ICRR: Building a state

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Few corporations have had such tangible and lasting influence on the development of a state as did the Illinois Central Railroad. It literally built Central Illinois. From the outset, it promised wealth to local producers through connection with the national market, to real estate owners and other businesses through the growth or creation of towns and cities, and to those people it might employ. It was also very exciting to have a new railroad in a prairie town. In balance, all these promises were fulfilled.

The railroad laid out towns every 10 miles along its largely uninhabited route. Main streets led to the depots. North-south streets were numbered and east-west streets were named for trees. The names of the towns themselves commemorated people or activities of the corporation.

Illustrative of its influence, by 1884 the Illinois Central had directly influenced the naming of 32 towns and villages along its more than 700-mile route. Beginning in Chicago, the Illinois Central chugged south to Grand Crossing, named for the many rail lines that intersected there. Next stop was Burnside, named for General Ambrose Burnside, one-time cashier and later treasurer of the Illinois Central. George Pullman's feudal enclave came next, followed by Riverdale. J. F. Tucker, Illinois Central general superintendent, named the next stop for himself.

Other cities enshrined the memory of George Danforth, purchaser of large blocks of Illinois Central land; Sam Gilman, builder of 51 miles of track; Buckley, station agent; Thomas Ludlow and Robert Rantoul, Illinois Central incorporators; Samuel Jarvis Haynes, superintendent of machinery; William Mattoon, a Terre Haute and Alton contractor; George Watson, division superintendent; Col. Roswell Mason, division engineer; Richard Cobden, a British shareholder; Richard Haldone, station agent; Lawrence Heyworth, British stockholder; Robert Forsyth, general freight agent; S. W. Walker, Elia Dunkel, and William Vernon.

At times the company abandoned the last names of its employees and shareholders and chose more romantic names. Neoga, a word meaning "place of the Deity," was named before any thought was given to an actual city. William Ferguson, an Illinois Central agent in London, chose the Indian name Tamoroa; and George Watson and R. B. Mason, with future communities already bearing their own names, christened Wautaug and Nora.

Echoes of far-away places came to the Illinois prairies with the founding of Polo, named by an Illinois Central agent for explorer Marco Polo. A sailor-turned-railroad-agent named Woosung. T. B. Blackstone, president of the Chicago and Alton, named Mendota; and Centralia proved an apt description of a town platted by the Illinois Central as its southern machine shop. The lure of the railroad was strong enough to induce the village of Homo to change its name to Sublette to correspond to the name of the Illinois Central station.

The railroad age in Illinois has long since passed its golden years. Planes carry the passengers and trucks carry the freight. But the changes wrought in Central Illinois by the Illinois Central railroad live on.



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