Connecting the state, and then the nation

When Abraham Lincoln arrived in the Illinois House of Representatives in 1835 he found himself squarely in the middle of a debate about transportation.

Lincoln was a supporter of U.S. House Speaker Henry Clay’s “American System,” a nationwide web of canals, roads and other infrastructure that would link the young and growing nation together. Lincoln had won his race for the House in part on a platform of building a canal on the Sangamon River to connect his New Salem constituents with faraway markets.

The debate then roiling the Illinois House when it met in the capitol in Vandalia that year concerned what sort of infrastructure improvements the state should invest in. After much debate the legislators agreed on a compromise package which funded canals as well as the new technology of railroads.

The legislation turned out to be a financial disaster for the state, as the canals did not create the wealth Lincoln and other supporters had envisioned, and the costs to the state of building railroads proved to be prohibitively expensive. The state would not recover from the debt incurred until the 1880s.

But one element of the infrastructure legislation which passed in the 9th General Assembly would prove to be a phenomenal success and would remain with us right up to this day. For it was within that legislation that the state helped usher in the line which would come to be called the Illinois Central Railroad.

Creating a railroad on paper would prove to be a lot less challenging than actually building one, as Illinois was in the process of finding out with its first rail line. The so-called Northern Cross railroad had been intended to cross the central part of the state, only to run out of funds and eventually be cancelled after completing only a fraction of its planned length.

Efforts to procure land for the ICRR moved slowly. Members of Illinois’ congressional delegation introduced legislation in 1836 to grant federal lands to the ICRR for construction, but the bill did not move. It would not be until 1850 that Congress would finally agree to the land grant.

The driving force behind the Illinois Central’s approval in Congress was Senator Sidney Breese, who chaired the Senate’s Public Lands Committee. Breese had been introducing legislation to create the railroad since 1844, arguing that construction of such a line would connect the nation’s middle with any point in the world in less than 30 days. A former Speaker of the Illinois House and Chief Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, Breese became known as the father of the Illinois Central Railroad.

Even with the long delays, the ICRR became America’s first land-grant railroad when President Millard Fillmore signed the bill on September 20, 1850. The railroad was formally chartered in 1851, with Lincoln, now a successful Springfield attorney, as part of the railroad’s legal team.

The railroad’s route would connect the river confluence at the southernmost point of the state with the lead mines at its northwestern corner. Almost as an afterthought, a branch to Chicago was added to the plan, splitting off from the main line at Centralia. That would prove to be a fateful decision with far-reaching implications for the development of the Illinois economy.

With construction at last underway, the line moved quickly. Cairo and Chicago were connected by 1856, creating what was at the time the longest railroad in the world. At Cairo southbound passengers could move between the train and a steamboat for travel all the way down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Before long, this railroad was producing its own economic benefits as more than two million acres of land along the route was auctioned off to over 35,000 newly-arrived farmers who began using the railroad to ship their products to markets, thus improving the railroad’s bottom line and building up the fast-growing city at its northern terminus.

The railroad created prosperity throughout the state. Engineers building the line were among the first to discover the large coal deposits which would become the backbone of Southern Illinois’ economy for the next century. New farms in Central Illinois supported small towns up and down the line. The railroad brought so many travelers to Chicago that it played a major part in the building boom for hotels and other accommodations for visitors.

The ICRR also built several train stations, including one that opened in 1856 in Hyde Park, having been constructed by the ICRR’s chief engineer, a once-and-future Army officer named George B. McClellan.

Business was booming in the late 1850s, but just a few years later things would change dramatically when the lower Mississippi River was closed by the outbreak of the Civil War. Steamboat service was discontinued south of Cairo. The ICRR was repurposed from a commercial link between the Great Lakes and the Gulf Coast into a military link for the movement of the western armies of the Union.

Recognizing the logistical advantages of the rivers and the railroad, General Ulysses S. Grant established his headquarters at Cairo early in 1861 and began building troop concentrations and supply depots in and around the city. When Grant began moving his army south, the ICRR was a vital supply line.

