H. Roger Grant
Americans take to this little contrivance, the railroad," remarked Ralph Waldo Emerson, "as if it were the cradle in which they were born." Although this great man of letters made this observation in the mid-nineteenth century, it remained true for decades. Railroads were the transportation form that for generations most affected the daily lives of Illinois residents and their fellow Americans. Few would challenge the notion that the railroad has been an incredible instrument of change. For more than a century, the railroad resembled the Internet of the present day. It was the iron horse that shattered the isolation of the state, region, and nation by hauling shipments of freight and express, transporting passengers, carrying the U.S. mails, and making the electric telegraph part of every depot that had an agent or operator.
In some places, railroad lines covered the landscape like a morning dew. Following the Civil War, track-builders became active, and they were especially busy during the 1880s. Illinois was hardly exceptional. In 1890 the state claimed 10,213 route miles, and by World War I the total exceeded 12,000. Hundreds of communities benefited from the services of two, or even more, railroads. Gibson City, for one, had three carriers: Illinois Central, Lake Erie & Western (New York Central System), and Wabash. Pana claimed four: Baltimore & Ohio Southwestern (Baltimore & Ohio), Big Four (New York Central System), Chicago & Eastern Illinois, and Illinois Central. This rapid and steady railroad expansion paralleled the state's population explosion: 476,183 in 1840; 3,826,352 in 1890; 6,485,280 in 1920.
Although excitement for the iron horse knew no geographical bounds, the arrival of the first train in an Illinois community was usually much celebrated and remembered. Participants recalled the event and told their children and their children's children. County history books, particularly popular in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century, inevitably contained a chapter or section on the coming of rail service. In his 1908 History of Whiteside County, Illinois, William W. Davis relates the local gala in Sterling held in July 1855 to welcome the first train on the Galena Road, later part of the Chicago & North Western:
Simeon Coe furnished a three-year old ox, which was roasted on a primitive arrangement of forked sticks, and then borne in triumph, bedecked
While Sterling was not a "railroad town," many communities throughout Illinois could make that claim. In the days of slow-moving,
labor-intensive locomotives and rolling stock, companies realized that the distance a crew could handle a freight train during a typical workday was about one hundred miles. As a result "division" or "crew-change" points, along with facilities for "running" repairs, appeared at such intervals. At times these specially designated locations became the site for a major shops complex. Examples of the latter abound. The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy selected Aurora and Galesburg; Chicago Great Western, Stockton; Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific, Savannah; Wabash, Decatur.
These railroad towns became well known for having sizable single-male populations. And these men often supported a variety of local businesses, including cafes, hotels, and boardinghouses along with such "sinful places" as saloons, brothels, and pool halls. Yet there were also railroad workers who developed strong, lasting ties to the community; they married, raised families, and became involved in various fraternal, religious, and other organizations. Railroads also attracted an often diverse ethnic and religious workforce. After the turn of the twentieth century and prior to the outbreak of
Having a railroad company select a community to become an operations center pleased most residents, especially merchants and tradespeople. Of course, there was the obvious economic connection. Much as did coal and lead miners, but unlike farmers, railroaders often spent more or all of their better-than-average wages, having a positive multiplier effect on the local economy. This is not to suggest that some railroaders were not savers, particularly those with families, but unattached males were considered to be "less thrifty" and more pleasure oriented. "Those boys had good, regular paychecks and they knew how to spend and they did," recalled a Wabash operative in the Decatur shops.
Yet not all individuals attracted to a community because of the railroad contributed much to the local economy. Railroad towns and other communities, too, especially where there were railroad junctions, sported "hobo jungles." There was that periodic flood of "boes" on the move when hard times struck, especially in the 1890s and 1930s, and during the annual harvest season, when they might pick fruit or husk corn in Illinois. A large hobo jungle, for example, appeared in Monmouth near the interchange between the Minneapolis & St. Louis tracks and those of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. The presence of a shortline—the Rock Island Southern—also added to the transient population in this western Illinois county seat. These folks, usually young, unmarried males, who rode the "side-door Pullman route," commonly selected an empty boxcar or flatcar or squatted on the roof of a freight car. If they actually "rode the rods," this meant placing their "tickets"—namely thick wooden planks— between the metal support trusses that once were found underneath most rail cars and lying horizontally on them. Another alternative was "riding the blinds." The bo stood in the recessed entry-way of a baggage or mail car or passenger coach that was positioned directly behind the steam locomotive tender or "tank."
But the entry to an Illinois town that most people used was the depot. Naturally, an increasing number of these
At train-time the "dee-po" was a bustling place. "The depot is always a beehive of activity," observed a local businessman shortly after the turn of the century. "The hustle-bustle, which is America, can be found there." Examples of the depot's importance to a town's life are numerous. For one thing, the station served as a focal point for news. The station agent, who deciphered the cryptic Morse code, was probably the best-informed person locally. His (and occasionally her) chattering telegraph instruments carried more than routine railroad business (train orders, equipment requests, and the like); they brought commercial messages
from Western Union, Postal Telegraph, or other firms. Travelers also provided news and gossip. It is no wonder that "station loungers" became as ubiquitous as loafers at the courthouse, general store, or post office. The information they gathered at the depot was fresh and filled with import, and not the worn-out gossip picked up elsewhere. Not surprisingly, reporters might interview passengers, especially strangers, to ferret out any newsworthy tidbits to fill columns of their daily or weekly newspapers.
