EARLY RAILROADS

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EARLY RAILROADS

 

The impetus for early railroad construction in Illinoistown was the growing market for coal as fuel and for the growing iron industries in St. Louis. The beds of bituminous coal were located in the bluff area between Collinsville and Belleville, requiring a six mile wagon transport to Illinoistown where the coal was ferried across by the Wiggin's Ferry Company. By 1836, over 300,000 bushels of coal crossed the Mississippi River from Illinoistown (Bond 1969:20).

The business was so profitable that in 1837 a co-partnership consisting of former Governor of Illinois, John Reynolds; Vital Jarrot; and others was formed to build a railroad beginning just south of Illinoistown and extending southeasterly over the Grand Marais (Pittsburgh Lake) to the coal mine, where a new town was planned to be named Pittsburgh. A saw mill was established in Illinoistown to furnish lumber for the railroad, which was built entirely of wood. However, the expense of building the railroad was greater than anticipated and the economic collapse during the Panic of 1837 almost broke the company until public support in the state of Illinois and the people of St. Louis gave them the financial assistance to finish the construction. The railroad was finished, and by late 1837 the first horse-drawn railroad car ran the six miles from Pittsburgh to Illinoistown (Boylan 1938:185-186).

The cost of the railroad was too much to bear for the partnership, and in 1838 all real estate and property was acquired by William C. Anderson of St. Louis. Anderson secured a charter under a corporate organization and upgraded the railroad to accommodate a small steam locomotive. The railroad was still not profitable, and was abandoned until 1859, when it was reorganized as the Pittsburgh Railroad and Coal Company. By this time the railroad had been extended to Caseyville near the bluffs and to Brooklyn just above Illinoistown, and was handling both passengers and freight. In 1869 the name was changed to the Illinois and St. Louis Railroad and Coal Company (Boylan 1938:188). Because the original coal railroad was conceived before Bloody Island had been attached to the mainland, the later Illinois and St. Louis Railroad and Coal Company had a terminus south of the island near the old Wiggin's Ferry landing (Figure 3b, Parcel 13).

With the exception of the Pittsburgh Railroad and Coal Company and its descendant, the major railroad construction in Illinois and the Midwest in general was during the late 1840s and 1850s. During this period there were two basic policies over how the railroad network should be designed. There were the grand schemes to connect the major cities of the east coast with the emerging centers in the West, and the "state policy" proponents who wanted to use the railroads to tie together cities within the state in accordance with the local special interest goals of enterprising cities like Chicago, Springfield, Alton, and Cairo. Because of the strong "state policy" feelings, plans to locate the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad from St. Louis to Vincennes to Cincinnati met with opposition because it would have strengthened the economic base of out-of-state rival cities at the expense of ambitious southern Illinois cities. At about the same time, the proposed Atlantic and Mississippi Railroad from St. Louis to Terre Haute was opposed in the state until Alton, Illinois, was suggested as the terminus (Cole 1922:32-45).

By the late 1850s several railroad connections had been completed in Madison and St. Clair Counties. The Terre Haute and Alton branch of the Atlantic and Mississippi Railroad was completed in 1855. However, before it was opened a collateral branch line to Illinoistown was secured, thus robbing Alton of the special advantages it hoped to obtain as a railroad terminus, while St. Louis interests capitalized, by means of a 25 mile connection, on all the work Alton financial backers had done to secure the railroad connection. The Ohio and Mississippi Railroad was opened from Illinoistown to Vincennes in 1855 and to Cincinnati in 1857. This important line was of vital interest to St. Louis, which contributed more than $1,500,000 in financial backing. Prominent citizens in Belleville, Illinois, had also been enthusiastic backers of both the Ohio and Mississippi and the Mississippi and Atlantic Railroads, in hopes of being made a station on one or both lines. When the city was bypassed four miles to the north because of the overriding interests of St. Louis land investors and speculators in Caseyville, Belleville secured a branch line to Illinoistown and later another connection to Alton to connect with the Alton and Terre Haute Railroad. One other railroad line was in operation at this time. That was the old Illinois Coal Company Railroad that now operated between Caseyville and Brooklyn. This is significant in the fact that Illinoistown and the Wiggin's Ferry were bypassed at this time in favor of transfer connections with the rival Madison Ferry Company to the north (Cole 1922:45, 56; Bond 1969:28).

