East St. Louis and the Early Railroads
After 1865 the character of East St. Louis was changed due to its becoming a rail center. The railroads were built with the purpose of meeting commercial demands. They performed this function, opening up unsettled portions of Illinois and moving products of the state to the markets; but they also brought an influx of people who revolutionized social life in the city. The arrival of many railroad laborers, the foreign immigration from Western Europe, and the establishment of a large class of employees, incidental to railroad development, gave rise to fundamental changes in the frontier democracy of the place. The classes began to segregate. The lawyer and merchant no longer danced with the mechanic and laborer. The city had to secure a new charter to enable it to meet with new demands such as street improvement and lighting; sewage and sanitation, amusements, fire protection and law enforcement.
In the early days, crime was handled by a vigilante committee. Serious troublemakers were placed on skiffs and sent down the Mississippi River to some unknown destination. This gave way to a constable who blew on his whistle to citizenry to help corral thieves and assorted criminals. Eventually, a police department had to be created to meet the demand. In the days of cumbersome, slow-moving horse-drawn vehicles, traffic snarls were hard to handle. In East St. Louis, trains frequently blocked the streets at the grade crossings. To make things worse, where the right-of-way was a long street, they often stopped and loaded at that point. Their noisy whistles bothered the residents and their engines that bellowed smoke brought soot and dirt to plague: the housewives. In the early days, sometimes hot embers emitted from the smokestack caused fires.
Special circumstances created periods of prosperity and depression on a local scale in the city. Commerce was greatly affected by the state of the Mississippi River. Every winter, ice floes and blockades stopped steamer transportation, giving north-south railroads business that otherwise would have traveled by boat. Low water had the same effect. Conversely, floods interfered with railroad traffic and stimulated steamboat traffic.
Railroad beds in the American Bottom suffered due to a lack of ballasting rock. When the first Railroad Commission issued its premier report, the only East St. Louis road to receive an "A" was the Chicago & Alton.
East St. Louis had no post office until 1968, despite the fact that it was a rail terminal. Letters mailed in the city for points east, south, or north were taken to St. Louis, processed, and then sent back across the river. In a similar manner, incoming mail from the east side crossed the river twice before being delivered to East St. Louis.
In the early days railroad manifests listed certain products as most frequently shipped. This included cattle, hogs, packed meat, wheat, flour, corn, ice, lumber, pig iron and cotton. In later years the list expanded to include chemicals, paint, bauxite, steel, castings, zinc, oil, coal, iron ore and various manufactured items.
The railroads developed into monopolies and charged rates that were discriminatory and excessively high. Many of the early fortunes in this country were made by unscrupulous railroad magnates such as Cornelius Vanderbilt and Stephen Jay Gould. Farmers were particularly hurt by high rates charged to ship the fruits of their labor. They took the railroads to court but all of the early decisions favored the railroads. It was not until the turn of the century that the situation began to change and railroads fell under regulation, in part due to "grange laws." (The Grange - French for "barn" - was the forerunner of the NFO, National Farmers Organization.)
How to behave on a train was the subject of discussion when railroad travel was still in its infancy. In January of 1867 the East St. Louis Gazette published the following "Rules For Travelers."
Many accidents occurred in the early days of railroad operation in the city. In 1872, a group of citizens traveled to Indianapolis to look at their bridges and tunnels at certain railroad crossings. They were discouraged by the expense involved. One unusual accident took place in 1865 when a soldier tried to operate a locomotive and ran it into the St. Louis, Alton and Terre Haute depot. "Train off the trackl' was a common cry. Sometimes the cause was a broken rail or defective ties. Sometimes switches were faulty and frequently washouts in the roadbed occurred during heavy rains. Hardly an issue of the paper came out without some report of an accident. Pedestrians used railroad trestles in crossing low parts of the city and many were killed or seriously injured on them. Wagons or carriages often tried to "beat the train" and lost the race. Fires caused by embers and sparks from locomotives (most didn't switch to coal until about 1870) caused much damage, and frequently such fires were in the railroad yards.
No law required livestock to be kept off the tracks and the newspaper often mentioned cows, horses, and mules being run over. Most trains had a wedge-shaped protruding metal frame attached to the front of the engine that pushed animals to the side rather than allowing them to go under the carriage of the train. We remember these devices as "cow catchers."
In an effort to raise funds for the construction of a new railroad, companies used to induce citizen of East St. Louis to subscribe to the bonds. For the most part, the citizens did not seem inclined to subscribe to many - perhaps they were sure that the roads would come there without any special inducement.
Due to the favors railroads received from the city when they were building their lines, many citizens felt that heavy taxes on railroad property was fair. The railroads secured the best of legal assistance to avoid excessive payment. In 1870 the Ohio and Mississippi paid $1,155.98 to the city of East St. Louis. Other railroads were required to pay similar sums, making them important sources of continuing revenue.
Click here to see a map of East St. Louis Railroads near their peak