It’s likely that area residents will recognize the name of the author who has recently released a new historical look at the sinking of the Columbia riverboat nearly a century ago.
And while you may not recognize his face, it’s also likely that you’d know his voice.
That’s because Ken Zurski is perhaps best-known for his radio gig delivering traffic reports during the morning and afternoon drive times on five different local stations.
“Doing traffic is immediate,” Zurski said. “It’s what’s going on right now. I love research and I love digging myself into a story and I really wasn’t doing much of that doing traffic.”
Interested in starting some kind of project, Zurski mentioned to a co-worker that he was reading a book about a steamer that had tipped over and the co-worker — Pekin native Greg Batton — mentioned the Columbia.
The worst maritime accident on the Illinois River, the Columbia riverboat collapsed and sank on a return trip from a Peoria amusement park on the night of July 5, 1918. Eighty-seven of the nearly 500 passengers on board died — most of them from Pekin.
It is a largely forgotten or not well understood part of Pekin’s history, and Zurski knew that meant potential for the project he had been looking for.
“The light went off ... I thought, ‘there’s a story here,’” said Zurski.
And so began a nearly two-year research process that found Zurski sifting through piles of microfilm and items at the Tazewell County Genealogical and Historical Society and even the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
“I started to gather all of that and what was unfolding with the story was what I enjoyed,” he said. “There are so many stories about survival and bravery and how people coped and how people grieved. Eighty-seven died so obviously a lot more survived to tell their story.
“But what happened after that? If you read these clippings, everyone knows the captain never went to jail but no one seemed to know why. I thought if I can find that out, if I can get an end to this story and get through the investigation then I think I’ve got something.”
Zurski spent months pouring through the clippings of what were three local newspapers at the time. While there are no official records of the coroner’s inquest anymore, the newspaper coverage was very thorough and even provided transcripts of those proceedings.
Zurski’s research also unveiled a lot of information about then-Tazewell County Coroner Lawrence Clary, who would become a main character in the book.
“The more I went along the more interesting it got and obviously there was a point where it was just over,” Zurski said. “When I realized I had enough that I had an end to this story that’s when I realized I had a book.”
But if he thought combing through historical artifacts and articles was time-consuming, Zurski quickly learned that the process of actually writing the book would be equally as demanding.
He would get up to work on the writing before work — and with his schedule that meant getting up at 1 a.m. to work for a few hours before getting to the station at 4 a.m. The married father of two young children also wrote overnight on weekends.
“At some point you can’t turn back,” he said.
In all, the project took Zurski about two years and the end result is a historical accounting of not just the events that took place surrounding the infamous riverboat disaster, but also a depiction of other historical events that help put what happened to the Columbia and as a result, to the city of Pekin, in context.
“The time was so interesting,” Zurski said. “We were in the war, Prohibition and the right for women to vote — both of those movements were gaining momentum in 1918, also the Spanish flu. All of this stuff ties to the story.
“Woodrow Wilson had a big speech on July 4 the day before the Columbia wreck he said make this the most patriotic Fourth of July you’ve ever had.”
The sinking of the Columbia was literally the end of an era for riverboat excursions on the Illinois River. The last survivor of the tragedy died in 2006, just hours after a riverfront ceremony remembering those who were lost.
Zurski said that especially with the 100-year anniversary of the sinking approaching, he hopes that local residents will read the book and gain a stronger understanding of the ways the tragedy shaped and changed the town.
“The Wreck of the Columbia” is available for purchase through the publisher Amika Press at www.amikapress.com and also at Barnes & Noble.