This week in Illinois history: Nov. 12-18
Nov. 12, 1977 - Urbana. University of Illinois scientists discover a new form of microbial life. Led by microbiologist Carl R. Woese, these scientists made a game-changing discovery. Where two forms of life had been thought to exist (animal and microbial), Woese and the team found microbial life actually existed in two categories, the new one being methanogens, a form of microbial life (Archaea) dating back some 3.5 billion years. This third class of organisms exists in the sea and in soil, “significant contributors to the global carbon and nitrogen cycles,” according to the university’s website. In a 1996 paper, Woese said Archaea are in the same genetic lineage as humans.
Nov. 13, 1909 - Cherry. A fire at the St. Paul Coal Co. claims the lives of 259 workers. After a fallen lamp or hot, dripping oil ignited six bales of hay brought down the mine to feed horses, a massive blaze broke out, sending 200 workers fleeing for safety. As the Digital Research Library of the Illinois History Journal states, “a crowd of anxious relatives and other townspeople soon collected,” bidding their loved ones to safety. Among the lost were mine supervisor John Bundy and 12 others who died attempting to rescue their trapped co-workers. A week later, rescuers found 21 men who survived by ducking in a remote tunnel.
Nov. 14, 1962 - Springfield. By action of the General Assembly, Illinois becomes the first state to abolish the poll tax by passing the 24th Amendment. A relic of Reconstruction, the poll tax sought to suppress voting among blacks and non-wealthy whites by requiring payment of a tax before one could vote. By the time the amendment became the law of the land, only Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Texas and Virginia had retained their poll taxes. A 1966 SCOTUS ruling quashed any attempts to reinstate them under a different name, finding them unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
Nov. 15, 1918 - Illinois. A $60 million bond issue to build hard roads across the state receives voter approval, “pulling Illinois out of the mud.” It was a sign of the times that dirty roads, once perfect for horse-drawn buggies, had outlived their usefulness, prompting this move by state government. “The sight of a Model T stuck in the mud was a common one throughout Illinois circa 1920,” according to the March 2000 edition of Illinois Issues. Since the state’s network of cities couldn’t underwrite the project, Govs. Edward Dunne and Frank Lowden created a state-level organization to pay for the infrastructure campaign, which came to fruition under Gov. Len Small’s 1921-29 administration.
Nov. 16, 1928 - Eureka. During a midnight chapel meeting, future president Ronald “Dutch” Reagan discovers his power of persuasive speech as students debated a strike at Eureka College. The school’s money woes had pressured University President Bert Wilson to threaten academic cuts, according to the Illinois State Historical Society’s website. Reagan, a strike proponent, urged his classmates to take up the five-day protest and even went so far as to recommend the president resign, according to research by history professor Dr. Junius Rodriguez.
Nov. 17, 1821 - Fairfield. Wayne County builds its first courthouse in Fairfield, the county seat. Just two years before construction started, leaders established the city of Fairfield as the official county seat. As reported on the Illinois History Journal’s Digital Research Library, workers used logs as the primary materials for the 18-s.f. building. This structure remained for 15 years, when a two-story brick courthouse replaced it. That second structure, the journal says, hosted one of Abraham Lincoln’s cases.
Nov. 18, 1883 - Chicago. Railways in the U.S. and Canada establish five standard time zones. This event launched the currently named Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific zones still used today (Canada adds Atlantic and Newfoundland zones). As Wired.com notes, “Noon in your town was whenever the sun was highest right there,” adding that any disparity was a moot point due to the limitations of travel speed in 1883.