Excerpted from
By George M. McConnel

©Illinois Trails History and Genealogy

Illinois had been a State only since 1818, was territorially a very considerable empire, over the southern one-third or one-half of which was scattered a population scarcely numerous enough to make a' tenth rate city of today. Yet even then its people were agitating questions of a canal from Lake Michigan to the Illinois river and a few prophetic souls were hinting at railways though with little conception of that whereof they hinted. In a certain sense it was not a wilderness or frontier. population, but one nearly all of whose members had been born in far older states, and were' mentally in close touch with the people of the Atlantic states from Boston to Florida and along the gulf beyond to New Orleans.

And among all these, in Massachusetts, in New York, in Maryland, in South Carolina and in Louisiana, there were projects of railways of one kind or another very soon after Stephenson's E]nglish achievement. The Illinois people were too weak financially to do more than talk until in February, 1837, the state as such took up the work on its own credit and struck out a great system of "internal improvements," including the building of eightdistinct lines of railway; first, the Central from Cairo to Galena; second, a branch of same from Hillsboro eastward to the Indiana state line; third, the Southern Cross road from Alton to Mt. Carmel; fourth, the Northern Cross road from Quincy, via Jacksonville, Springfield and Decatur, to the Indiana state line nearly due west from Indianapolis; fifth, from Peoria to Warsaw; sixth, from Alton eastward to intersect the Central, though there seems now some doubt whether this was not included in the Mt. Carmel-Alton project; seventh, from Belleville to intersect the Southern Cross, and eighth, from Bloomington to Mackinaw with branches to Peoria and to Pekin, all of which it was estimated would cost nearly ten million dollars.

While the bill was pending, Senator Vance of Vermilion county, one of the strong opponents of the whole scheme down to that time, suddenly declared, for some unknown reason, that if the friends of the bill would insert a provision that the Northern Cross road should be built first of all, he would support the bill and this was accordingly done, though the result showed that the bill would have passed without his vote. It seems absurd, now, that a road from Quincy -eastward through Springfield should be called the Northern Cross, but the fact that it was so named is clear proof of where the vast preponderance of the population of the State then lay. Except for the little lead mining city of Galena, the trading post at Peoria and a few other isolated communities, the great mass of the State's people then dwelt south of the Springfield line of latitude.

Early in March, 1837, the Legislature elected a "board of public works," one member from each judicial district, to carry out this scheme, relatively more vast than it would now be for the present State to undertake the construction of three or four Panama canals. The member chosen by the Legislature from the Jacksonville district was Murray McConnel, a lawyer, then in the prime of life, full of fire and energy, active and tireless. He took instant action and.within two months of his election had employed James M. Bucklin as chief engineer, drew from near his old boyhood home in New York near the Pennsylvania line, two or three of his own relations who had some knowledge of what had been done in New York, and within another two months had completed the survey and location of -the whole fifty-five miles from Meredosia to Springfield and had closed contracts for its construction.

Within a year after the survey was begun, and it is to be remembered that the builders had no advantage of any kind of connection with or access to any railroad already built, and so everything had to be, so to speak, "hand made," within a year, or on May 9, 1838, the first rail was laid and early in November of the same year "the first locomotive that ever turned a wheel in the Mississippi valley" was put in operation.

The tremendous difficulties and discouragements overcome by these pioneers in Illinois railway building can hardly be imagined by those who know only the railway building of today. They not only had no proper tools for such work but most of them knew only theoretically and by hearsay as it were, of what the work they had undertaken was. Only a few weeks after construction began in 1837, the great financial panic of that year broke out and thence forth the work was urged against an increasing sea of difficulties that might have appalled the managers had they better known the real proportions of their task. So great were they that though the western half of the fifty-five miles, or nearly half, was in active operation early in 1839, the road was not completed to Springfield till in May, 1842.