Before airplanes and trucks replaced railroads as principal transporters of freight, mail, and express, the depot provided the conduit through which commodities flowed. Freighttrain crews loaded and unloaded various shipments—so-called less-than-carload (LCL) freight—at the town's combination freight and passenger depot or freight station. Express and mail passed between trains and appropriate express company and postal representatives via the depot. And agents handled both in-bound and out-bound carload shipments.
The vital nature of the depot included more than its being a center for movement of goods and dissemination of news. It was a people place. The arrival and departure of a passenger train was always exciting—a highlight of a town's day. There might be family or friends to greet or to bid a tearful good-bye and always strangers to observe. There were those individuals who routinely used regularly scheduled trains. Perhaps most numerous were traveling salesmen who represented any number of businesses—grocery houses, hardware suppliers, retailers of clothing, farm implements, and the like. But they were not alone. In the late 1880s the Byron Express noted the arrival of a group of visiting Methodists who planned to conduct revival services, and the newspaper encouraged citizens to be on their best behavior.
Special events also attracted onlookers, at times in large numbers. Passing dignitaries, whether "whistle-stopping" politicians, entertainers, military heroes, or railroad officials, drew crowds as did immigrant, "orphan," troop, circus, and education trains. The latter included exhibits and usually came with accompanying lecturers who promoted better breeds of livestock or more productive ways to raise alfalfa, corn, and soybeans. Early in the twentieth century several railroads, including the Chicago & Alton and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, demonstrated in communities along their Illinois trackage the value of the "split log drag," an economical method by which rural residents could make their local roads passable during most of the year. Inspired by a Missouri farmer, this simple tool was easy and inexpensive to construct, and a team of horses or mules could pull this drag, helping to keep a country road rut-free.
Although trains continued to attract occasional crowds, railroad companies reduced or ended passenger service and subsequently closed most or all of their small-town depots as passenger traffic faded. It would be the automobile, most of all, that ended the community importance of depots, although periods of hard times also reduced passenger traffic. Both factors are reflected in the decline of ticket sales between 1929 and 1933 at Minneapolis & St. Louis stations at Berwick, Farmington, and London Mills, dropping from 1,415 to 97; 2,474 to 196, and 1,718 to 187 respectively. Technological advances to the automobile made this form of travel faster and easier. In 1916 the driver of a well-tuned car could make 100 miles a day; two decades later it was common to travel 300 or 400 miles. The triumph of the "good roads" movement also contributed greatly to this enhanced mobility. While gasoline and tire rationing during World War II temporarily restored the depot to some importance, the downward trend in public usage in Illinois and elsewhere accelerated in the postwar period, ultimately forcing creation in 1971 of Amtrak, the quasi-public National Railroad Passenger Corporation. A few depots in the state remain active, mostly along commuter lines in the greater Chicago area and also in cities served by Amtrak, including Champaign and Springfield.
Personal contract with the railroad is much more limited today for residents of Illinois. Since hundreds of miles of line have been abandoned, especially since the 1960s as result of declining freight traffic, corporate mergers, and the like, the chance to see a train is limited largely to the main stems operated by inter-regional freight giants Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Canadian National, CSX, and Norfolk Southern. But the Land of Lincoln has
nearly forty rails-to-trails paths, including the popular Great Western Trail built on the abandoned main line of the Chicago Great Western between St. Charles and Sycamore, and a good number of former railroad depots, with some restored and housing a county or community museum.
Connection with the Curriculum
Materials for Each Student
Objectives for Each Student
Opening the Lesson
Developing the Lesson
2. T-shirts in today's society have become a way to express one's thoughts or emotions of the moment. Divide your students into three
3. The "Historical Head" activity allows students to be creative, but also to recognize and formulate their understanding of the different
4. Reaching your students can be difficult some days, but the Internet seems to always catch students' attention. Send your class to:
Concluding the Lesson
2. Activities 2 and 3 encourage the creative talents of your students. Students can stand up, display their
Extending the Lesson
Assessing the Lesson
Read the questions first to help aid you in the direction of the article. Read the article.
1. "Americans take to this little contrivance, the railroad as if it were the cradle in which they were born."
How does this quote by
2. Why was the arrival of the first train in Illinois considered a historical event?
3. How did the Illinois towns along the railroad benefit from consistent returns of the train?
4. What was a "hobo jungle" and how did it contribute to railroad and community life?
5. Why would the depot of a town be considered a vital piece of property?
6. Analyze and explain how the invention of the automobile changed Illinois once again.
T-shirts in today's society are used for self-expression. They often have pictures or sayings that represent the moment or connection to something in your environment. Choose between a business man, a hobo, or a railroad owner and create a saying, a picture or both for how you connect to the railroad. When you are finished, flip your worksheet over and explain your picture and the significance it has to the railroad industry.
Below is a head that needs to be filled with ideas that represent a side of the railroad industry. The head will be completed when there are five pictures that represent individual points. You will then need to justify your picture, and its relationship to the content on the back of the paper. The justification is a two-part statement. The first part should explain your picture and the second part should explain why it connects to that specific side of the railroad industry.
Name of Head:_______________________________
To complete this Internet activity, start at: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/../index.html.
1. What is your state?
2. How old is your map?
3. Are there any distinct features of your map (legends, advertisements, etc.)?
4. What other geographic items are noted within your map?
5. Locate your specific county. Are there any railroads that travel through your county?
6. Compare the Illinois map to another state map of roughly the same time period. What are four similarities between the two maps?
7. Follow a specific railroad through your state. Based on your previous knowledge and your newly obtained knowledge from the reading,
8. Draw a card from your teacher. Decide a location within your state or another state that would establish a strong business.