Condensed History of the Wabash
Geographical location and the lack of transportation facilities handicapped the growth of Illinois. Fewer and fewer traders moving westward by water were making the long, arduous trip via the Great Lakes and down the length of Lake Michigan to the tiny settlement that in 1833 was named "Chicago". In the 1830's, as pioneers settled in Illinois, they realized that here in their new homes was a need for better transportation facilities to move their furs, their crops and their goods to the markets along the river.
It was this problem of transportation that faced the Illinois legislature as it convened in the tiny capitol of Vandalia in the early 1830's. And the legislatures divided themselves into two partisan groups. The men whose boyhood had been spent in the river towns along the Ohio and the Mississippi favored the construction of an extensive canal system. These proponents of a new canal shouted down the suggestions that even a small percentage of the funds of the new State of Illinois be spent for the construction of a railroad. The railroad contingent, headed by Joseph Duncan, a member of Congress, sought financing for the project in New York, but here, too, they were met with ridicule. Financiers could see no gain in investing money in a railroad that would span only an unpopulated forest.
There was a shortage of materials, for the iron of the rails had to be brought up river by boat from New Orleans to St. Louis and re-shipped again by boat from St. Louis up the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers to the tiny settlement of Meredosia, the city later designated as the starting point for the new road.
Nearly three years after authorization for the construction of the new line, actual work was finally begun. Starting date was set for November, 1837, and when the first shovel full of earth was turned for the construction of the railroad, at Meredosia on the east bank of the Illinois River, the few supporters of the railroad on hand were outnumbered by the "canalers" who came from up and down the river to jeer.
Despite the inauspicious start, the work of grading the right-of-way from Meredosia east and south to Morgan City went all through the winter. By spring, construction crews were ready for the actual track laying and in April, 1838, the new road began to take form.
Shortage of materials handicapped the builders all summer, and it was not until the fall of the year that the first strip of the line was ready. Now the builders waited for delivery of their first locomotive.
Because of the long, arduous river trip and the lack of large shipping spaces, the locomotive, made in Newark, NJ, by the firm of Rogers, Grosvenor & Ketchum, was shipped to Meredosia in pieces. With this knocked-down locomotive came a man named Fields, who was to be the first engineer on the new road.
This new railroad was known as the "Northern Cross", a name chosen according to some historians, because the line surveyed for the railroad closely paralleled a well-worn trail known as the "Northern Crossing" of Illinois and often called "Northern Cross" although it was actually located in the south central portion of the State.
The first operations of the new road were not an outstanding success. Fields operated the Northern Cross' single engine for about a month, then turned it over to a man named Higgins. Higgins' tenure of office ended in a discharge but only after he had succeeded in melting out some of the flues. Finally, two brothers by the name of Gregory took over operation and the original engine -- called "Rogers" -- began to serve the 12-mile strip in more dependable fashion. In 1842, a line between Jacksonville and Springfield was completed, and in May, 1842, service from Meredosia to Springfield was made available. In December 1856, the line was completed between Springfield and the Illinois-Indiana state line, the railroad having reached Decatur, Illinois, in 1854.
For nearly 10 years, the growing Northern Cross Railroad was operated by the State of Illinois. And more and more favorable acceptance by the public resulted from the success of railroads in the east.
Ridgely's purchase turned out well, for at the time the extension of the road from Springfield to the Illinois-Indian State Line had been temporarily abandoned by the State because of lack of funds, and a short time after his original buy, he was granted an extension of his charter to include the entire line of the Northern Cross.
At the same time, the ownership of the new Sangamon & Morgan Railroad was undergoing rapid changes. Nicholas Ridgely sold an interest in his railroad to Thomas Mather of Springfield and James Dunlap of Jacksonville.
Together with his new partners, Nicholas Ridgely pushed the rehabilitation of the line between Springfield and the Illinois-Indiana state line. Already railroad traffic was mounting in the East, and plans were under way for rapid extension of the Eastern routes to tap the rapidly developing states of Illinois and Missouri.
