Chatham railroad history

Chicago & Alton depot, Chatham, 1902

Then-new Chicago & Alton depot, Chatham, 1902 (Courtesy Chatham Railroad Museum)

In the early 1800s, like many other places on what was then “the frontier,” lack of reliable transportation was an impediment to the growth of Sangamon County.

The Sangamon River was an outlet to the Illinois River, but was too shallow most of the time for anything but flat-bottomed boats. Early postal riders had only dirt roads to Decatur and Peoria and as far south as Edwardsville. In the 1820s, John Frink and Martin Walker started a stagecoach system that was fairly reliable in the summer and fall. In the winter and spring, however, ceeks and rivers flooded, often stranding passengers for days at a time. Not a single bridge existed in all of Sangamon County.

In 1834, Sangamon County’s state senator, George Forquer, proposed a railroad to run from Danville through Decatur, Springfield, Beardstown and Rushville to the Mississippi River at Quincy. The editor of the Alton Spectator wrote, however, that the proposed route was little more than a plot to enhance Springfield’s chances for being named the new state capital, which at that time was a hotly contested issue.

Abraham Lincoln believed dredging the Sangamon River was a better way for the state to spend its money, but he didn’t completely dismiss the idea of a railroad. However, Lincoln had a different route in mind. In a letter published in Springfield’s Sangamo Journal,  Lincoln wrote:

A railroad from Springfield to Alton would do ten times more toward building up the latter town, than the seat of government, the national road, the loan office and the state prison added together. If Alton could be made the depot of the productions of the Sangamon Country, she would of necessity become an important town, and in our opinion she cannot be without it.

In March 1835, an estimated 1,000 people gathered in Springfield to determine how to build a railroad from Springfield to Alton and the Mississippi River, and a nine-member committee met in Carlinville two months later to explore the feasibility of the idea. They named W.B. Mitchell, a civil engineer originally from Pennsylvania, to survey the route.

In September, Mitchell reported that a railroad could be built for under $500,000. As soon as his report was made public, land speculators started buying property along the proposed route, driving up the price of land.

In February 1836, Elijah Iles and Thomas Mather of Springfield met with five others at the Alton State Bank to review Mitchell’s report. Benjamin Godfrey of Alton offered startup capital for the projected railroad. A few of the others bought stock, but after a brief flurry of buyers, there were no other investors. So they looked for other sources of money.

Public meetings were held in both Alton and Springfield over the next few months trying to interest investors, without success. The financial panic of 1837 reduced interest in Springfield, leaving financing up to business interests in Alton and Madison.

During the 1840-41 legislative session, Lincoln introduced a bill to make the state a partner in the Alton-Springfield project. In February 1841, Gov. Thomas Carlin signed Lincoln’s bill to create a charter for the Springfield and Alton Turnpike Company, but few people bought shares in the project.

By 1845, prosperity had returned, crop yields were at an all-time high and there was a growing demand in Europe for Illinois’ corn, wheat and other grains. By this time as well, the Northern Cross railroad — an east-west line that in 1842 had been the first railroad to enter Springfield — had all but failed. The entire line needed rebuilding, its two engines no longer worked, and mules and horses were being used to pull the trains. (The Northern Cross Railroad later became the Wabash Railroad, and the street that developed along it it on Springfield’s southwest side was named Wabash Avenue. By the 1970s, however,  people who had built homes in the area complained about the noise and traffic problems caused by trains, so in the 1990s millions of dollars were spent to move the railroad farther south.)

The Alton to Springfield railroad connection revived in March 1847, when Gov. Augustus French signed a charter for the Alton & Sangamon Railroad to be built from Alton through Carlinville to New Berlin, where it would connect with the former Northern Cross, now the Sangamon & Morgan, thereby gaining entry into Springfield. The possibility of extending the line to Chicago surfaced after a meeting in Chicago that July. Before that could seriously be considered though, the first segment from Alton to Springfield still had to be financed.

In March 1849 the city of Alton invested $151,000, Sangamon and Madison counties put in $250,000, and Greene County added $5,000 more. It had taken over two and a half years to raise enough capital, but in February 1850 the railroad was incorporated and construction could begin. By the late fall of 1850 more than 150 men were grading the roadbed at Alton. Another crew of 200 was working about 10 miles north, and a third crew at Carlinville.

In 1851 legislators approved a proposal to extend the road to Bloomington, opening the way towards Chicago. This bill also redirected the line’s original route; instead of going to New Berlin, trains would take a more direct route through Chatham to reach Springfield.

Organizers had to resolve more financial troubles and construction problems, but the first train came through Chatham on Sept. 9, 1852. The line, by then known as the Chicago & Mississippi Railroad, followed the same path as the current Union Pacific Railroad between Springfield and St. Louis.

The Chicago & Mississippi was reorganized in 1858 as the Chicago, Alton & St. Louis Railroad, but three years later it was in trouble again and in October 1862 it became the Chicago & Alton.

