Railroads form no inconsiderable portion of the wealth of this county; nor is the history of the railroads within its borders void of historic interest. From the beginning of the agitation of the building of railroads in this county, which was about as early as that of any other portion of the State, the people have given great attention to, and manifested great interest in, the subject of railroad building. The gigantic system of internal improvements which was inaugurated by the legislature of 1837 included the building of many railroads through out the State. The plans promulgated at that time involved an expenditure of about $30,000,000 by the State for the building of railroads. The country was but partially settled then, and consequently was not in a condition to export anything that would command money. Soon after the law was enacted, certificates of internal-improvement stock were readily taken, contracts let, and work commenced at various points in all parts of the State; nor was Whiteside County behind any, as will be seen by the following sketches. Millions of dollars were squandered in this way before the autumn of 1837, when the great financial crash swept over the whole United States, and the internal improvement system of Illinois went down, leaving the State in what was thought at the time to be hopeless bankruptcy. We give the history of the various railroad enterprises under the heads of the names by which they were known.
The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad
As early as 1836 a charter was obtained from the General Assembly of Illinois for the Galena & Chicago Railroad. But little work was done upon this line, however, for several years, after which it was completed only as far as Freeport, at which place a junction was afterward formed with the Illinois Central to Glena. This line was of no practical benefit to the people of Whiteside County, who wanted a railroad connection with Chicago or the lakes.
In 1851 the passage by the General Assembly of a bill granting a charter for the construction of a road from Beloit, Wis., to Rock Island, gave the people of the county a chance for a railroad line, but it was not satisfactory. The route of this road was to be in the Rock River Valley, through Rockford, Dixon, Sterling, Albany, and then on the Rock Island. At this time a road from Chicago to Beloit was in operation. The Beloit and Rock Island project was, however, nipped in the bud by another railroad enterprise, as will be seen hereafter.
While a charter was pending in the Illinois Legislature, in 1851, for a railroad to pass from north to south through the center of the State, known as the Illinois Central, another railroad project was conceived by Judge James McCoy, of Fulton, for a grand central line leaading from the lakes directly west to the nearest point on the Mississippi, and passing through Central Iowa to Council Bluffs, on the Missouri River. This was a new railroad scheme. Judge McCoy immediately gave notice for a railroad meeting at Lyons, just opposite Fulton in Iowa.
The Legislatures of both States were then in session. He assured the meeting that if the Iowa Legislature would pass an act for the incorporation of a railroad company to construct a line from Council Bluff to Lyons, on the Mississippi, he would procure a charter from the Illinois Legislature for a roaad from Fulton, running east and intersecting with the Illinois Central Railroad.
Three delegates were appointed to accompany Mr. McCoy to Iowa City, where the Legislature was then in session. This project was eagerly taken up by the Iowa Legislature. The bill was presented one day, and was passed the next, and received the Governor's signature. Immediately afterward McCoy went home, called a railroad meeting Fulton, and secured a large petition for a railroad running eastward from Fulton.
Hurrying on to Springfield, as the Illinois Legislature was about closing its session, by arduous labor he secured a charter before adjournment for his great project - the Mississippi & Rock River Junction Railroad, which passed the same time as the Illinois Central bill. The object of this road was to connect with the latter at or near Dixon.
When the Illinois Central surveyed its route it made a branch survey from the main line about 50 miles north of Cairo, to a point opposite Dubuque, Iowa, which passed through Dixon.
In 1852 the Chicago, St. Charles & Mississippi Railroad was projected to run from Chicago to the Mississippi River at Savanna. This project rather alarmed the managers of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad, and a Charter was hastily secured by them authorizing the construction of the Dixon Air Line Road, commencing at a point about six miles east of St. Charles and running directly west to Dixon. this was to be a branch of the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad. About this time a railroad was being constructed araound the southern end of Lake Michigan to Chicago by the Litchfields, intending to form a connectionwith the Galena & Chicago Railroad, which was in course of construction, and had been built to Cherry Valley, about 15 miles east of Freeport, with a branch from St. Charles westward to Dixon, and another to Aurora from the junction.
It became evident to the projectors of the Beloit, Rock River & Rock Island Railroad, that if the Fulton road-the Mississippi & Rock River Junction-was built, it would cross their route near the center, and, with its southern and eastern connections, be fatal to their enterprise; consequently a most vigorous attack was made upon the managers of this road. A meeting was called at Sterling, which was largely attended, the main object of which was to defeat the Fulton enterprise.