In the enthusiasm of May, 1837, Commissioner McConnel had ordered iron, cars, a locomotive and other needed equipment, through the fund commissioners appointed by the State to raise money for the work, and reported that they had been bought agreeably to his requisition, but it is one of the strange facts of that time of delirium, beginning in enthusiasm and ending in financial panic and crushing debt, the locomotive bought by the fund commissioners and shipped from New York by sea to New Orleans, thence to come to St. Louis and thence by Illinois river boat to Meredosia, was never heard of more. Somehow or other, how, probably nobody now can ever know, it was "lost in its passage" as one of the fund commissioners afterwards reported to the Legislature. It is another curious fact that though this locomotive was so mysteriously lost in transit; Commissioner McConnel of the board of works received a locomotive which was said to have been bought by the fund commissioners for the Bloomington-Mackinaw road, though that road did not then, and probably never did, have any use for a locomotive. And this alleged B. & M. locomotive was rolled from a steamboat at Meredosia on to. the Northern Cross tracks and set to work. Unless greatly misled by memory it is a mistake, however, to say, as some Illinois historians have said, that this old railroad never had but this one locomotive. Whether the one reported to have been "lost in transit" afterwards "turned up" in some way, or if another was bought, recollection now is that during part of 1839, 1840 and two or three years more, there were two locomotives used more or less regularly, and this appears to be made quite certain from two facts, neither of which, it would.seem, memory could err about. Those locomotives, whether one or two, were many hundreds of miles away from any other railways and equally distant from any repair shops.

As they felt the wear and tear of use little repairing could be done on them save such as might be worked out in any ordinary country blacksmith's shop. Accordingly by 1844, or thereabouts, they had become incapable of more than crawling about. They were put out of use, the cattle guards at the different farm lines were floored so that mules could travel on the track, and for two or three years the flat cars-I incline to think but very few, if any, box cars-were used for carrying freight from Meredosia to Springfield and intermediate points, drawn by three or four mules driven tandem.

When so put out of use, one locomotive was turned over by the State to James M. Semple, then one of the U. S. Senators from Illinois, to experiment with in carrying out a dream he indulged of constructing a huge prairie steam wagon, with long drums faced with planks for driving wheels, with which he planned to carry passengers over the then unoccupied prairies of the State, so little did even so able a man as he, dream of the short time it would be before those prairies would be practically filled with occupied farms. This was turned over to him near Berlin in the western edge of Sangamon county, where after many strange experiences by him, some of them amusing, some of them pathetic and all of them costly and disastrous, it was abandoned by him within a few yards of the railway track, and gradually went to pieces under the wear of weather and the appropriation of those who wanted a bit of metal or of wood which they could pick out of the wreck. I often saw its dwindling carcase lying there for some years after.

But memory says there was another locomotive, which went to Mr. Ridgely of Springfield, when in 1847, he bought from the State at public auction the road and all its belongings. This, it is remembered, was rebuilt in the Springfield shops, after the re-organization effected by Mr. Ridgely, under the careful direction of Mr. Tilton, who for some years managed the rehabilitated road, was named the "Phoenix," a queer looking machine even for fifty and more years ago, and was used for doing a variety of light work through several years.

The road was built by laying parallel lines of mud sills, eight or ten inches square, under where the rails would come, save where the earth bottom was judged firm enough to lay cross ties much as is now done, only. much further apart than now. On these ties were laid "stringers" of oak probably 4x6, or 4x8 inches, notched and pinned together and on these were spiked flat strap iron rails, some 21/2 inches wide, five-eighths of an inch thick and probably twelve or fifteen feet long, with ends mitred, or slanted, so as to take the weight of a wheel on each rail before it had quite left the other. The frequent result may be easily imagined. These ends gradually curled up as the wheels rolled over them, till the points, rising higher than the wheel center, became what were called "'snake heads," were under-run by the wheels and shot up through the car and sometimes through an unfortunate passenger or employee.

The only passenger coaches the road possessed were about of the size and "build" of the big omnibuses of the past generation. The seats ran along each side, like those of the omnibus, ald the coaches were equally destitute of any and every other appliance for the comfort or convience of the traveler, other than to sit down and "hang on"-if he could. The speed of the trains was very low, as speed is now measured, but it was, relatively to that to which that generation was accustomed, nearly as high as we now habitually know, the roadway was very uneven, there were no straps to hang to and the lurching about of passengers unfortunate enough to be obliged to stand, their stumbling over and trampling upon the feet of the seated travelers, into whose surprised embraces they not infrequently stumbled and sprawled, were often vastly amusing to onlookers howsoever exasperating to the participants. It was often equally disagreeable when passengers were few. There were no divisions of any kind in the-seats. Along each wall of the coach ran a smooth stretch of bench like seat and a sudden lurch of the coach would often slide a sitter half the length of the coach and land him, or her, with a gruesome bump in the middle of the floor. These were specimen inconveniences for travelers, while the want of some of the simplest of the railway devices of the past twenty years brought serious hardships and hazards to the employes.