The Chicago & Mississippi built a depot at State and Mulberry Streets in Chatham in 1852. That depot burned down in 1902 and was replaced by the current depot. The new depot is south of State and Mulberry, however, apparently because railroad officials decided to build their new depot as soon as possible after the fire.

Alton Limited advertisement (Wikimedia Commons)

Alton Limited advertisement (Wikimedia Commons)

The Chicago & Alton railroad became well known for its Alton Limited passenger train, which operated between Chicago and Kansas City. During the late 1910s and early ’20s,  the Alton Limited had a car known as the “Ladies Tea Room”, possibly because men had a smoking car. The “Ladies Tea Room” was an ornate, Japanese-style tea room, including  service by Japanese women in traditional dress.

After 69 years of operation, the Chicago & Alton was purchased by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in July 1931 and became known simply as the Alton Route.

The line was sold again to the Mobile and Ohio Railroad in June 1947. The Alton ceased to exist, although the new Gulf, Mobile and Ohio continued to operate the Alton Limited passenger train for some time afterwards.

Passenger service in Chatham continued until Jan. 31, 1952, when the last scheduled passenger train departed at 2:48 p.m. An agent was still assigned to handle freight shipments until the depot was closed in 1972, when the GM&O and Illinois Central railroads were merged into the Illinois Central Gulf.

Kathleen Riddell, the widow of Louis Riddell, the last agent at the depot, told of an incident that probably took in the 1940s. Late one night, the phone at their home rang; Louis answered it and hurriedly told her he had to go to the depot. It seems that in Springfield a passenger ran to catch the train as it was pulling out of the station. The conductor had already closed the door, but the man jumped onto the steps and hung onto the side of the train, unknown to the crew.

As the train crossed Iles Avenue on the south side of Springfield, the operator in the railroad tower that used to be there spotted the man on the side of the train. He called Riddell to go over to the depot and set the signal to stop the train. Riddell got to the depot in time to stop the train and a very scared and by that time tired passenger got into the train after riding from Springfield on it.

It’s not clear how much freight was shipped by rail in or out of Chatham over the years. Until the summer of 1996, there was a railroad siding at R.P. Lumber so obviously there were shipments of lumber coming in there at one time. A grain elevator north of Walnut Street also shipped grain out by rail cars, and there may have been other freight customers.

The Interurban

Chatham’s other railroad often was called the “Interurban” or “Traction,” but for years was officially the Illinois Terminal Railroad. The IT was both a passenger and a freight railroad. The Interurban Bicycle Trail follows the old interurban route between Springfield and Chatham.

The Illinois Terminal can mainly be attributed to one man, William B. McKinley (1856-1926), who was born in Petersburg but lived most of his life in Champaign. He began investing in utilities, including street railways, in Danville, and on Dec. 10, 1903, Illinois Central Traction was incorporated to build a railway from Decatur to Springfield and the line opened for regular service on Sept. 23, 1904.

McKinley then began to extend his lines to St. Louis — on two routes, one from Springfield to Staunton and the other from Decatur through Litchfield to Staunton, where the two would join and continue on to St. Louis. He incorporated the St. Louis & Springfield Railway to build the Springfield to Staunton line in 1903, and construction progressed rapidly.

The village of Chatham passed an ordinance granting permission for the railroad to build through Chatham with the provision that that the company furnish electricity for streetlights around the square. A substation was built on the east side of the square for this purpose. Within a few years the railroad was providing electricity for the entire village.

The first train on the St. Louis & Springfield Railway came through Chatham on June 5, 1904. Like other electric railroads, the trains got their power from a trolley pole on top of the car making contact with an overhead wire. A substation was built every few miles, and each substation had an attendant to make sure it operated properly.

The St. Louis & Springfield Railway lasted only until 1909. By then, it had extended its tracks to Peoria and was renamed the St. Louis, Springfield & Peoria.

Originally the tracks came into Chatham from the south, coming down the middle of Main Street to Walnut Street, where they turned sharply east and then turned north to parallel the current tracks into Springfield.

In 1912 a new agreement was made with Chatham to straighten the tracks, eliminate the sharp curves and trains running in the middle of the street. The railroad then paralleled the current railroad all the way through town. The company also built a small wooden depot at State and Mulberry streets. According to old timetables, between the IT and the Chicago & Alton, more than 30 passenger trains a day stopped in Chatham.

During the 1920s, Chatham substation attendant O.B. Traylor turned off the lights in the village on several occasions. Three dozen residents petitioned the railroad for an investigation.

On Dec. 4, 1924, the railroad sent a letter to the village stating that Traylor’s actions were unacceptable and he would be replaced as soon as possible. However, he apparently was not replaced immediately, and the mayor of Chatham wrote again on Feb. 18, 1926 to say that, in his opinion, Traylor was hurting the railroad’s business by, among other things, his activities with the Ku Klux Klan. On April 7, 1926, however, the railroad wrote that a number of substantial businessmen of Chatham held Mr. And Mrs. Traylor in high esteem.

