This week we’re visiting Chatsworth, Illinois (population 1,140) for #SmallTownSaturday!
Originally an indigenous settlement dating to at least 1774 known as Kickapoo Grove, the site of present-day Chatsworth was uninhabited by white settlers until 1832, when a small number began moving into the area in the midst of the Black Hawk War. Aggression against Native Americans soon drove the Kickapoo across the Mississippi.
By the time the Kickapoo people had been removed from the village, all of the white families save one – the Olivers – had relocated to Indiana. Renaming his slice of the county Oliver Grove, Franklin Oliver and his family lived alone in the area until the mid-1850s, when new residents began building their homes nearby. In the 1860s, three areas of Oliver Grove successfully petitioned for separation. The residents sought a name change that led to the incorporation of the Village of Chatsworth in 1867. As business and houses cropped up, growth was further spurred by the construction of two railways – the Toledo, Peoria and Warsaw (TP&W) in 1857, and the Kankakee and Southwestern in 1878 – which brought waves of immigrants to the town.
Throughout the 1880s, the TP&W line frequently hosted “excursion trains,” relatively cheap round-trips via train to exciting destinations. On August 10, 1887, such a train set out from Peoria carrying some 800 vacationers bound for Niagara Falls. That summer had been hot and dry, causing prairie fires throughout the Midwest. Afraid of engine sparks igniting a fire, TP&W crew members set a “controlled” fire near the rails outside Chatsworth on August 10th. The fire spread to a nearby trestle bridge and charred its frame. When the train passed through Chatsworth later that day, its first car made it over the bridge, collapsing it in the process and sending the trailing cars slamming into the hillside below. The “Great Chatsworth Wreck,” illustrated below, caused about 85 deaths and hundreds of injuries.