A Brief Historical Sketch of the Illinois Central Railroad

Before merger with the CN, the Illinois Central was the only major rail carrier in the United States still operating essentially under its own name without interruption after nearly a century-and -a-half since its founding. In its long and colorful history, the IC achieved many "firsts" in the fields of commerce, transportation and western settlement.

The Illinois Central Railroad was chartered in 1851 to build a railroad from Cairo, Illinois, at the joining of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, to Galena, in the extreme northwestern corner of the state (the "Old Main"), with a branch from Centralia (named for the railroad) to Chicago (the "Chicago Branch"). A previous effort in the late 1840s resulted in a few miles of grading north of Cairo but little else. However, the Federal Land Grant Act signed by Millard Fillmore in late 1850 aided the IC in becoming the first railroad to receive a land grant. The line was finished in 1856, giving Chicago a route to New Orleans by way of a railroad-operated steamboat line between Cairo and New Orleans.

During the Civil War, the IC played a pivotal role in funneling Federal troops and supplies southward to open the Mississippi River to the Gulf. After the war, many famous generals and civil engineers from both sides served with distinction in positions of leadership with the IC.

In 1867 the Illinois Central, which by then progressed beyond Galena and across the Mississippi to Dubuque, Iowa, leased the Dubuque & Sioux City Railroad, extending its western line to Iowa Falls. This line reached Sioux City in 1870.

Soon the Illinois Central realized that it was necessary to extend its rails south to the Gulf of Mexico. The railroad made a traffic agreement in 1872 with the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad, to Canton, Miss., and the Mississippi Central Railway north to Jackson, Tennessee. A new railroad line would be necessary to connect Jackson, Tenn. with Cairo to replace the existing arrangement via the Mobile & Ohio to Columbus, Kentucky, and a riverboat from Columbus to Cairo. The new line was completed in 1873. In 1874 the Illinois Central, the principal bondholder of the other two lines, took them over and organized them as the New Orleans, St. Louis & Chicago Railroad. The NOJ & GN and Mississippi Central were then reorganized in 1877 as the New Orleans, Jackson & Northern and the Central Mississippi, respectively, and then consolidated as the Chicago, St. Louis & New Orleans Railroad, a subsidiary of the IC. Like most of the railroads in the South, the route from Cairo south to New Orleans was built to a 5-foot track gauge. The entire 550-mile route was converted to standard gauge (4-foot-8-1/2 inches) in one day on July 29, 1881.

About this time, a young eastern financier took an interest in the Illinois Central Railroad who would have a profound effect on the Illinois Central and indeed throughout the railroad industry. His name was Edward H. Harriman.

In the 1870s railroads began to penetrate the fertile Yazoo Delta along the western edge of Mississippi. IC's entry was the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, incorporated in 1882 to build a railroad westward from Jackson, Miss. Meanwhile, a rival route, the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railway, was under construction between Memphis and New Orleans via Vicksburg and Baton Rouge, west of the IC's main line. That line obtained the backing of C. P. Huntington, who saw the route as a connection between the Southern Pacific at New Orleans and his Chesapeake, Ohio & Southwestern at Memphis. Huntington's forces completed the LNO & T in 1884 and then purchased the Mississippi & Tennessee Railroad, whose line from Grenada, Miss., to Memphis funneled traffic to IC.

Saber rattling in the form of cancelled traffic agreements ensued, but Huntington's empire was in trouble. The IC purchased the LNO & T and the Mississippi & Tennessee and consolidated them with the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley. The acquisition not only increased significantly the IC's mileage, but also greatly expanded the IC's presence in the South. The southern lines were finally connected by rail to the northern part of the IC with the completion of the Ohio River bridge at Cairo in 1889. In 1893 IC purchased the Chesapeake, Ohio & Southwestern (Louisville to Memphis) and in 1895 built a line into St. Louis from the southeast.

In the late 1880s under the leadership of Edward H. Harriman the IC began expanding toward the west. The Chicago, Madison & Northern was incorporated in 1886 to build from Chicago to a connection with the IC's western line at Freeport, Ill., then north to Madison and Dodgeville, Wisconsin. The IC also constructed branches from its line across Iowa to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Omaha, Nebraska, and Sioux Falls South Dakota.

In 1900 a minor train wreck at Vaughn, Miss., achieved worldwide fame because an engine-wiper named Wallace Sanders wrote a song about the incident. The engineer, the only person killed, was one John Luther Jones, nicknamed "Casey".

The Illinois Central Railroad continued to expand in the twentieth century. In 1906 the Indianapolis Southern Railroad, an IC subsidiary, completed a line from Effingham, Ill., to Indianapolis. Part of the line was of new construction and part was a rework of existing narrow gauge lines. In 1908 the IC assembled a route from Fulton, Ky., to Birmingham, Alabama, largely using trackage rights, and in 1909 IC purchased the Central of Georgia Railway.

In 1926 the IC electrified its suburban line along the Chicago lakefront. The suburban tracks were separate from the tracks used by mainline passenger and freight trains. In 1928 the railroad constructed a cutoff line between Edgewood, Ill., and Fulton, Ky., to bypass congestion at Cairo, the waist of its system.

After World War Two, the Illinois Central began to simplify its corporate structure by purchasing and dissolving subsidiaries and neighboring short lines. Among the subsidiaries absorbed in 1945 and 1946 were the Gulf & Ship Island and the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley. Illinois Central lost its Central of Georgia holdings in 1948 when CofG reorganized after bankruptcy.

The IC and Rock Island jointly organized the Waterloo Railroad in 1956 to purchase the Waterloo, Cedar Falls and Northern; IC bought the Rock Island's half interest in 1968. Other short lines purchased by the IC were Tremont & Gulf (1959), the Peabody Short Line (1960, merged 1961), the Louisiana Midland (1967, regained independence 1974), and the Hopkinsville, Ky. - Nashville, Tenn., segment of the Tennessee Central (1968).

In 1972 the Illinois Central merged with the parallel Gulf Mobile & Ohio to form Illinois Central Gulf. By 1990 the road was a trimmed and rationalized Chicago-to-Gulf railroad returned to ownership by individual shareholders and operational management by a team of serious minded railroad people. The name Illinois Central Railroad was restored.