click to enlarge The Illinois, Sangamon County’s first locomotive
The Illinois, Sangamon County’s first locomotive

In the 1830s, when people traveled by foot, horse, stagecoach or boat, Illinois developed a railroad. It was ahead of its time.

Like others around the state, central Illinoisans wanted faster transportation to relieve their isolation and farmers wanted to get products to top markets in the south, according to Paul Angle’s Here I Have Lived: A History of Lincoln‘s Springfield (Abraham Lincoln Book Shop, 1971).

So in 1837 the state legislature, which included Abraham Lincoln, passed an internal improvements plan that focused on railroad development. Later, lawmakers added some canal construction for those who thought waterways transportation was cheaper and longer lasting than the new, little-tested rails.

Then the national economy tanked and Illinois had to scale back its plans. It built only one railroad, and a shortened one at that. In 1837 construction began on the Northern Cross, a railroad that would bisect the middle of the state. Originally it was to run from Quincy to Indiana; instead it ran from the Illinois River town of Meredosia to Springfield.

Construction began in Meredosia in 1837. According to a history of the Wabash Railroad on the University of Missouri at St. Louis Web site, this was the first railroad built in the Mississippi Valley. (The Northern Cross eventually became the Wabash. It took four years to finish the tracks to Springfield. They ran up 10th Street and stopped at Adams Street, according to The History of Sangamon County (Inter-State Publishing Company, 1881).

On February 15, 1842, the locomotive “Illinois” steamed into town. “Hundreds of people from the surrounding country gathered along the tracks to see this marvel…, this huge piece of machinery which some said was to replace oxen and horses — they really could hardly believe that,” wrote Helen Van Cleave Blankmeyer in The Sangamon Country (Sangamon County Historical Society, 1965).

Women and animals ran the other way, she said. “As for the horses, they were so terrified that they backed buggies, carryalls and wagons this way and that, broke their traces and galloped madly through the town and across fields….”

Shortly after the Northern Cross started running thrice weekly between Springfield and Meredosia, a group of Springfieldians, including Mary Lincoln and a band, visited Jacksonville — a $2.50 trip that took two hours and ten minutes one way, according to Angle. “A few weeks later Jacksonville returned the visit and two hundred guests sat down to ‘a sumptuous supper’ at the American House (one of the city‘s best hotels),” he wrote.

The railroad wasn’t a success for local farmers, though. It wasn’t sufficient to haul their loads and loads of crops to the best market at New Orleans. Soon, the Northern Cross disappointed casual travelers, too. Neither its tracks, engines, nor railroad car were built well and local blacksmiths weren’t capable of repairing them. The result was railroad trips that were at times laborious and even injurious for passengers.

Pieces of the wooden rails curled over time as if pleading to the heavens for respite. These so-called “snake heads” occasionally poked through the train floor — and into unsuspecting riders, according to Angle. If they weren’t jabbed by a snake head, passengers might be propelled “half the length of the car” by the jerky, halting engines.

The steam engines devoured wood and water. When supplies ran out, the train stopped and riders had to hop off and chop wood or haul water, sometimes from far-flung wells. A variety of mechanical problems stalled the railroad for hours at times.

A little more than two years after it entered Springfield, the poorly-made and worn-out Northern Cross came to a permanent halt. The state had leased it to several operators and tried to sell it, with no luck. One last lessee substituted the broken-down locomotive with mules and hauled an occasional car of freight.

According to an article on the Illinois State Museum’s Web site, by 1847 the state was able to offload it to a buyer for a fraction (one-fortieth) of its original cost.

Contact Tara McAndrew at

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