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The Historic Illinois Central

(Excerpt from Model RRing Mag Oct 02 issue written by Ray Tutaj Jr.)

In the 1830s and 1840s, the idea of building a north and south railroad in Illinois was gaining support. By 1847 it was being promoted by many historic figures including Congressman Abraham Lincoln and Senator Stephen Douglas. This key railroad would appropriately be named the Illinois Central.

On September 20th of 1850, President Millard Filmore signed a bill, which for the first time the federal government would grant land to make such a large railroading project possible. The greatly discussed and desired railroad construction of the Illinois Central began in 1851 and was considered the most magnificent enterprise in our young country, only to be rivaled with the building of the Erie Canal.

The purpose of the I.C.R.R. was to open up the state of Illinois and the Midwest to development. To promote the settlement of the vast and vacant prairie lands. It was not just a project local to Illinois but as one of a national scope and significance. It would be considered the "Grand Stem" of a great rail system which would connect with many other important future railroads and canals. The foresight of the promoters of this project back in the 1830s and 40s should never be underestimated. Illinois and the midwest is what it is today largely in part because of the Illinois Central Railroad.

Trackage by 1856 consisted of 705.5 miles of charter lines, making it the longest railroad in the world. The mainline traveled from Dunlieth near Galena in Northern IL. to Cairo located at the states southern tip. The branch line (Chicago branch) stretched from Chicago to Centralia where both charter lines connected. The last spike driven on the charter lines was near Mason IL. (on the Chicago branch) on Sept. 27th, 1856. This town was named after Roswell B. Mason who was in charge of constructing the charter lines. Counties, who were fortunate enough to have the Illinois Central passing through, saw a population increase of 150 percent while the rest of the state was at fifty-two percent. Many of the political backers of this railroad of course wanted the railroad to run through their counties but it was to be laid in a relatively straight line which could not veer away more than 17 miles of the proposed line.

When the name Illinois Central comes to mind it conjures up a multitude of thoughts and images. I see a railroad whose impact is so far reaching and profound it can only be considered the most important and significant railroad in the early Midwest. I see a railroad busily laying track across the Illinois prairie land, building depots, freight houses, bridges and all other structures that make a railroad work. All along the way, towns and cities blossomed from the seed of the railroad. The IC literally opened up the state of Illinois like no other railroad. In order to do so, it would have to be a north-south railroad running the entire length of the state.

The Essential Illinois Central in the Civil War

When the Civil War began in 1861, the IC played a vital role in the outcome of the war. Hauling troops and supplies southward to fight the confederate armies in many decisive battles. Several hundreds of troops from LaSalle County boarded upon the troop trains, crossing the long bridge over the Illinois Valley heading southward to the war. The same person, who helped with special legislation to grant this railroad land to build, and who was an attorney for the IC from 1856 through 61,was now the 16th president of the United States, the prominent Abraham Lincoln. He may have been the most famous but many other men who were high ranking army officers were also Illinois Central men, many who held great responsibility in the Union Army during the Civil War. Such as; Maj. Gen. George McClellan, Gen. Beauregard, Maj. Gen Burnside and Maj. Gen Dodge to name a few. The following excerpt appeared in the Illinois Central Magazine of April 1961:

The Illinois Central was the carrier that delivered men, equipment, munitions and provisions for Fort Donelson, Shiloh, Corinth, Memphis, Holly Springs, Grand Gulf, Big Black, Vicksburg and scores of other battles and skirmishes. For four years, until the end of the war, the Illinois Central became largely a military railroad. When the war broke out, the IC was a thriving railroad. It was swamped with business as it was continually furthering the development of the state in all areas of industry and agriculture. But at wartime it had another priority; assisting the Union Army in the Civil War. The IC became troubled by two things; First, the connections at Cairo and points south became a serious threat to regular traffic, and second, an obscure sentence deep in section four of the land grant act of 1850, under which the Illinois Central received its charter from the state of Illinois, which reads as follows:

"And the said railroad and branches shall be and remain a public highway for the use of the government of the United States, free from toll or other charges upon transportation of any property or troops of the United States."

It makes you wonder if in the 1840s, the government sensed an oncoming war either with the Indians or between the states, and knew the vital importance of a railroad in central Illinois. With a railroad the troops and munitions of war could be transferred quickly while in the winters the Mississippi and Ohio rivers would be iced over.


The Illinois Centrals original "Mainline of mid-America", later nick named the "Gruber Line", sliced right down the middle of the state of Illinois. In the area of north central Illinois at Mendota the railroad curved northwest to Amboy, Dixon, Freeport and westward to Galena. In Mendota, the point were the track begins to curve can still be seen with track still intact. South of this point approximately 14 miles the railroad came to a location called LaSalle, an important freight hub and western terminus of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. LaSalle was incorporated in 1852 and celebrated its150th anniversary in 2002. Here the IC had an impressive yard, with all its necessary structures such as a coal and water tower, a freight and engine house and depot too. LaSalle is on the north side of the Illinois River, located 99 miles west of Chicago. At this location the railroad built an impressive bridge that many locals still call the "mile long bridge" although it is not quite a mile. Spanning over the Illinois River and I&M Canal, the imposing bridge must have been a great obstacle for the railroad, but in 1854 the bridge was completed and open for traffic.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal is literally a stones throw from the start of the bridge on the north side. The canal was built to transport freight and passengers westward. This I&M canal is also replete with history, taking 12 years to dig, running 96 miles from Bridgeport, outside of Chicago to LaSalle. In the formidable process of building the canal, several hundred men died from disease or heat exhaustion.

In close proximity, 150ft east of the bridge, meanders a smaller river passing under the canal waterway by way of an aqueduct. This is the Little Vermilion River and it empties into the Illinois River a few hundred yards down stream. Finally, the second railroad in LaSalle is the Rock Island Line, which passes directly underneath the IC Bridge. The RI opened their line for business only a few short years after the completion of the I&M Canal (1848), they paralleled each other from the Chicago area.

Now where else can you find in the same area, both a waterway passing under another, and a railroad passing under another? I find this historic railway and waterway area both unique and fascinating.

I am glad to say the bridge is still stretching across the canal and river in 2002. It is being used by the Lonestar Cement co. and has been since the IC abandoned the line in December of 1985. The Ex-Rock Island track is now used by CSX and IAIS. The I&M Canal waterway and the aqueduct are still intact too!

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