The Sangamon & Morgan Railroad was to connect at the Illinois-Indian state line with a line westward from Toledo across Indiana to the border. In 1853, the Sangamon & Morgan Railroad became the Great Western Railroad and the first real expansion of the line from Springfield eastward began.
The new company began to consolidate its position at Toledo, the eastern terminal of the system. Toledo was ideally situated as a rail center. Located in an almost direct line west from New York, Albany and other large cities of the East formerly served by the Erie Canal, it stood at the extreme west end of Lake Erie, and steamers carrying cargo to the north-central west abandoned a direct westerly route at Toledo and were forced to make the wide "U" detour through Lake Huron and the Mackinac Straits into Lake Michigan -- a route that was open only nine months of each year. The transfer of cargo from lake steamer to rail at Toledo was inevitable.
The operators of the road made the most of this position. In 1859, they acquired a portion of a tract known as the "Middle Grounds," a section fronting the Maumee River emptying into Maumee Bay, an arm of Lake Erie. It was an excellent harbor.
During the period between 1860 and 1870, with rail-to-steamer traffic increasing at Toledo, the Toledo, Wabash & Western continued expansion of their lines in Illinois to tap even greater areas and connect more and more of central and southern Illinois to the eastern states via Toledo. Much of this expansion was completed under difficult conditions during the Civil War -- a time during which the Toledo, Wabash & Western Railroad performed outstanding service to our country in providing a quick, efficient route for the transportation of much-needed food for the armies from the central West to the East.
When the Civil War began in 1861, many of the communities in the territory just west of that served by the Toledo, Wabash & Western depended largely on river traffic for their contact with the rest of the country. The bulk of their produce traveled down the Mississippi to new Orleans by river boat. A secondary source of supply was via the Illinois River to Chicago. Secession of the southern states cut off Mississippi River commerce, and the Illinois waterway system was inadequate.
The two most logical cities toward which the Toledo, Wabash & Western could build were the cities of Keokuk, IA and Hannibal, MO. Both of these had been important river ports. Both were destined to become important rail centers during these early days.
By the 1870's, the basic route of the modern Wabash Railroad system east of the Mississippi River had been completed. In addition to the extension of tracks to Hannibal and Keokuk, the Toledo, Wabash & Western had built a new line from Decatur to East St. Louis and a smaller branch from Edwardsville, IL, to a point on the Mississippi south of Alton. The completed system connected four points on the Mississippi River with Toledo and its valuable "Middle Grounds" where rail-to-ship interchange of cargo was most practicable.
During the business depression of 1877, the Toledo, Wabash & Western, now a railroad company which included some 678 miles of operating track, was reorganized. This new name of the railroad was The Wabash Railway Company. From 1877 on, the name Wabash was always to be the principal title of the road which began its operations in the early 1830's as the Northern Cross Railroad.
Following its reorganization as The Wabash Railway Company, the road continues its expansion north toward Chicago, which was now rapidly becoming on of the country's great rail centers. Eastern railroads had thrown their feelers toward the city at the base of Lake Michigan and already it was the important connecting link between the East and the West in the newly built transcontinental system. Chicago was an important goal for the Wabash in the completion of the rail network that would one day blanket the entire "Heart of America."
The goal was reached in 1880 when the Wabash lines were built from Strawn, IL, northward to Chicago, and an arrangement with the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad Company provided the Wabash with entrance trackage and terminal facilities in the city itself. This arrangement involved joint ownership of the C. & W.I. RR.
A year later another opportunity for the Wabash to enter an important city in the "Heart of America" presented itself. The Eel River Railroad, extending from Logansport, IN, to Butler, IN, was available for lease. This lease, plus the construction of new track, enabled the Wabash to enter Detroit in 1881.
During its entire expansion east of the Mississippi River, the Wabash system served as the principal artery tapping the great "Heart of America". Other railroads entered the Illinois-Indiana territory served by the Wabash and its predecessor lines, but these railroads moved only toward the most important cities of the area and the vast, undeveloped regions which today are the most productive sections of the great "Heart" were accessible only over tracks of the Wabash.
While railroads east of the Mississippi River were tying Toledo and the East to the river ports of Illinois and Iowa, west of the Mississippi the predecessors of the present Wabash Railroad System were writing one of the greatest chapters in American railroad history.
