Illinois Railroads

By Grant, H. Roger | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2017 | Go to article overview

Illinois Railroads


Grant, H. Roger, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Illinois Railroads The Iron Road in the Prairie State: The Story of Illinois Railroading. By Simon Cordery. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016, Pp. xvii, 217, notes, bibliography, index, illustrations. Cloth, $60.00); John H. Burdakin, Railroader. By Don L. Hofsommer. (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2016. Pp. ix, 110, notes, index, illustrations. Paper, $29.95.); and Railroaders: Jack Delano's Homefront Photography. Edited by John Gruber. (Madison: Center for Railroad Photography and Art, 2014. Pp. 199, index, illustrations. Cloth, $60.00.)

Illinois, which became an epicenter of railroad construction and operation, has been the subject of repeated historical studies. Virtually all of the major carriers that once served the state have received scholarly attention, including such roads as the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Chicago Great Western; Illinois Central; and Minneapolis & St. Louis. While not company studies, three recent works provide additional insights into the Prairie State's railroad story.

It is not surprising that until Professor Simon Cordery, formerly at Western Illinois University and presently at Iowa State University, wrote The Iron Road in the Prairie State, Illinois lacked a scholarly overview of its rich railroad heritage of nearly 170 years. The neighboring states of Indiana and Iowa have been blessed with general histories of their railroads, and other states, including Alabama and California, also have been the focus of similar works.

How does Simon Cordery handle this complex subject? As is common with state oriented works, he takes a largely chronological approach. The scope is as it should be, starting with growing demands for better transportation in the antebellum decades and the gestation of the iron horse, and ending with recent happenings, including modal competition, corporate mergers, line abandonments, and federal deregulation. Cordery, though, provides more than the expected corporate and political coverage. He seeks to reveal the human side of railroading. Take the bitter Shopmen's Strike of 1922. Violence broke out throughout the state. In Chicago, for example, two protesters were shot outside an Illinois Central facility, and a riot erupted in Aurora, site of a massive Chicago, Burlington & Quincy repair complex. Continuing with worker unhappiness Cordery does not overlook actions of George P. McNear, Jr., the controversial Toledo, Peoria & Western president. Because of employee unrest during the early years of World War II, the federal government took control of this Peoria-based carrier because of the anti-union antics of McNear and the need to guarantee the uninterrupted flow of wartime commerce. The Washington intervention worked. But when McNear regained his authority after the war, labor-management relations once more grew tense, leading to his shocking assassination by unknown assailants in March 1947. McNear was the only railroad president ever to have met such a horrific death.

While it might be expected that The Iron Road in the Prairie State focuses only on steam railroads, Cordery includes the relatively short interurban era. Although Ohio and Indiana emerged as the heartland of electric inter-city traction, Illinois ranked fourth in interurban mileage with a total of nearly 1,500 miles. While there were some small traction roads that perished quickly with the advent of the automobile, truck and better roads, the so-called Insull lines-Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee; Chicago, South Shore & South Bend; and Chicago, Aurora & Elgin-lasted past mid-century. Indeed the South Short, which today operates under the auspices of a public transportation authority, claims the honor of being America's last true interurban.

One railroad that long served Illinois was the Grand Trunk Western. Although based in Detroit and controlled by the Canadian National Railway (CN), the Trunk operated a strategic line that served the Chicago gateway, the nation's busiest. …

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