The Iron Road in the Prairie State: The Story of Illinois Railroading

The Iron Road in the Prairie State: The Story of Illinois Railroading

The Iron Road in the Prairie State: The Story of Illinois Railroading

The Iron Road in the Prairie State: The Story of Illinois Railroading


In 1836, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas agreed on one thing: Illinois needed railroads. Over the next fifty years, the state became the nation's railroad hub, with Chicago at its center. Speculators, greed, growth, and regulation followed as the railroad industry consumed unprecedented amounts of capital and labor. A nationwide market resulted, and the Windy City became the site of opportunities and challenges that remain to this day. In this first-of-its-kind history, full of entertaining anecdotes and colorful characters, Simon Cordery describes the explosive growth of Illinois railroads and its impact on America. Cordery shows how railroading in Illinois influenced railroad financing, the creation of a national economy, and government regulation of business. Cordery's masterful chronicle of rail development in Illinois from 1837 to 2010 reveals how the state's expanding railroads became the foundation of the nation's rail network.


The history of railroading in Illinois looks from a distance like an orderly sequence of events. the story, seemingly preordained, tells of rise, fall, and tentative renaissance. After a slow, parochial start—so the narrative goes—railroad technology improved and private capital flowed into the industry, which grew into a mighty transportation network, created a national market, and shrank time and space. But storms blew in when the omnipresent and omnipotent railroads alienated employees, customers, and politicians. Reined in by labor unions and government regulators, the railroads suffered a near-mortal blow as people shifted to cars, trucks, and airplanes after 1900. Political and economic pressure squeezed the industry until much of the track became redundant and had to be abandoned. Having redefined how people understood and interacted with the world, railroads almost disappeared. Revived by the elimination of harmful government regulations and saved from the burden of carrying passengers, a smaller but stronger industry entered the twenty-first century by providing vital arteries of commerce and environmentally sound alternatives to trucks and airplanes.

Though this sketch contains a grain of truth, it obscures the lived experience of railroading and the complex development of the industry. For those caught up in the actual events, the narrative arc was far from obvious and mostly imposed after the fact. Disruption, corruption, disaster, scheming, friction, and despair shared the landscape with optimism, dreaming, recovery, expansion, and excitement. Alternative avenues were frequently present, as was the unknown. Sudden and unanticipated developments caused changes of direction and emphasis across state and nation with local ramifications. the story is clear in retrospect, but the unpredictable, the random, and the tension of the time can only be appreciated by taking ourselves back into the railroad age.

The railroads did not appear out of nothing. True, they brought large numbers of people to the state, but they were not the only force for expansion. the population of Illinois expanded over 200 percent during the decade before the railroad spread across the state as the prairies opened to settlement. in the 1850s Illinois grew by 78.8 percent, and in the 1860s the population more than doubled, but the industry tapped into preexisting trends instead of creating them. the railroads did contribute to the urbanization of the state, with towns and cities growing in double digits every decade from the 1860s on, but even here widespread paving programs in the early twentieth century accelerated the process.

The iron road conditioned Illinois economically and socially, but not in a vacuum. the first tentative steps were taken directly into the abyss of a transatlantic depression, destroying early ambitions and wrecking the state’s fiscal health and reputation. Prairie State railroads originated as local interests, and not until after the Civil War did they connect with a growing national system of railroads. Then Illinois became inextricably part of a global economy, sharing in its wealth but subject to its moments of calamity and recession. To speak . . .

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