George McNear and the Toledo, Peoria, and Western Railroad
Norman V. Kelly
I started researching the history of Peoria, Illinois back in the winter of 1982 by reading the 1845 newspapers. It dawned on me then that the real historians initially were newspaper reporters. After all, where do the historians get their initial material? That’s right, from the newspapers and then a more in depth search is made of the subject. I certainly started with the local newspapers, and from there I went to the criminal archives in our courthouse. In researching murder cases I headed to the coroner’s office for the inquest and to the old court files for court testimony. I spent a lot of time researching the man that lived here in Peoria and was known among other names as the “railroad man.”
The man’s name was George Plummer McNear Jr. He was born in Petaluma, California in 1891 and a graduate of Cornell University in 1913 with a degree in engineering. McNear was an active, excellent student, and a member of the rowing crew. After college he was employed as a broker in New York City where he married Elizabeth McKenzie, the daughter of a New York architect. He served in France during World War I, including some activity in local railroads. Once his tour was over he headed back to New York where he worked for the Guaranty Trust Company. Never a slacker, George started on the bottom and worked his way to the top, heading the division in the bank that dealt with reorganization of companies that went bankrupt. What possible reason would this man want to come to the small town of Peoria, Illinois? Why indeed.
JUST ANOTHER COMMON MAN
No, I am not talking about George McNear, he was far from just a common man, but Irwin Paschon was a railroad man, not in the rarified air of George McNear, but a railroader just the same. Pants, as his friends called him, was born in 1918 to a coal miner father and a church welfare worker here in Peoria, Illinois. Pants went to Peoria high school and took a job with the TP&W Railroad as a file clerk. Pants is a part of the story and rightly so because he certainly considered himself a railroad man and longed to work on the trains, but a hernia kept him office bound. Ironically, as writers like to say, Pants got his chance to get out of the office and on to one of his beloved trains.
The workers within the offices of the TP&W were not unionized and during the strike of 1941-42, McNear called upon his office workers to take over the movement of the trains. Pants and his co-workers reluctantly obeyed. For Irwin ‘Pants’ Paschon it worked out rather well. Before the strike ended, the United States Government took over McNear’s railroad and Pants was named the head timekeeper, the youngest man in that or any other department. An expert at his job, he was torn between that duty and an offer the union had made to him. With some trepidation he agreed to take over as treasurer of the local union. In early February 1944, Pants married Gloria Peck, a pretty seventeen-year-old in the office where he used to work.
McNear and Paschon had another thing in common beside the TP&W Railroad, they both loved sports, and rarely if ever missed a Bradley basketball game here in Peoria, Illinois. Gloria and Pants had a baby and just one month after its birth the railroad was again struck by the unionized members of the TP&W. Pants pulled picket duty and spoke on behalf of the railroaders, telling the press how terrible the lives of the section hands were out on the prairie and their low pay. Pants felt that they needed him because the members were just too weak to intelligently fight against McNear and the other rich and politically powerful railroad owners.
That Christmas was far from a merry one for Paschon and the striking workers. It was bitter cold and the only way the picketers had to keep from freezing was their barrels of burning wood. When the strike began Pants had less than a thousand dollars in his bank account and by January it was all gone. Things looked desperate here in Peoria for the Paschon family and all the other workers as well. As it turned out Irwin Paschon would not live long enough to see his baby girl grow into womanhood.
WHY GEORGE CAME TO PEORIA, ILLINOIS
In New York, McNear was a successful, handsomely paid broker, the next day he was an unemployed owner of a broken down, bankrupt railroad called the Toledo, Peoria & Western, TP&W for short. He called his wife and said, “Hang on to your hat, sweetheart; we are going into business for ourselves.” The TP&W started in Effner, Indiana and ran 239 miles through Illinois to Keokuk, Iowa, with its offices in Peoria, Illinois. Folks that knew anything at all about railroads called the defunct line the ‘tired poor and weary’ road. Peorians remembered the TP&W railroad and its excursion trips to Niagara Falls, a very popular trip for folks in this area. One fateful day a horrific wreck caused the deaths of eighty-one people, and the subsequent death and injury claims destroyed the railroad’s assets.
