biographies, we got hot on the case hunting down homes. At one point, we even tracked down Regent Gregory’s library card to see if he had an alternate address we needed to track down. This project, ostensibly a small history stemming from Strauch’s pictures of one presidential home turned into a dive into Champaign-Urbana lore. Through more than 150 years and 19 presidents of the University of Illinois, we present Home Sweet (Presidential) Home.
Our history starts back in the late 1860’s when John Milton Gregory first came to Champaign, Illinois from Kalamazoo, Michigan as part of his quest to help build the young Illinois Industrial University. Gregory, appointed as the first Regent by the board of trustees, paid for the construction of his home at, then, 709 South 4th Street, Champaign Illinois. It was a quaint, two-story, brick house with a patio lightly extended into the front lawn and ivy growing up the columns. Some things don’t really change do they? By the University’s first year, Gregory was a notable figure in the Champaign-Urbana community! Regent Gregory lived in this home all 13 years of his presidency, and for a year after his retirement before he returned home to New York. The property of Gregory’s house was purchased by the Alpha Delta Pi fraternity in 1912, and then razed for the construction of the University’s first Alpha Delta Pi chapter house.
Following Gregory’s tenure, Regent Selim Hobart Peabody was appointed to the presidency by the Illinois Board of Trustees. Before his presidential term, Peabody was a professor at the University. In his early days of teaching, Peabody was reluctant to fully commit to Champaign and leave his family’s Chicago home behind. In a biography of Regent Peabody written by his daughter, she notes that he was invited by Regent Gregory to live with him for a few months before he full decided to establish a residency. Arguably, we could call Gregory’s home on 4th street the first “President’s House” handed down between presidents because two university presidents technically both occupied it. After committing to Illinois and fully transitioning his family to Champaign, Peabody moved into a home at 709 Mt. Hope Avenue. This house remained the President’s home during his tenure at the university. Unfortunately, neither the building nor Mount Hope Avenue exists today. Mount Hope Avenue was renamed Pennsylvania Avenue in the mid 20th century, and Peabody’s home was razed in the 1940’s to make room for the rapidly expanding University of Illinois.
Continuing the pattern formed by the first two regents, Peabody’s successor, Thomas Jonathan Burrill, simply transformed his home from his time as a professor to become the President’s house. Located at was once 1007 West Green Street, Burrill’s home occupied the land between where the Hendrick House Residence and the University Astronomy Building currently reside. Not much could be traced about this house beyond the fact that the 1898 housing directory notes that Burrill lived there for almost 5 years after his term as president ended before it disappeared from public record.
Beginning with Andrew Sloan Draper’s Presidency, we see the first true rotating home of the president. His home was a well-kept house offset a stone’s throw north of the Green and Wright Street intersection. This nice estate nestled up against the Boneyard Creek was located at 905 W. Greet Street, and would now reside at 1410 West Green. It was purchased for the Draper by the University as a official President’s home for his time here. Beyond building a legacy of expansion and a connecting the University to the peaks of American industry, Draper built the historical legacy of a presidential manor handed off when he was succeeded by President Edmund Janes James in 1904. President James occupied the same Green Street residence bringing with him small expansions like a nice greenhouse out back and a drastically reworked landscape job around the property. The University finally started the dream of having a single president’s house that could be passed on through generations. Though it’s a simple gesture now, at the time having an official President’s house added a sense of prestige and community to the University.
Unfortunately, that dream of a generations-long house did not last. Following James’s Tenure, President David Kinley opted for a more conservative choice, preferring to stay in his Urbana home from his time as a professor. David Kinley’s home, a nice 2 story building just off Nevada street is still standing to this day. Located at 1203 W Nevada St in Urbana, Illinois, his home was purchased by the University of Illinois after his departure. It was eventually given and was given to the La Casa Cultural Latina, the latino/a cultural house in 1974.
President David Kinley retired in 1930 before Harry Woodburn Chase was appointed to the presidency. Chase returned to the former presidential manor off Green Street for a bit under a year before moving to the permanent presidential home. Consequently, the former president’s home off Green Street was appropriated by the university as a temporary student health center in the mid 1920’s. It also served as a student organization home after the student YMCA relocated its services from University Hall. They occupied that location for half a year before moving to their current Wright Street location. President Chase was the first to occupy the new, and current, president’s house on Florida Avenue. Chase’s time as President during the Great Depression forced him to deal with a tight economy, and an even tighter university budget following the stock market crash of 1929. With his limited funding, he continued the completion pre-depression Board of Trustees project to construct a new and continuous president’s house in 1930 for a cost of $225,000 ($4.2 million today).
