A BRIEF HISTORICAL SKETCH OF THE ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD
The Illinois Central is 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 wasEdward 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
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 E. H. Harrimanthe 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
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