The week that McNear bought the line it was struggling along, losing money but still maintaining 28 engines and a small amount of business. His past knowledge of bankruptcy put him at an advantage as he discussed the possible purchase of the company. Finally, he agreed to put up $65,000 in cash, which was only 5% of the total cost. This left him virtually broke and he eventually borrowed some money from his father, packed up and left New York for some place he knew nothing about, Peoria, Illinois. So there he was, like he said, running his own business, but his future was far from secure. Challenge never bothered George McNear, so he forged ahead.
One advantage McNear understood was that the line, all 239 miles of it was a long way from the bottleneck of railroads in Chicago. It was a clean shot to the western hook-up and could save shippers time and money. That is the one fact that convinced him that the TP&W was a viable line and that he could run it and make money doing it. George was a man on a quest and his endless trips across the United States selling the TP&W brought him customers even he didn’t know existed. All during the Great Depression he worked and his line was one of the few in America that thrived during that terrible time. Once the economic situation recovered in America, George McNear’s TP&W netted him very nearly one million dollars a year.
George McNear grew in reputation and authority as he dominated his employees, his company and in many cases his customers. He was a big man, intimidating in his 200 pound, six-foot three imposing figure, with a
McNEAR’S LIFE IN PEORIA
Remember here in Peoria, Illinois there was always an upper crust, the elite, the society, which simply means that we had and still have a lot of rich people living here. Of course it all started with the distilleries, which Peorians called the “Booze Barons” and the wealthy men that owned and ran the beer brewing companies. Peoria got its start from these rich and powerful men and the growth of the city can be traced back to them. The money people in town…the society folks, welcomed Mr. And Mrs. McNear, most assuredly. George’s wife was a tall, stately woman, well educated and certainly was genuinely well liked by the country club elite.
George built his own tennis court on the property that he owned out near the Peoria Country Club, and it was glassed-in so they could play in nearly any kind of weather. He also had a beautiful home up on Moss Avenue, an old, wealthy neighborhood on the west bluff of Peoria. The couple was extremely active, with long walks and vacations to dude ranches out west. George was a health conscious person and never smoked or drank. The McNears loved their five children, and although George was a strict father, their home life was a happy one. When the news came that their oldest son was killed in an airplane crash in the Pacific during the war in 1945 the family was devastated.
Peoria was a union town, and there have been incidents in town that I wrote about in some of my books that included some pretty rough treatment of their opponents. That did include some bombings that were meant to intimidate rather than kill or destroy property. The strikes in our town were also threatening and more than one beating was administered on both sides.
Right after the purchase of TP&W the railroad unions went along with McNear, agreeing that they would help him get the railroad up and running and making a profit. In 1929 they finally had had enough and demanded of McNear some raise in pay and other benefits. After all they had helped him
The union even battled among themselves as far as McNear was concerned and in 1940 two brotherhoods won the right to represent the railroad workers. Did that even phase our Mr. Railroad man? Nope. George objected to the union’s new ‘featherbedding’ rules telling them that he had no intention of paying men for work they did not do. He also added that he would much rather scrap the railroad than comply with their demands. The union countered telling McNear that all the other railroads in the United States considered these demands reasonable and that they were simply ‘standard’ for the industry. McNear in his typical stubborn and rigid attitude told the union that the other railroad executives were “spineless.”
The truth is that in 1941 McNear lowered some salaries and become even more relentless in his attempt to force the union out of his life. The union fought back and voted to strike and vowed that no railroad worker would touch his freight cars. That of course brought McNear’s business to a halt. Even the local newspaper, the Peoria Journal-Transcript wrote: “Both sides are wrong.” Big brother, the United States Government stepped in, claiming the TP&W was essential to the war effort and George McNear lost the right to run his own railroad. Incredibly during the two and one-half years the government ran the railroad it made just over seven million dollars for Mr. McNear. Did that satisfy the tycoon? No, he even refused to take the money until a dispute with the government was ironed out over taxes. Of course the folks in Peoria thought the man must be demented. On October 1, 1945 George got his beloved TP&W back and the government was out of his hair. Now George had a bright road ahead of him…right? Wrong. That very day the brotherhood walked out on him leaving him totally alone to run his business.