The 14,000 square-foot Georgian revival style building. was designed by the campus’ supervising architect James M. White, and Charles Platt of the Holabird and Roche architectural company. Holabird and Roche had designed a majority of the new buildings on campus of that era, and the president’s house was set to match the standard. James moved into the residence, located at 711 W Florida Ave, Urbana, and it’s remained the university standard for over 90 years. From President Chase to David Dodds Henry, from Stanley Ikenberry to Timothy Killeen, the home of the president has remained constant to this day.
90 years ago this year, Champaign-Urbana was allegedly on the brink of collapse from the threat of communist arsonists roaming Central Illinois. Churches were burned to the ground, schools were armed with guards, and sheriffs were on high alert. Smoke and fear wafted through the air placing anyone in the twin cities in danger’s path. That’s at least the story that the media tried spinning for everyone. Images captured by Bernard Strauch the morning after the University Place Church Fire uncovered a story of two red scares– flames and commies alike –in March 1932.
Monday March 7th, 1932, the Urbana Daily Courier broke the story “University Place Church Burns” describing a massive blaze that had engulfed the University Place Church on the corner of Springfield Avenue and South Wright Street. The news report tells a harrowing tale of the building’s caretaker Walter Garland, and his wife who lived in the basement apartment of the church. After catching the smell of smoke late Saturday night, both rushed from the building and barely escaped as a fireball swallowed the building and collapsed the roof in. Fire departments arrived immediately to put out the blaze, but it was too late. The building had been completely destroyed in a matter of minutes, so they took to watering down the exteriors of adjacent buildings to prevent a spread of damage. Early reports Sunday morning listed the damages at $100,000, but by Wednesday the estimates were upwards of $150,000.
The Champaign News-Gazette quoted the fire-chief on the matter, and the facts seemed relatively cut-and-dry: An aging boiler had started leaking and helped ignite the furnace and the resulting explosion started the fire. Everyone should be on alert to avoid leaving exposed flames near their boilers because it was a serious risk. However, the Champaign-Urbana newspapers didn’t find the story the police reports gave to be that simple. On one side, the news reported a revitalization of unity within the community. Students and community members rallied behind Reverend Fisher and found new spaces for the congregation to gather. There was even a reported increase in religious service attendance in the following months. A June 1932 article notes that the church had fully rebuilt its parishioner index card list larger than it ever had been. A March 12th Daily Illini article reports that university classes on religion were quickly relocated to the University High auditorium, and student prayer was held in Smith Hall at 10:30 AM on Sundays. However, on the other side of the matter was a skeptical media that amplified the voices that inspired panic and quieted the voices of those trying to calm the public down.
On a report from the confidant of a friend of the postmaster (Urbana’s local anti-communist leader), The News-Gazette reported there were two supposed communist “incendiarists” that had been ravaging Central Illinois for weeks. So, pretty much “a friend of a friend” assured him there were commies on the loose. The Urbana Daily Courier and The Daily Illini ran almost daily stories about updates from fires in nearby Bloomington and Lincoln Illinois. Their stories had started to feed into one another creating an almost feedback loop of anxiety over the matter. By chance, the third ransom note in the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case had been published the same day as the fire, so the newspaper oozed conspiracy and crimes all over the incendiarist worries.
The powder keg of public worry blew when the mayor announced a ‘shoot to kill order’ following a tip from the Urbana Postmaster John Gray. He had, on his authority, “shown” that the communists were involved in this alleged scheme. John Gray, just one day before the fire, issued a report that communists were not threatening Champaign-Urbana. Organized labor was “against communism because the wages they now receive are enough that they can afford the luxuries of life that would be unavailable under a communistic [sic] system”. 48 hours later, an “informant” reported to John Gray that two communists fled the scene of the church fire. In response, the city placed armed guards inside all public schools in the area. Despite all the chaos, the University’s supervising architect, James White, refused to post guards in university buildings. He denied any communist conspiracy and trusted a March 13th report that each fire was an accident.
It was not until Tuesday March 22nd that state-deputy-fire-marshal [sic] Thomas Abrams declared that each fire from Bloomington to Champaign was “not of incendiary nature” and were each a product of a “likely overheated boiler”. The story of the two arsonists faded into nothingness overnight! Strauch’s images of the church at University Place along with images before its destruction are displayed in this post. We still face the same issues of mass panic, media frenzies on inaccurate information, and fear of terrorism. It’s interesting how just a few snapshots of one church can reveal so much about how history doesn’t just repeat, but it tends to rhyme