Octave Chanute, a civil engineer referred to as “The Father of Aviation,” lived in Peoria from about 1856 until 1864. He died in Chicago in 1910, but his body rests in Peoria’s Springdale Cemetery with an infant daughter who died in 1863; his wife, who died in 1902; and her family.
With the centennial commemoration this year of the Wright brothers’ first powered flight, Chanute is remembered as mentor to them. A total of 435 letters, notes, and telegrams passed between Chanute and the Wrights between May 1900 and March 1910. Chanute visited them not only in Dayton, but also at Kitty Hawk. When Chanute died in November 1910, Wilbur Wright attended the funeral and later eulogized him.
It’s ironic but altogether fitting that Chanute’s 171st birthday on February 18 falls during National Engineers Week. The celebration, coordinated by the National Society of Professional Engineers, which this year falls during the weeks of February 16 to 22, always includes the birthday of George Washington, a surveyor and thus one of America’s first engineers. Chanute also began his engineering career as a surveyor—a chainman on a railroad surveying crew.
Born February 18, 1832 in Paris, Chanute immigrated in 1838 with his father. At 17, fascinated by technology and railroads in particular, Chanute convinced the chief engineer of the Hudson River Railroad to hire him. Engineering at that time was an occupation learned by doing. He learned quickly. Four years later he moved west to become chief engineer for the Chicago and Mississippi Railroad.
The Peoria and Oquawka Railroad hired him to design the first railroad bridge to cross the Illinois River at Peoria. Completed in 1857, the bridge ultimately carried the Toledo, Peoria and Western (TP&W) Railroad.
On March 12, 1857, Chanute married Annie Riddel James, a native Peorian, and they began their family. While the Chanutes lived in Peoria, he was a member of the Peoria Rowing Club, a predecessor of the Illinois Valley Yacht and Canoe (IVY) Club. He designed a rowboat, christened the “Foam,” which he and seven other members launched.
Also in 1857, Chanute surveyed and laid out the rail line from Peoria to the Indiana border, some 112 miles, along the way plotting the town of Fairbury. In 1864, he authored plans for Peoria’s public water system.
Throughout his life Chanute extended the limits of the possible. He built railroad bridges not only across the Illinois River, but also across the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers, developed pressure treatment to preserve railroad ties and telephone poles, dated spikes to indicate their age, designed municipal waterworks and sewage systems, and mapped rail lines and associated towns including Chanute, Kan. In 1865 he won a contest for design of the Chicago Union Stock Yards. In 1871, he designed and built the Kansas City Stock Yards.
In the early 1870s Chanute visited Europe, where he became aware of aeronautical experiments by French and English engineers. He began corresponding with virtually all of the experimenters and read widely. In 1886 and again in 1889 he organized aeronautical discussions at major engineering conferences. He was active in the Civil Engineering Section of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and in 1891 served as president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. At the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Chanute organized a highly successful International Conference on Aerial Navigation. He followed that in 1894 with publication of Progress in Flying Machines, a classic book. In 1896, at 64 years of age, he began experiments on the southern dunes of Lake Michigan with gliders.
Chanute’s experience designing bridges served him well for invention of the strut-wire braced wing structure of the successful biplane wing. He and his associates performed more than 2,000 successful glider flights.
His well-documented relationship with the Wrights, which began in 1900, experienced some rough spots but was improving at the time of Chanute’s death.
In Peoria, memorials to Chanute—other than his modest tombstone and a road in Pioneer Park—have nearly all disappeared: the railroad bridge; Chanute Hall, used for aeronautical engine research at Bradley during WWII; and his several homes here. Even Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, developed in 1917 to train pilots for World War I and training site for more than 2 million men and women of the U.S. Air Force, closed in 1993. A museum there commemorates some of the proud history of aviation’s pioneers—as should Peoria. AA!