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Illinois' and St. Clair County's
Early Railroads

Becky Richards
Belleville Township High School West, Belleville

In the 1830s the only way to get from southern Illinois to northern Illinois was a long tiring journey by horseback, wagon, or stagecoach. The lack of better transportation in the interior hindered Illinois' agricultural and industrial development. The idea of a railroad running through the interior was proposed in 1832, at the very dawn of the railroad era in America. By 1835 the proposed "central railroad" had become an important political issue. In that year, a bill was introduced into the Illinois legislature to incorporate a company with the authority to build a railroad. That bill passed in January 1836.

In February 1837 the Illinois legislature passed the Internal Improvement Act, which provided for a network of 1,341 miles of state-owned railroads. The backbone of this system was to be the Illinois Central Railroad, stretching from Chicago to Cairo. To finance this project the state borrowed about $10 million but this was not even half the amount needed. Twenty-four miles of the railroad, called the Northern Cross Railroad, that ran from Jacksonville to Meredosia, was completed before the project collapsed in 1838. The twenty-four mile railroad was used until 1847.

The year 1850 marked the real beginning of the railway era in Illinois. It also marked the beginning of the construction of the long-awaited Illinois Central Railroad. A bill was introduced to grant land for railroad construction, and it was passed in September 1850.

During the next few months, the railroad was once again the main political issue. Many believed that the rift between the North and the South was widening, and the railroad would be needed in the event of war. Others wondered how much faith should be put in this project because many remembered the disastrous project of 1838. Probably the main concern was that the Illinois Central would run mostly through undeveloped territory, and it would not survive.

On December 23, 1851, ground was broken at Chicago and also at Cairo, the two terminals of the railroad, and construction was under way in a few months. Thousands of immigrants migrated to Illinois along with workers from the east coast. There were no machines to aid in the work; the heavy work had to be done by strong men with shovels, picks, sledgehammers, and crowbars.

On May 20, 1852, the first section of the Illinois Central opened between Chicago and Kensington. By September 27, 1856, five years and eight months after the railroad company received its charter and four months ahead of schedule, the last rail was spiked into place near Mason, Illinois. The Illinois Central Railroad was the longest railroad on the American continent at that time.

The Illinois Central Railroad served the people of Illinois well. It was the first true link of North and South. It was used to carry people, freight, and soldiers. It brought along development of many towns in the interior, and it brought work for many people. The Illinois Central Railroad was, and still is, a great asset to the people of Illinois.

While this is the big picture of railroad development in Illinois, St. Clair County has its own share in the history of the railways in the state. One of the men who was responsible for the railroads in St. Clair County was a former governor, former member of the state legislature, and a former justice on the first Illinois Supreme Court: John Reynolds. As it turned out he was also a very shrewd businessman. Reynolds owned many acres of land along the bluffs of the Mississippi River and in the Mississippi Valley between Belleville and present-day East St. Louis. Large quantities of coal were located in the bluffs of this area known as the American Bottom. Reynolds could not rest until he found a way of transporting the mineral wealth to the city of St. Louis and possible other locations along the Mississippi River. Therefore, he joined with several friends to build a railroad whose primary use would be shipping coal.

In 1837, the same year that the Illinois Legislature passed the law to finance railroad construction with public funds, St. Clair County's railroad was built with private funds. This first rail line was built out of straps of iron over wooden rails and was pulled by horses. The six-mile roadbed was graded, a two-thousand-foot-wide lake was bridged, and within a few months the first railroad in the Mississippi Valley, and in Illinois, was completed.

The track was improved later when iron rails were brought from Philadelphia by boat via the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. When they arrived, holes were punched into them and they were nailed to the wooden ties. This track was used for several years.

The second railroad established in St. Clair County was the Belleville and Southern Illinois Railroad, also known as the St. Louis and Terre Haute System, and the Cairo Short Line. With the construction of Eads Bridge at St. Louis, the rails crossed the river. Eventually, large switching yards established in the county enhanced the economy of the area.[From A. T. Andreas, History of Cook County; Brink, McDonough and Co., History of St. Clair County; Carlton J. Corliss, Trails to Rails; Alvin Nebelsick, History of Belleville.]

ILLINOIS HISTORY / DECEMBER 1994 7


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