BACK TO PANTS PASCHOM
Irwin Paschon had been a happy man since he married Gloria Peck and had their beautiful daughter. He had had his ups and downs with the job and certainly lived the failures with the brotherhood, but overall he did rather well. He helped guide his union during the days the government had taken over the TP&W and he was pretty content. The trouble would start, he thought, when McNear took back the leadership of the railroad. Of course he was precisely correct and now he was leading another strike.
So, even though he had no real requirement to walk the picket line, he was out there with his brothers on February 6, 1946 bright and early. He left his home assuring Gloria that there would be very little trouble and she was not to worry. Pants was doing enough worrying for both of them. The night before he had gotten a threatening telephone call from a man telling him to back off. The man told him that he would get what the picket shack got, and that was shot gun pellets. Threats were always flying during strikes, and instead of worrying, or telling Gloria he went bowling that night with his pals.
Once he got to the shack and got a roaring fire going he heard that there had been some trouble around the picket line and that they should be very cautious. At noon a neighbor told Gloria that she had heard about a shooting over at Gridley, Illinois, a small town on the line about forty miles east of Peoria, Illinois. It worried her and when someone knocked on the door she almost jumped out of her skin. It was her parents and as they were gathered outside to go to her parent’s house two men drove up and talked to her father.
It was eight in the morning when Pants and his brothers found themselves at East Peoria, Illinois trying to hold down the picket line with some authority. Engine 41 fired up at 8:00 a.m and began pushing a gondola car rigged with armored steel on its sides along with two boxcars. Behind this protected area and in the caboose were armed TP&W guards hired by McNear to keep his line running. Now this TP&W ‘crew’ numbered fourteen men, all armed and ready for trouble. Normally a crew of five men would have handled the ‘work train’ duties. The fact that these men were not even railroad men convinced the union during the hearings, that these men were there to provoke a shooting incident, which was exactly what happened.
At El Paso Engine 41 was greeted by Paschon and his brotherhood in the same manner, only this time they beat up a scab. Although the man was certainly beaten he did not have life threatening injuries. Next stop was Gridley where the engine was to have taken on water. Four guards walked between the tracks to the rear of the train as it backed slowly toward the switch, rifles at the ready. Paschon and his men had already surrounded the switch and stood defiantly yelling threats at the oncoming, armed men. The switchman threw the switch and at that moment, Paschon and his group moved forward a bit. A shot rang out! Who fired the first shot, one of the guards or one of the pickets?
IN A HAIL OF BULLETS
All hell broke loose as shots were fired going and coming in all directions as the pickets fled for their very lives. Almost immediately Tom Tracy and Pants Paschon had gotten across the tracks and were running very closely together. Tom Tracy later would testify that he heard Pants cry out in pain. “Boys I am hit.” Tom grabbed his comrade as more shotgun pellets hit Paschon. “Tom, I am hit hard.” Tracy testified he had to let go of his friend to save his own life, but not before he heard Pants moan, “Oh.” Irwin ‘Pants’ Paschon was dead. Seconds later, another picket, Arthur Brown died of his wounds. In all two men died and three others were wounded in that withering gunfire. All of them were shot in the back or the side.
McNear was quoted as saying that the Gridley affair was, “a regrettable incident.” He then contacted the Governor of Illinois demanding that troops be sent in, but his demand was refused. McNear then sent another train to Gridley and announced that he would continue his business. The union backed off and allowed his trains to run on the rails, but not one of them would aid in unloading his trains or help in any way shape or form.