Alton did manage to forge a railroad connection north to Springfield in the late 1840s and by 1853 the road had reached Bloomington, thus enabling a connection to Chicago by way of the Illinois Central and the Chicago and Rock Island. Packet boats ran between St. Louis and Alton to handle the large passenger business (Howard 1972:247, 248; Cole 1922:48). The Chicago and Alton Railroad was a victory in state policy for Alton, but it was to be the last bid in Alton's battle for supremacy of southern Illinois. The narrow state policy that sought to keep railroad connections away from St. Louis and other rival out-of-state cities while building up rising centers like Alton had been bitterly fought by southern Illinois cities allied economically to St. Louis. By 1853, the state policy had been superceded by a legislative mandate for a more liberal railroad policy that was a recognition of the immutable trends in economics and transportation evolving in the nation to which Illinois had to accommodate or risk stalling and falling behind the rest of the country (Howard 1972:248; Cole 1922:44, 45).

The tremendous growth of canal and railroad transportation networks mirrored the economic competition between cities for control of the commercial hinterland. The struggle going on in the country throughout the 19th century between urban rivals was a facet of the rapid settlement of the frontier around trade routes, and the emergence of an urban hierarchy consisting of low-order towns serving as local collecting stations and, at the top, metropolitan cities that acted as regional market collection centers and concentrated commercial activities and services (Chudacoff 1981:66-68; Ward 1971:4, 5). This rivalry existed unilaterally on several levels as between metropolitan cities like St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, etc., and local towns such as Belleville, Illinoistown, and Venice. The competition also occurred between levels of the hierarchy as illustrated by the competition between the upstart Alton and the metropolis of St. Louis. However, by the mid-19th century, St. Louis had for all practical purposes annexed Illinoistown and Venice, and had fought off the challenge of Alton, which now had to take its appropriate place in the urban hierarchy below St. Louis.

St. Louis had won the battle for southern Illinois supremacy against Alton. However, the years of squabbling over the harbor improvements and the Ohio and Mississippi and Atlantic and Mississippi Railroads had diverted energy that should have gone into protecting the St. Louis trade sphere from the Great Lakes cities. It was Chicago, not Alton, that was the biggest threat to the vast market area that fed into the midwestern steamboat network to St. Louis. First the canals and then railroads diverted more and more of the agricultural and lead trade north. The Illinois and Michigan Canal, completed in 1848 and connecting the Mississippi River to the Great Lakes, and the Illinois Central Railroad from Chicago to Cairo began a reversal in the direction of trade north to Chicago, bypassing St. Louis and New Orleans. The railroad connections to Alton, St. Louis, Galena, Rock Island, and other cities in the 1850s reinforced this trend. As St. Louis investors remained complacent that trade would always flow south with the direction of the river, aggressive speculators and investors in Chicago, backed by eastern capital, captured trade and redirected the national flow of products to an east-west orientation. By the eve of the Civil War, Chicago had 11 railroad trunk lines, whereas St. Louis and Illinoistown possessed less than half a dozen (Cole 1922: 51-52; Chudacoff 1981:66-68; Larsen 1976:147-148). The coming of the Civil War and blockade of southern trade hastened the rediversion of the axis of trade along northern east-west lines via Chicago. St. Louis experienced military occupation, a cutback on trade, and close surveillance of goods, while Chicago prospered and expanded as the transportation and commercial center of the Midwest for the United States during the war (Chudacoff 1981:68).

 

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