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Historian: Rail Helped Illinois Thrive

Illinois Railroad Association

The difference between Illinois towns that grew and those that faded away, many times, was the presence of a railroad. That’s according to historian and chair of Western Illinois University's Department of History,  Simon Cordery.

Cordery said railroads were to the mid 1800’s what the space program was to the nineteen sixties, an exciting cutting edge technology. He said, even though the exact numbers can’t be determined billions, in today’s dollars, were invested nationwide. Though not all of that investment was done wisely or ethically. Cordery recounted the story of the Alton and Sangamon railroad.  After running out of funds it’s president sought out further investment and went to see a New York banker, Henry Dwight Junior.

Cordery said that Dwight saw an opportunity and not just to invest in a railroad. “Henry Dwight Junior recognized that here was, to be blunt, a mark,” he said.

Dwight put his own appointee’s on the company’s board of directors which allowed him to use company funds to repay his own outstanding loans and even pocketed money intended for victims of railroad crashes.

Cordery said in this era, the state of Illinois and the federal government couldn’t yet regulate railroads, not until supreme court decisions upholding those rights in the 1870’s and 1880’s. 

That led to a culture in which if companies wanted to do something, they did it. Even if extreme measures needed to be taken.

This was especially true in the case of the Illinois Central and Indiana Northern Railroads. Cordery said the Illinois Central wanted to build a line into Chicago but an existing track from the Indiana Northern blocked their way.

“The Illinois Central Railroad simply went ahead on a cloudy, moonless night,” Cordery said. “The Illinois Central kidnapped the guards who the Indiana Northern had set a up and they just slapped down a rail, they crossed the railroad and made their way into Chicago. “

This created a “ T " intersection like that on a highway, where one train had to slow down and look for cross traffic before continuing.  Cordery adds that the companies so hated each other that there was no communication between the two.  As a result in 1853, two trains collided at the intersection killing 18 people and injuring 40 more.

Cordery says the prominent names in railroad history are entwined with Illinois history.  The first Mayor of Chicago, William B. Ogden, gained financing for the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad by gathering subscriptions from area farmers.

There was also a country lawyer who made his living by litigating the legal challenges that the railroad’s rapid expansion brought on, Abraham Lincoln.

Illinois Public Radio's Scott Stuntz contributed to this report

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