What was it like when the “whiskey barons” ruled Peoria? When you look along the river in the downtown area, it’s hard to visualize that Peoria had produced more whiskey than any other city in history. It is said the revenue collected from the whiskey tax in Peoria was larger than in any other district in the U. S., including Chicago.
     And yet, with all the tremendous success came tremendous devastation. Back in the old days, fires were frequent and all-consuming, especially in the distillery industry.
     Imagine, if you will, a long row of distilleries all along the Illinois River, where smoke stacks are belching out columns of smoke and the heavy smell of whiskey mingles with the odor of the stockyard. The hum of business can be heard. It’s after 4:00 o’clock on a warm summer’s afternoon in 1904. A worker from the Clark Distillery stops by to visit a few friends at the Corning Distillery.
     Then suddenly an alarm goes off at 4:19 p. m. As the warning blares on, the sky is filled with billowing towers of smoke and people begin to flock to the vicinity. Within an hour, thousands of curious onlookers are on the scene. Before the firemen have arrived, the fire which started in Warehouse B of the Corning Distillery has spread to neighboring buildings. One man is seen carried out of the warehouse in a sea of fire. Within Warehouse B, the fire causes several explosions which, in turn causes the eleven-story building to collapse. It was later said the ruins of the warehouse stood sixty feet high.
     The firemen have finally arrived. They quickly realize that it’s impossible to put out the fire and that they should concentrate their efforts in preventing the fire from spreading to other buildings. Luckily, for the city, it wasn’t windy that day. As it was, torrents of blazing whiskey that were a foot deep, spread quickly through gullies in the street and towards the river. The burning spirits also spill into the sewers. The firemen see smoke rising from the man-holes and swiftly pour water into the sewers.
     The flood of fire continues on its destructive course until it reaches the stockyard. Three thousand head of cattle in their pens are suffocated from the smoke and the surrounding buildings that were just completed a few months before are burned as well.
     Fifteen men, including the man from Clark Distillery who was visiting his friends, lost their lives as a result of the fire. It was never discovered what caused the fire, but some speculated a faulty lantern was to blame. Because it was common for whiskey barrels to leak, especially during the summer months, one person was assigned the dangerous job of checking every rack, looking for leaking barrels. He was the only person who worked in the warehouse who could have a lantern...and now he was dead. Strict safety procedures were implemented to minimize fire hazards, but apparently there were still flaws. The Corning Company had experienced two other recent fires, one of them occurring eight months earlier, with a loss of seven lives. They would have another huge fire in 1908. Along with other distillery fires, the causes of the fires were never discovered.
     Even though the fire itself was under control later on that night, the city had an even bigger problem. Dr. Hayes, the health commissioner at the time, said the cattle carcasses had to be disposed of quickly before it posed a serious health hazard. The officials had a difficult time figuring out how to remove the cattle. After several failed attempts, they finally chose pouring “carbolic oil” over the remains and burning them. Unfortunately, the odor was so intense by then that they couldn’t find enough men to volunteer for the work. It took them over a week to clean up the stockyard.
     Franklin Corning, the president of Corning Distillery, was in New York City at the time of the 1904 fire, which was said to be the most expensive fire in the distilling industry. When he returned to Peoria a couple of days later, he immediately began to make plans for a new warehouse. His distillery continued to operate until 1919 when Prohibition shut down the distilleries for a period of time. At the time of his death in 1915, Mr. Corning, must have seen “the handwriting on the wall” and realized the ‘whiskey era’ would soon be over.
     Even though Corning Distillery doesn’t exist today, there is the impressive Corning mausoleum in the Springdale cemetery.

Written by Janine Crandell & published in the Jubilee Advocate in 2005


Corning Mausoleum in Springdale Cemetery


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