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ILLINOIS RAILROAD BOOM,

1865 to 1873

 

Between the close of the Civil War and the depression of 1873, everybody wanted to be close to a railroad. It promised wealth to local producers through connection with the national market, wealth to real-estate owners and other businesses through the growth or creation of urban centers, wealth to those people it might employ; and it was terribly exciting.

As a second railroad approached the city, the Quincy Whig screamed, "We want all the railroads we can get." The Chicago Times, whose city had already profited more from its railroads than had any other municipality, bubbled greedily that wealth from the railroads "will so overflow our coffers with gold that our paupers will be millionaires, and our rich men the possessors of pocket money which will put to shame the fortunes of Croesus."

The Chicago Evening Journal knew why Aurora was "prosperous and wide awake" in February, 1872: the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy had just paid its 1,985 employees $100,764 in that city. In Charleston just the prospect of the Charleston and Danville Railroad gave the "people new zeal, and several fine buildings, business houses and dwellings [were] in progress."

It was no mean achievement for any city to obtain the location of a railroad machine shop, roundhouse, or other service. In November, 1870, "an earnest strife existed between the towns on the new Gilman, Clinton, and Springfield Railroad, over the location of the company's machine shops." At least three cities offered to donate the land, buildings, and "appurtenances" if the Chicago and Alton Railroad would locate its stockyards there.

"Prominent businessmen of Carthage spend their leisure time playing marbles on the street," the Chicago Times observed in July, 1872. But there were more exhilarating ways to spend time when the railroads brought famous, and not so famous, dramatic groups, lecturers, and circuses to or through the depots in a rapidly increasing number of towns. Prairie lads were impressed by the big-city drummers the trains brought to town, as much by the supply of lewd pictures the salesmen carried as by the marvelous inventory in their huge trunks. Newspaper readers enjoyed the embarrassment of a Peoria ticket agent whose window bore the great scarlet letters "BIRTHS SECURED HERE." Such intangibles as the opportunity to escape boredom were of undoubted importance in causing Illinoisans to subscribe to more railroad bonds than they could afford.

Since the state government could not grant direct aid to railroads promoters turned to local government. In 1849 the general railroad in corporation act was amended to provide that any county might, upon vote of its citizens, subscribe for shares in the capital stock of any such corporation to an amount not to exceed $100,000. Later acts raised the amount and extended the power to boards of supervisors where the township organization prevailed and to councils of municipalities.

By 1873 it was estimated that local governments had bonded themselves to a total of $2,000,000 (The figure doubled by 1877.), in support of railroads. Total support was increased, of course, by contributions of individuals who mortgaged private holdings to produce aid.

Elgin offered the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad $150,000 to build through the city; Sycamore offered $100,000 to the Chicago and Pacific for a similar purpose; and newspapers document hundreds of similar cases.

Quincy went to great lengths to demonstrate its faith by voting to subscribe to $500,000 worth of bonds of the Quincy, Missouri, and Pacific Railroad, a line chartered and built outside the state. So eager was the city for this venture that its citizens secured a special section in the constitution of 1870 permitting it, pushed a bill through the General Assembly providing for it, and successfully lobbied to override Governor Palmer's veto.

Construction and business needed little encouragement. At the close of 1870, Litchfield, between East St. Louis and Springfield, had 14 passenger trains per day - seven to St. Louis, three northeast through Decatur, and four east to Indianapolis. By the following year eight railroads had main or trunk lines terminating in East St. Louis, while 13 railroads had terminals in the broader area opposite St. Louis. In August, 1871, Chicago had 426 trains entering or leaving the city daily. Six railroads were either completed or projected into Springfield.

The Illinois River, by June, 1870, was spanned by six railroad bridges -at LaSalle, Peoria, Pekin, Beardstown, Meredosia, and Naples. When the great Eads Bridge to St. Louis opened in 1874, there were 10 bridges crossing the Mississippi from Illinois. By 1873, Chicago had won its battle for commercial dominance with St. Louis, and its boomers were already speaking of overtaking New York.

As the depression halted construction in 1873, 73 percent of all the land in the state lay within five miles of a railroad; 21.5 percent between five and 10 miles; 4 percent between 10 and 1 and 15 miles; and only 1.5 percent more than 15 miles distant.

 

 

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