Traylor’s predecessor, one Clinton Gordy, allegedly was an ex-saloon man and had allowed craps games and other shady forms of amusement to be carried on in the substation. When Traylor replaced Gordy, he apparently put a stop to the drinking and roughneck parties at the substation, presumably prompting the opposition to him.

The dispute came to an end on Oct. 11, 1930, when the railroad installed semiautomatic equipment eliminating the need for a full-time attendant.

Illinois Terminal's last passenger run to Chatham, 1952

Illinois Terminal’s last passenger run to Chatham, 1956; note black bunting. (Courtesy Bill Shannon)

Longtime Chatham resident Opal Lee, who worked in downtown Springfield after she graduated from high school in the 1930s, said she occasionally would catch the southbound train on her lunch hour, eat lunch at home in Chatham, catch the next northbound train and be back at work on time

The Illinois Terminal finally decided to discontinue passenger service, and the last passenger train came through Chatham on March 3, 1956, flying black flags on its front.  Freight service continued, although diesel locomotives soon replaced electric locomotives. The IT’s old tracks through Chatham were abandoned in 1968 and removed in 1969.

Chatham Railroad Museum

When the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad closed the Chatham rail depot in 1972, it was purchased by a couple who planned to convert it to offices and a mini mall. Luckily for history’s sake the building was not remodeled structurally inside or out. The venture apparently was not very successful, although an architect reportedly had an office there for a while.

After the architect moved, the building was left to deteriorate. In the  late 1980s, a group of Chatham residents formed the Friends of the Depot and persuaded the village of Chatham to buy the property. With the help of local businesses and many volunteers, the building was restored including the addition of modern restrooms and central heating and air conditioning.

The Friends of the Depot originally planned to install a small museum in what had been the station agent’s office, but this never came about. The beautifully restored depot was dedicated in September 1993. After this the building was used temporarily as a meeting place for the village board and a few local organizations. It eventually came to be used mainly for storage by the village, a food pantry and occasionally by local groups.

The Chicago & Illinois Midland chapter of the National Railway Historical Society first met in the depot in July of 1996, and the group quickly agreed that the depot was an excellent site for a small railroad museum. A formal management agreement was signed between the C&IM chapter NRHS and the village of Chatham in March 1999. The historical society has the right to operate the museum and must make minor repairs; the village remains the owner of the building and is responsible for major repairs.

The Chatham Railroad Museum first opened to the public during Chatham’s Homecoming in June of 1999, although the official grand opening didn’t take place until September 2002 — 150 years after the first train came through Chatham, 100 years since the depot was built and 50 years since the last scheduled passenger train stopped there.

The society has more than 4,000 items in its collection, including photographs, timetables, correspondence, books, tools, etc. Two display cases contain artifacts, and the museum also boasts a large baggage cart of the type used to take suitcases and boxes between the passenger trains and the station. Several several large items in an outdoor area will eventually will also become an attractive display.

As of 2014, the C&IM chapter meets at the museum at 2 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month The building is normally open for visitors on the fourth Sunday of the month from 2:00 to 4:00.

Contributor: Bill Shannon, president of the Chicago & Illinois Midland chapter of the National Railroad Historical Society.schs logo (2)

Sources: The Chicago & Alton Railroad by Gene Glendinning (2002) and The Illinois Terminal Railroad by Dale Jenkins (2005).

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society. Learn how to support the Society. 

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5 Responses to Chatham railroad history

  1. Mike Gebhards says:

    My father, and grandfather, both from Oakford, worked on the C&IM in the steam era. My grandfather, William Gebhards, worked as foreman on the Oakford section gang, previous to World War 2. He was a guard on the trestles, and river bridges, north of Oakford, during the war, and was section foreman again after the war ended. My father, Harold Gebhards, worked extra board, in the depots, and shops tower after the war. He later was assigned permanently to the Oakford depot, when Clarence Stroh retired in 1953. He worked there, until the diesels took over, and the steam locos were no longer in use, about 1963.
    I have recently moved back to this area, and would like to attend a meeting of the C&IM chapter meeting. I currently live on the north west edge of Springfield, near the fair grounds, and airport.
    Thanks………Mike Gebhards

  2. PHIL SHADID says:

    Interesting article in the Journal-Register about Chatham’s railroad station today (12-13-15). The Official Guide of the Railways published in 1939 showed only 2 trains a day stopping in Chatham on the Chicago & Alton Railroad, northbound 10:15 am, southbound 2:26 pm. The Illinois Terminal’s stops in Chatham in 1939 were more numerous: 5 northbound and 5 southbound. There was even a night train Peoria-Springfield-St. Louis, in both directions, which stopped in Chatham in the early morning hours and carried sleeping cars. I have copies of these timetables if you would like to have one.

  3. Pingback: Thursday Doors – Chatham Railway Station | Old Guy Walking

  4. Rose Mary Foster says:

    Nice to read this article as my Uncle, Lewis V. Crawford, was the conductor on the interurban and I rode it many times. Good memory.

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