Internal Improvements

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THE INTERNAL IMPROVEMENTS ACT OF 1837

 

The United States experienced a tremendous speculative boom in the mid-1830s as private companies and state governments jealous of New York's success with the Erie Canal began to construct a great network of canals and railroads, turnpikes and bridges, to be paid for by the wealth they would create. Illinois Governor Duncan explained to the legislature in 1834 a major advantage of building a comprehensive transportation system over the unpopulated Illinois prairie. He noted, "Our state is comparatively in its infancy, and if roads, trackways, railroads, and canals are now laid out, they can be made straight between most of the important Points, with very little expense and difficulty, compared with what will result, if their location is postponed until lands increase in value, and settlements are formed on the roads which are now in use or daily making."

In the midst of this general optimism the 10th General Assembly of Illinois met, including in its membership Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, six future United States senators, several governors, congressmen, and other prominent state officers. This distinguished body voted overwhelmingly for an ambitious internal improvements scheme which would cost more than 10 million dollars, considerably more than the state's ability to pay.

The largest project was to be a $3,000,000 Illinois Central Railroad from Cairo to Galena, leaving Chicago, still an insignificant lake port, completely out of the system. It was hoped that this road would form the backbone of a network which would channel trade away from the Mississippi River and from St. Louis to the ultimate benefit of Central Illinois farmers. Crossing the proposed Illinois Central were to be two major east-west railways: the Northern Cross connecting Danville, Springfield, and Quincy, and the Southern Cross from Mt. Carmel to Alton.

As part of the strategy to drain St. Louis of its commercial wealth, Alton, the largest city in Illinois, was made the terminous of two lesser railroads: one northwestward to Paris and the other southeastward to Shawneetown. Another proposed main line went west from Bloomington through Peoria to Warsaw on the Mississippi River. Remaining funds were to be spent on the improvements of the Wabash, Illinois, Rock, Kaskaskia, and Little Wabash rivers. The purpose was to develop river transportation within the state's boundaries rather than that which carried commerce for competing states.

The governor's wish that communication lines be "made straight," the desire to enrich the central part of Illinois at the expense of St. Louis, and the special expertise of political leaders who advocated the scheme were not enough to overcome the economic reality of the times. For shortly after the internal improvement plans had been approved, Illinois as well as the rest of the nation was stricken by the Panic of 1837, assuring that it could not finance its ambitious dreams.

Although Illinois remained solvent, many states defaulted on their debts and declared bankruptcy. Construction virtually ended in 1839, and the system was officially abandoned during the 1840-41 legislative session. All that remained was the Northern Cross Railroad from, Meredosia on the Illinois River to Springfield. By 1844, its one locomotive had worn out, and within three years the state sold the railroad at auction for one 40th of its original cost.

Before the transportation system was developed a generation later, Illinois was forced to look beyond its boundaries to the nation and to the world for more money, materials, and people.

 

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