ICRR Map, 1892. 
Victory in the Civil War in 1865 brought a golden age of railroad building to the northern United States, and the ICRR was no exception. As the country expanded west across the plains, ICRR trains were right in the middle of things. By 1870 the ICRR had bridged the Mississippi and would eventually stretch across the Missouri as well, reaching Omaha, Nebraska. Meanwhile, through a series of traffic agreements with southern railroads, the ICRR brought together a collection of lines in Mississippi and Tennessee to create the Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans Railroad, connecting the Great Lakes and the Gulf entirely by rail in 1881.

Seeing the vast financial opportunities offered by such a gathering, the ICRR became a driving force behind Chicago’s bid to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. ICRR president Edward T. Jeffrey was a member of the citizens’ committee charged with promoting the city’s ultimately successful bid. ICRR trains brought thousands of visitors to the city for the fair.

With the arrival of the 20th century, the ICRR continued to expand in the south and the Midwest. It joined with other expanding lines along its route to help create the web of rail lines which crisscrossed the center of the continent and connected the east coast with the west coast, all coming together at the great rail hub of Chicago.

At its peak the ICRR operated more than 11,000 miles of track between the Gulf coast and the upper Midwest. The line continued to make its mark on history, playing a central role in the Great Migration of the early 20th century, bringing African Americans from the Jim Crow south to their new homes in Chicago and other northern cities.

For many years the ICRR hub was Chicago’s Central Station in Grant Park near Roosevelt Road. Central Station had been built to accommodate the expected surge of railroad passengers coming to the city for the World’s Fair. The nine-story building with its even taller clock tower was the headquarters of the ICRR for eighty years. It continued as the ICRR hub into the 1970s when passenger rail service was taken over by Amtrak, which gradually shifted its operations to Chicago’s Union Station. ICRR moved out of Central Station in 1973 and the station was torn down in 1974, though its platforms remained in use into the 21st century.

The ICRR became a cultural icon in the 20th century. The first such instance happened with popularization in song of the heroic tale of an ICRR engineer named John “Casey” Jones who was killed in a train wreck in 1900 while saving every other passenger on his train. Generations later, folk singer Steve Goodman would romanticize a southbound trip on the ICRR with his 1970 hit “City of New Orelans,” named for the passenger train which began running between Chicago and the Crescent City in 1949. The line also merited a mention by the Doobie Brothers in 1973’s “Long Train Runnin’

With the coming of air travel in the mid-20th century, passenger railroads nationwide fell into a decline from the golden age of rail travel, and the ICRR was again no exception. Many of the famous trains which traveled through Illinois, including the ICRR’s luxurious Panama Limited, ran for the last time on April 30, 1971.

But the line was able to endure through its freight operations and the continuation of its most popular passenger lines. Among these survivors was the City of New Orleans train route which Goodman and later Arlo Guthrie would sing about.

Goodman and Guthrie so popularized the City of New Orleans that Amtrak retained the name in the 1980s as it closed out other passenger lines. The modern day City of New Orleans Amtrak route is well known to generations of Illinois college students who used the train to travel from homes in Chicagoland to the many schools along its route such as the University of Illinois, Eastern Illinois University and Southern Illinois University. Passengers not wishing to travel on the long-haul train bound for New Orleans now have the choice of the Illini or Saluki lines which run along the old ICRR route from Chicago to Carbondale.

A merger in 1972 between the ICRR and the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad created the firm known as the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad. Less than two months later the line suffered its worst crash when on October 30, 1972, 45 people were killed in a collision between two Illinois Central Gulf commuter trains at Chicago’s 27th Street Station.

The rest of the decade saw continued declines in rail travel and more of the smaller lines of the Illinois Central Gulf system were sold off. ICRR’s electric commuter line connecting downtown Chicago with the suburbs was sold to Metra in 1987. The Illinois Central Railroad name was restored in 1988. A decade later the ICRR was purchased by Canadian National for $2.4 billion.

Today the Illinois Central Railroad is found only in the history books. They tell the story of the rail line which reached the two distant ends of our state, moved the armies which saved the Union, and helped bring together east and west and connect the nation.