Whittington Railroad Born
Amy Elizabeth Cook
Whittington in Franklin County was founded in 1894 beside the Chicago and Eastern Illinois (now the Union Pacific) Railroad that crossed the county. Almost overnight Whittington became an important cattle-loading point and the center of a timber area producing railroad-bridge pilings and cross ties.
Soon the rail line was carrying coal from Franklin and Williamson County mines to Chicago. More important to the new town of Whittington were other freight and passengers. Drummers arrived in town, rented hacks or horse drawn carts, and took orders from stores at Webbs Hill, Frisco, Snowflake, and several in Ewing. Students and teachers at nearby Ewing College also found the six daily passenger trains convenient.
Almost immediately a town was laid out and named for railroad surveyor Wilson Whittington. Businesses sprang up to capitalize on the railroad industry. Located along the switching tracks were a sawmill, lumberyard, implement dealership, hotel, restaurants, and various stores. The livery stable did a good business serving much as a taxi- and car-rental service would today. A bank, one of the three in the county to survive the Depression, was started and remains prosperous. Whittington had a stock pen and a loading chute on the east side of the tracks. These soon made the community an important place for area farmers who brought their livestock for shipping by railroad to the city markets.
The firm of Neal and Webb of Ewing was the first to ship from the stock pen. For a long time Whittington was a busy shipping center for more than livestock. Poultry, eggs, and merchandise arrived from Ewing, Webb's Hill, and Lum Cypher's store west of Whittington on the old Sesser Road. One unusual export was rabbits. Boys got a nickel for each rabbit brought in, and occasionally a boxcar full of rabbits would be shipped up to Chicago. In turn, Whittington's stores were stocked with merchandise brought in by the C & E I.
During the Depression the railroad carried drifters from town to town. Being hospitable people, the townspeople fed many who stopped for a handout. Older residents recall touching and humorous stories of these men who often became regulars.
Not all who rode the rails were welcome. One night Henry Kidwell and his hunting buddy Will Taylor discovered two drifters in the Kidwell store about 8:00 P.M. Kidwell and Taylor entered from the front and back of the store with their shotguns in hand. Will went to Benton for the sheriff because there was no telephone service. Henry said, "Those two boys will sit there on the end of the counter, and I'll sit right here. As long as they sit on the counter, they'll be all right. But, if they jump on that floor, that is when I pull the first trigger of this two-barrel shotgun. He'll be on the floor when you come back. Otherwise, he'll be sitting there when you get back." The drifters remained on the counter.
While Whittington had many places of entertainment, such as movies seen at the Opera House, checkers played at the McAfoos Lumberyard, and tall tales told at Johnston's Store, nothing compared to the train depot. When a passenger train stopped, a small crowd gathered to see who was disembarking or boarding.
One commodity commonly shipped to the depot was whiskey. During Prohibition, recalls Woodrow Whittington, "that depot was full of whiskey." Places like Webb's Hill store would buy it along with plows and household items. The owner ordered a lot of whiskey in gallon jugs. One time a shipment didn't arrive. The store owner checked a few days later and the agent wrote a letter, "Please ship that whiskey. He's so dry his hide is beginning to crack."
Depot agents were popular for obvious reasons. One known as "Hick'ry" had been transferred to the Chicago area. One day some men crated a local mule and shipped it up to him. Of course, he had to receive it. Even though it had no return address, he knew who sent it. He ordered the men to feed and water it and give it some exercise. He knew who at Whittington to ship it to.
While the railroad helped build the town, it almost helped destroy it, too. Elizabeth Britton remembers a fire for a personal reason. "My father had a lumberyard right by the railroad tracks. The train was switching tracks and a spark flew out on the wooden roof. At first the flame was small enough that a bucket of water could have put it out. But the train backed up to squirt steam on it. What it did was flame the fire and the flames flew in every direction. Rather than put the fire out the engine scattered it all over the roof. From there the fire spread over most of the business district east of the railroad tracks." Among the victims were the bank, two merchandise stores, a restaurant, the barber shop, and the livery stable. All of these stores, however, were rebuilt.
In the nineteenth century, railroads helped communities to grow while settlements without railroads floundered and even disappeared. In the case of Whittington, Illinois, a railroad created the community.—[From Eighth Grade Class, Ewing-Northern School, A Hisfory of Whittington, Illinois; Billie McKee Winemiller, "The Old 'C & El': A Passing of Railroad Hisfory."]