This meeting was more for effect or a counter movement than otherwise; for no stock could be taken, as public notice had not been given under the requirments of their charter. Flaming speeches were made, and the Mississippi road was unscrupulously attacked. During the meeting Judge McCoy dropped in (who was on his way home from a session of the Supreme Court, in Iowa), and became a silent spectator to the abuse of his great project. He could do nothing but listen until his name was used, when he arose and responded to them in an eloquent speech. This meeting was a benefit to Judge McCoy, in that it gave him an insight into their plans and enable him to defeat them. He at once started out, and when the necessary time had elapsed for the opening of the stock books for their road, he had secured almost all the inhabitants along the line of their projected road, to become stockholders in his enterprise. He continued to work, making sometimes speeches every day, until the capital stock was fully subscribed. On the first day of May a meeting of stockholders convened at Union Grove, for the purpose of electing a president and directors. James McCoy was chosen President; J. T. Atkinson, Royal Jacobs, Charles Dement, Benj. Lake, Elijah Buell, John Phelps and A. W. Benton, Directors. The contest between these two projects continued nearly a year, which only resulted in placing the Fulton road on a firmer basis. The citizens of Rock Island took but little interest in the Rock River Valley project, as their attention was mainly given to the construction of a road from their town to Chicago.
In January, 1853, the directors of the Mississippi road let the contract for building the track, and the 8th of February following the first ground was broken. In April following the Galena & Chicago Union, and the Michigan Central Railroads came forward and took $405,000 stock in the road, which insured its success. At the annual election of officers for the company, held in May, 1853, the following directors were elected: John B. Turner, J.H. Burch, E. Peck, J. Van Hartwick, James F. Joy, James McCoy, Bayard Fowler, Charles Dement and Lewis D. Crandall. Charles Dement was chosen president. About this time all that was available of the St. Charles Air Line Railroad passed into the hands of the Galena & Chicago Company, and was used in the construction of the road to Fulton. The Galena & Chicago Company had now become so far identified with the Mississippi Junction Road that the construction was carried on under their direction, under the name of the Galena & Chicago Union Company. The first bonds of the Mississippi Junction Company were sold in Boston for ninety-six and five-eights cents on the dollar.
The first train of cars of this road steamed into Sterling July 17, 1855, when a grand celebration was had in honor of the event. It partook of the nature of an old-fashioned barbecue. Simeon M. Coe, the first settler of Jordan Township, donated a fat ox, which was roasted whole. About 3,000 people were assembled, among whom were many invited guests, John Wentworth, Stephen A. Douglas, I. N. Arnold and B. F. Taylor being present.
An eloquent address was delivered by Mr. Taylor, after which the "Little Giant" made one of his characteristic speeches. The festivities concluded with a ball in the evening.
The road was completed to Fulton about the middle of December, 1855.
A union was formed with the Wisconsin road and then the line was called the Chicago & Northwestern. This was in 1856. The Chicago & Northwestern Company about this period took a lease of the Chicago, Iowa & Cedar Rapids Railroad, running from Clinton to Cedar Rapids, until 1862, agreeing to pay ten per cent. of the gross earnings. By the time the lease was out, the Northwestern Company had control of the road to Cedar Rapids. During this time the company built a track (a plug) from Fulton to Clinton bridge. From Cedar Rapids they extended their line to Council Bluffs, under the name of the Mississippi Railroad Company. Subsequently an iron bridge was built across the Mississippi, which cost $1,700,000. Before this bridge was built, the trains ran across on boats. The bridge is under control of a separate corporation, which charges toll for all freight passing over.
The Northwestern moved their depot from the city of Fulton to the junction, its present location. Subsequently, however, they laid a track along the banks of the Mississippi in front of the city, where they erected a large elevator with a capacity of 75,000 bushels of grain.
This road enters about the middle of the county in Sterling Township, and passes through Hopkins, Mount Pleasant, the northwestern corner of Union Grove, southwestern corner of Ustick, and Fulton.
This company is now one of the heaviest railroad corporations in the country, operating some 6,000 miles of railway.
The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad
This company completed its branch road, known as the Clinton & Mendota Branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (No. 6), through the county in 1872. It enters in the southeastern corner of the county and runs through the townships of Hahnaman, Tampico, Prophetstown, Lyndon, Fenton, Union Grove and Garden Plain to the Mississippi, opposite to Clinton. After many years of struggling this company secured their right of way into Fulton. They obtained their right of way across the Northwestern track Dec. 25, 1882, In the month of January, 1883, they completed their track and ran their first train into Fulton.
This company also owns the road from Rock Island to Sterling, known as the Rock Island & St. Louis Branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. This road was completed through the county in January, 1869. It leaves the line of the Northwestern a few miled west of Sterling and runs southwest along Rock River, passing out through the lower part of Erie Township.
This company controls, under a lease, the road from Rock Falls to Aurora, by the way of Amboy, crossing the Illinois Central at the latter place. In order to make this line available, the company constructed a bridge across the river to Sterling.
The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad
This was formerly the Racine & Mississippi Railroad. It came into Fulton as the Warsaw, Rock Island & Galena Company, commonly known as the Western Union. Their right of way was obtained into Fulton during the latter part of December, 1864. Soon after the right of way was secured and the land condemned, work was commenced and continued through the winter. In the early part of the year 1865, the track was completed and the train came into Fulton.