On June 6 a Federal Court threw the TP&W into receivership. So that was the end of George McNear and his beloved railroad. Right? Wrong. In September he won his legal battle to get his railroad back. Old George was not finished yet. In early October of 1947 Mr. McNear was a key witness in Washington, D.C. when the House committee on Labor held hearings into the railroad business. The union continued to picket McNear’s railroad, but on January 10, 1947 a federal judge ruled that they could no longer picket the TP&W. So McNear, with apparent clear sailing would continue with his railroading, nothing or no one could stop Peoria’s railroad man. Or so it would seem.
March 10, 1947
As I mentioned George McNear was an athletic person and an avid fan of sports, especially Bradley basketball. The Braves were playing a game against Colorado College down at the Armory. George left his car in his garage, picked up his cane and walked down Main Street hill to the game.
On the way up the hill, McNear stopped to chat with Cornelius O’Brien, about the loss of power. As he turned on High Street the darkness was more pronounced than when he was on Main Street. Once on High Street he saw the night watchman that patrolled the Bluff. The two men waved at each other as McNear, now close to his home disappeared in the fog of the night. Just moments later a sharp crack was heard in the darkness. The guard told reporters later that he “thought it was a car backfiring.”
Two Bradley students renting an apartment from a doctor heard the sound and peered out the upstairs window. They saw the body of a large man lying in the street. The two students, Bob Cheek and Bill Johnson stared for a moment longer as they saw the car lights shine directly on the man. They ran out of their apartment just as Dr. Sutton was coming out. Carl DeWeerth, the man in the car continued down Main Street to City Hall, where he informed the police of what he had seen. A neighbor, LuAnne Overstolz later told police that she had heard the sound of running footsteps just outside her kitchen door. The three men had now reached the man and when the doctor turned the body over he exclaimed, “My God! It’s George McNear.”
WHO KILLED GEORGE McNEAR?
“Why the union…who else?” That was the opinion of most Peorians, and that quote was often repeated. One of the men noted it was 10:37 p.m., the estimated time when they had all heard the shot. Within a few moments the place was crawling with cops and the news the next morning shocked the city of Peoria, Illinois. That’s what the newspapers said, but I can tell you that I was here and I have talked to many, many people who were not ‘shocked.’ The newspapers had played up the McNear versus the unions for years, and as I said this was a union town. Many men that I talked to told me that they had expected someone to “bump off old George a long time ago.”
The reporters from a couple dozen papers were in town and they gleefully reported every gory detail of the murder. Why not, that was their job but along with that they reported all over again the “gang- related murders”, all three of them in 1946. So for weeks the newspapers had a lot to write about and there was more than one EXTRA on the street to the delight of the people who sell papers. As I mentioned in my other books Peoria’s reputation for 101 years was that of a bawdy, wide-open town. In 1946 we had those three murders I just mentioned. In 1947 we had the murder of George McNear and the kidnapping and murder of Flavel Feuger. After that, thanks to the out of town reporters, Peoria’s reputation changed to a “Dangerous, gangster town.” Hell, we never really got over that until we were named All American City in what…1953?
CLUES CLUES WE GOT CLUES
If opinions were clues then the police would have solved the murder of McNear the very next day. However what they found at the scene was the dead man’s cane some sixty feet from his body. The police surmised that George had thrown the cane at his killer. They found the wadding that apparently had come from the shotgun that killed McNear. Yet there was an article in Reader’s Digest by some jerk that illustrated the story with a machine gun and a train engine. Reporters loved that machine gun, and every writer who ever came here wanted to talk about gangsters and machine guns. Most people know my attitude on that phony myth. I swear to you that there were people in this town and visitors as well who would have preferred to believe McNear was killed with a machine gun instead of a shotgun. There’s so much more ‘gangster’ thrill that way.
George was killed by a single shot from a twelve-gauge shotgun firing
There were six murders during 1946, 1947 and 1948 and only one, the murder of Flavel Feuger was ever solved. In 1948 our pet gangster Bernie Shelton was gunned down here as well. As I said, those six murders changed our reputation forever. About the only thing I am sure of is that they sold one heck of a lot of newspapers.