November 19th Meeting

Railroad historian sparks memories for Logan County residents

November 20, 2012 by Marla Blair

Dale Jenkins, president of the Illinois Traction Society, lives in a world of railroads. But not all railroads are created equal. His focus is on the now-defunct terminal railroad - better known as “the interurban”, an unusual and unique service provider which ran on electricity and was partially responsible for bringing electricity to several small towns and rural areas of Illinois. Jenkins shared his world of the Illinois terminal railroad system during a program on Monday night at the Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society. Older visitors shared their experiences of riding the railroad, others attended to learn more of the system they knew only from family stories.

The Illinois Terminal (IT) railroad was initiated by a millionaire, William B. McKinley, who envisioned a dependable mode of transportation for the general public. The line was referred to as the Danville Paxton & Northern and ran six miles in east central Illinois. Eventually the line expanded from Danville to Champaign, and onto Springfield. From 1901 to 1910 the line increased from six miles to 550 miles of track.

In 1907, north/south tracks were completed which connected Mackinaw to Lincoln and Springfield to Lincoln, becoming a regional line with stops in small towns and rural areas along the way. From Springfield the line continued to St. Louis, Missouri.

The engines and passenger cars for McKinley’s IT were built at the American Car and Foundry in St. Louis. When he was denied access to the Eads bridge at St. Louis, McKinley built his own bridge - McKinley Bridge - still in use in a modern version.

“In order to gain access to the ground he needed to build tracks across farmland,” Jenkins explained, “McKinley would make an agreement with a farmer that if he could run the tracks on the land, the farmer would have a station stop at the end of his driveway or field lane.

“That’s how there came to be so many little stations out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “The stops were identified by the farmer’s last names, like the old ‘Evans Station’ north of Lincoln. There was no one else out there, but each family would need to get into town and this was a dependable method of travel.”

Jenkins reminded his audience that engineers and family members became very familiar with each other. Signals were worked out that would tell whether or not anyone was going to ride, or if the train should not stop. There are stories of engineers automatically stopping at certain times, on specific days, because they knew the families’ schedules so well and knew their shopping routine and appointment days.

The Illinois Terminal rail line was the first train in the world to offer sleeping cars. The passenger cars were decorated with mahogany, brass fixtures and introduced the concept of a parlor car which provided living room-style seats and dining service. A porter in the parlor car waited on travelers willing to pay the extra 35 cents for the privilege of riding in such comfort.

During the 1920’s the American public was buying more automobiles and rail travel found creative ways to attract business. IT introduced express service, promising overnight delivery to any site on the system. The service was discontinued by 1930. It also introduced freight service.

Vaudeville acts rode the interurban lines across Illinois, bringing troupes to the opera houses and dance halls at a time when big name entertainers “played Peoria” and shared their talent with small town audiences.

IT brought in a new idea to enhance rider comfort - air conditioning. The first method included large chunks of ice in overhead spaces, with fans blowing the cold air into passenger cars through vents in the ceiling. Eventually the elementary idea was replaced with a newly developed method called refrigeration. World War II brought restrictions on sales of rubber and gasoline. IT held its place for several years as a major transportation provider.

In the post-war era, as automobiles became more a part of daily life, IT became less of a necessity. Electric lines were removed in lesser-used areas; stations were abandoned; farmers tore down the little stations and tilled the ground where they once stood; stops were gradually eliminated in towns where passengers no longer boarded. By 1962 the last freight train ran through Lincoln and the last passenger service between Lincoln and Allentown ceased in August of 1977.

IT was sold to Norfolk & Western on September 1, 1981. By then the company was no longer a privately owned endeavor; it was jointly owned by seven railroad companies. IT was totally offline and no longer in existence as of May 7, 1982.

IT once ran down Chicago Street in Lincoln. Dale Jenkins’ pictures included “then and now” Chicago Street intersections with Broadway and Pulaski Streets, and the station now owned by Lincoln Sand and Gravel which stands as a silent sentinel at the south end of Kickapoo Street.

Logan County has one of only five IT stations still standing. Union Station, directly north of Lincoln on Nicholson Road, is mostly intact, but is in need of attention. It is privately owned. Stations at Buffalo and Bondville are abandoned. The station at Mackinaw has been given a new life as a restaurant and the one at DeLong is a private residence.

To read more about the Illinois Terminal Railroad system go to Dale Jenkins donated pictures of sites in Lincoln and other communities within the county, along with a CD of the evening’s program, to the Logan County Genealogical and Historical Society, 114 N. Chicago, Lincoln.

Anyone wishing to view the material is welcome to visit the society museum and library from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday - Friday or 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., on the second and fourth Saturday of each month. Appointments are available by calling 217-732-3200.

The LCGHS does not host a program in December. The schedule will resume on Monday, January 21, 2013. Program details will be announced in mid-January. Monthly programs at LCGHS are always free and open to the public.