When the first rails were being laid on the Northern Cross Railroad from Meredosia to Jacksonville in the late 1830's, little or no interest was aroused in Missouri, less than 100 miles away, for Missourians were convinced that their progress and growth was closely allied with river transportation.
Kansas City was a tiny settlement on the edge of the plains, dwarfed by the neighboring city of Independence a few miles to the north and east. And in the eastern part of the state, St. Louis was competing for eminence with the thriving Missouri River town of St. Charles.
With the completion of the bridge at St. Charles, the North Missouri now had a through line from St. Louis through St. Charles and north to Iowa, west to Kansas City and St. Joseph, and a direct connection with the railroads on the east side to the Mississippi River at Hannibal.
Less than three months following the completion of the new bridge, the North Missouri Railroad was reorganized, and as a result of foreclosure action, the entire property became known as the St. Louis, Kansas City & Northern Railroad Company.
Financial difficulty in the next two decades made that period one of great difficulty, but in 1889 came a turn for the better, so that in the succeeding decade, the Wabash found it possible to proceed with construction of new trackage and the expansion of facilities to serve the city of Chicago during its World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 and the City of St. Louis during its Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904.
In the fifteen years of its operation following the formation of the Company in 1889, the Wabash took its proper place as one of our county's leading enterprises, contributing greatly to the well-being of the public in the territories reached by its rails.
In 1915, after foreclosure and reorganization, the Wabash Railroad Company of 1889, was sold to a new Wabash Railway Company, incorporated under the laws of Indiana.
The world-wide "depression" of the early 1930's struck the Wabash and all other United States railroads severely. With industry paralyzed; the prices of farm products at a new low; incomes (both personal and corporate) slashed; with market prices for commodities and securities crowding the vanishing point, the Wabash was forced into receivership.
Due in large measure to the efficient handling of the receivership and the reorganization proceedings, the Wabash was one of the very first of our country's railroads to "come back" from the effects of the Depression.
In January, 1942, the name of the railroad was changed to the Wabash Railroad Company.
During the war years it was not possible to secure either materials of labor for making outstanding additions or improvements to the property. Post-war, however, the Wabash had invested more than one hundred millions dollars in new facilities of all kinds in order to serve even more efficiently the shipping and traveling public. In addition to modernizing its freight yards, communications facilities, and signaling devices, the Wabash had also greatly improved its passenger train equipment. The first stride in this direction was the inauguration of a totally new streamlined service between St. Louis and the West Coast. On June 2, 1946, in conjunction with the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads, the new train, the "City of St. Louis", began operations. In addition to drastically reducing the over-all running time between St. Louis and the West Coast, the new train offered through service in both coaches and Pullman sleeping cars to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, or Seattle.
Since 1953, the Wabash had been considered 100% dieselized. One steam engine was operated for a short run on the Keokuk branch because the bridge at Meredosia, IL could not support the weight of diesel engines until extensive changes had been completed. The steam engine made its last trip on January 28, 1955, and thus by a strange turn of fate, the reign of steam power on the Wabash ended where it began 117 years ago. The engine, No. 573, a Mogul 2-6-0 Class F-4, built by the Rhode Island Locomotive Works in 1899, was donated to the national Museum of Transportation in St. Louis County in August 1955.
n the 1960's all railroads were feeling the pinch of a decline in both passenger and rail fares due to a superhighway system, which allowed fast transit of goods via semi truck, and increased prosperity allowed the population not only to become more mobile but to have more than one car per family. With ever-decreasing business, the Wabash Railway began a desperate fight for survival and finally merged with the Norfolk & Western Railway at midnight on October 16, 1964. Its main office was eventually moved to Roanoke, Virginia. While the Wabash employees were given jobs with the new company, and many continued with no real change in duties, the merger marked both the demise of the Wabash and the end of an era. In late December 1972, the "Blue Bird" made its last passenger trip out of Decatur, and passenger service was discontinued.
From an article written by the Advertising and Public Relations Dept. of the Wabash Railroad Company, August 1959.