Cars were coupled only with the long link and pin, operated by hand and resulting in any train of a number of cars suddenly stretching or shrinking in length with sudden changes of speedas much as a score or more of feet, with sudden jars and hazards unknown on modem trains. There was no means then known for warming the water in the tank of the locomotive tender and the only known means of conveying it from the tank to the boiler was by ordinary leathern hose swinging freely enough between the two to assure immunity from breaking in any one of these sudden elongations of the train. Often a stop of two or three minutes at any station exposed to the bitter cold blasts of winter would suffice to freeze the water in these hose, tying up the train for from a few minutes to several hours, destitute of any means of informing anybody of the cause and probable duration of the delay. A few minutes of delay in pushing through a snow-drift far from any station would bring the same frozen hose, far from even the useless but sympathetic knowledge of the denizens of a bit of prairie station. Then it became necessary for the train crew to take wood from the locomotive tender-the art of burning coal in a locomotive furnace had not then been discovered-and carefully build a fire on the ground between the rails and under the hose where it passed in festoons from tank to boiler, watching it like a hawk lest it scorch the leather, in which case the hose would crack and burst and the locomotive be left hopelessly "dead," till drawn away by some force other than its own. What this task must be for two or three men crouched in the narrow space under a locomotive cab, with a maniac-like northwest wind howling like a legion of devils across the open prairie, driving clouds of stinging snow before it, may be partly guessed by those who have seen a prairie blizzard but can never be fairly appreciated save by him who has taken part in the torturing task.

The facilities for supplying locomotives with fuel and water were very meagre, and when the train stopped at any "wooding" station, the whole train crew and not infrequently some of the passengers, joined in throwing the sawed wood into the great box of the tender, sometimes even having to add to the labors of the sawyers to fill the needed quantity." In many cases some slight accident has caused a stop at some point remote from the scanty water stations, and lines of disgusted passengers trudged back and forth for hours between the impotent train and the nearest creek or farm well, often a distance of miles, each with one or. two pails of some kind, carrying water to put into the tank.

These are but a few of the embarrassments of railroading in those days. There were scores of others, for the signal code, the air brake,. the automatic coupler, the toilet devices of today, the sleeping car, the dining car, steam heated cars, al1 lights save candles alone, the use of the telegraph in operating trains, these:and many another commonplace of today, were as yet undreamed of. I speak only of such as I saw something of in my boyhood.

The observer of today, if he stops to think, will feel a new respect for the general sagacity of the men who projected the eight lines of road before spoken of. Little of the vast area covered was much beyond the wilderness stage, most of it not at all.beyond. Yet the majority of the lines they laid down are now literally or substantially parts of more or less important railway routes.

The main line of the Wabash railway of today, pushed southwestward from the head of Lake Erie, intersects the line of the old Northern Cross about at Decatur, and follows it almost foot by foot westward to the Mississippi. The sound judgment of those green railway builders of 1837 is curiously witnessed by the fact that the line they surveyed and located from Meredosia to Springfield is followed in detail to this day by the great railway before mentioned.

One incident I recall witnesses the human quality of that day not a whit different from that of our day. As surveyed by Engineer Bucklin under the official supervision of Commissioner McConnel, the railway line passed along the northern verge of the village of Jacksonville, precisely where the line of the Wabash now passes. But certain of Commissioner McConnel's townsmen insisted that this was because McConnel "owned property on that side of town," and they were highly indignant that he was thus benefiting himself. "The whole town," they said; "should be benefited by locating the road right through the middle of town, along State street and through the public square!" "Why! bless you," said McConnel, though he may not have used the word "bless," but its next door neighbor. on the theory that "extremes meet,"-"the engineers did not know I owned any property when they located the line. You can have it on State street if you wish and see how you like it."

And so, to the disgust of the engineers two long transverse curves were interjected into an otherwise straight road, turning it into West State street over the ground where the high school now stands, and sending along the chief street and through the central square of the town, the locomotives belching their smoke in the aristocratic front windows of Col. John J. Hardin as the road left State street on the eastern verge of town and went back again to the surveyed line. The indignant citizens who thought they should share in a "graft" that existed only in their imaginations, were glad enough to get the track back again on the survey ten years later after the sale to Ridgely, but none of them ever made public acknowledgement that the Commissioner and the engineqrs were in the right from the first.

Once more let me remark- that the fact that along these fifty-five miles of road the line of today follows foot by foot the survey of -seventy years ago, is no small testimony to the sagacity, the foresight, the sincerity, the intelligence of the men who established these lines when there was yet no historic past in railway building by which they could guide their footsteps. They broke a way for civilization in the Mississippi valley, and a way whose fashion was yet wholly new to mankind.

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