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2 Development Delayed

Cordery, Simon Indiana University Press ePub

The earliest attempts to build steam-powered railroads in Illinois failed miserably. Several private projects laid a few miles of track before going bankrupt; two short coal lines used animals to haul wagons; and an ambitious state-funded network fell victim to an economic depression—called a “panic” at the time—in 1837. But the seed blown across the Atlantic Ocean from Britain fell on fertile soil. Railroads offered relatively fast, all-weather transportation for people and commodities. Engineering challenges, especially safely and reliably harnessing steam power, proved surmountable, and investment capital became available, but the development of the industry was neither smooth nor simple. The demand was fueled in part by roads so poor that Illinois became a notorious “mud state” when the weather turned foul. In the winter of 1848–49, for example, the people of McLeansboro found themselves isolated. Bereft of “coffee, sugar and other necessaries of life,” they survived on what they had stored from previous harvests until the roads dried out the following spring.1 This was a common occurrence in the harsh Illinois climate, and town and country alike needed a dependable, all-weather mode of transportation to combat snow, ice, and mud.

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3 Optimism Revived

Cordery, Simon Indiana University Press ePub

Travelers in Illinois during the 1840s may have paused to puzzle over sporadic strips of artificially flattened ground, mute testimony to the recent infatuation with railroads. In Bureau County, for example, work on the original Illinois Central Railroad (ICRR) got no further than “cutting away strips of timber” and leveling small stretches of territory for rails that never arrived. The Jacksonville & Savannah Railroad used land between Canton and Farmington flattened for the Peoria to Warsaw line. Stone culverts and bridge abutments also remained as a memory of the 1837 Illinois Internal Improvements Act. At the southern tip of the state, ribbons of graded land and a lengthy embankment near Cairo, remnants of “the wild State internal improvement craze,” reminded people of how “the State and whole communities were left bankrupt—stranded upon dirt embankments.”1

Disillusionment lasted barely a decade, however. The passion for railroads reignited in the 1850s, and Chicago emerged as a major commercial center. Trains from the east brought in new inhabitants and departed with grain from the prairies. Developments downstate signaled the temporary prominence of Alton and the permanent rise of St. Louis. On a national scale, the ICRR set an important precedent by using federal land grants to stimulate interest and investment.

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4 Cultivating the Prairie

Cordery, Simon Indiana University Press ePub

In the beginning, railroads needed land and the federal government had it. For settlers, it seemed in plentiful supply. The earliest European immigrants entered an apparently empty territory rich in resources and potential. Initial colonization—despite charters from British monarchs—was haphazard and small-scale. Violence against indigenous peoples was commonplace, squatting widespread, and ownership frequently a matter of dispute. Early national land policy was, in the words of historian John Mack Faragher, a matter of “Extinguish Indian title, survey, and sell.”1 Only when the federal government turned to the orderly settlement of the frontier did systematic landownership develop, and only with the arrival of railroads could mass migration occur.

Public land sales in Illinois began in 1814. Land offices in Kaskaskia and Shawneetown did a brisk business and a third office opened in Edwardsville in 1816, all in the southern third of the state. The federal government began planning for settlement north of the Illinois River by setting aside approximately 3.5 million acres—the “military tracts” from which the Central Military Tract Railroad would get its name—between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers for veterans of wars up to and including the War of 1812. Only after a delegation of territorial leaders, including Governor Ninian Edwards, obtained title in 1816 from the Native Americans living there did land offices make 160-acre plots available to veterans. Purchasers were not required to live on the land, and many veterans sold their allotments to speculators for as little as ten cents an acre. Soon Illinois land was trading on the open market in New York City for prices ranging from 50 cents to $1.50 an acre. As much as a quarter of the total acreage in the military tract sold that way, violating the principle of establishing small farms to settle the region.2

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15 Depression, Dieselization, and Another War

Cordery, Simon Indiana University Press ePub

The Great Depression prepared the railroad industry for another world war. The twin pains of unemployment and lost revenues forced railroads to reexamine their operations. Investment in building projects enhanced capacity, which, combined with new equipment, gave many companies the ability to respond quickly and positively to American entry into the war in 1941. Unlike World War I, the railroads performed admirably in the nation’s hour of need. The coordinated, responsible actions of railroad leaders and workers staved off a repeat of the dreaded government control exerted during the earlier conflict. Railroad workers again benefited from wartime wage increases and resented the resumption of postwar “normalcy.”

The collapse of share prices on October 24, 1929, was an unprecedented economic calamity, but it did not appear to be so at the time. Railway Age called it “a mild recession in business,” and the stock market leveled off after the initial plunge. Many financiers continued as before, assuming they could weather the storm. Samuel Insull, for example, saw in the misfortunes of others an opportunity to expand his Chicago-area interurban empire. But consumer buying declined, industrial output tumbled, and the demand for railroad transportation collapsed. Auto sales plummeted from 4.6 million units in 1929 to 1.3 million only four years later, and rail equipment suppliers likewise suffered. The American Locomotive Company (ALCO), which sold an annual average of six hundred locomotives during the 1920s, sold one in 1932.1 The financial sector contributed to the crash: investors had been encouraged to purchase shares on margin—borrowing against the presumed perpetual increase in the value of their holdings—but found themselves unable to repay their loans when the value of their stock tumbled.

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6 Conflagrations and Expansion

Cordery, Simon Indiana University Press ePub

The railroad-building surge of the 1850s made Chicago into an international marketplace and would help the North win the Civil War. Railroads transformed Illinois by bringing in people and capital, mechanizing and growing the grain trade, and dramatically expanding the labor force. A national financial downturn in 1857 caused an immediate drop in traffic volume, brought expansion to a halt, and tipped many railroads into bankruptcy, but local services temporarily kept them running and allowed the system to adjust to the new mileage.

The 1860s and 1870s witnessed the trauma of Civil War and the excitement of transcontinental railroading. The war caused little direct injury to Illinois railroads, though the closure to civilians of the Mississippi River and additional wartime traffic meant deferred maintenance, damaged track, and worn-out rolling stock. Illinois was the fastest-growing state in the Union during the Civil War because of its network of railroads, migrants entering from the Confederacy, and the increased importance of Chicago as a transshipment center. When the conflict began the industry seemed ready to contribute, though few could have predicted how much the railroads had to offer the war effort.

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