The Illinois Central Railroad, Main Line of Mid-America
The Illinois Central's slogan described the railroad quite well, The Main Line of Mid-America. It was one of only a very few railroads to serve markets with north-south
running main lines and not the traditional east-west movements. What
made its routing even more odd was that it served Midwestern markets
that likewise traditionally moved goods east and west, such as Chicago,
St. Louis, Memphis, and New Orleans. Regardless of this the IC carved out a living hauling goods from Chicago to New Orleans and while today the Canadian National owns the railroad, its name continues to survive after over 150 years of existence.
Shortly after the CN takeover, two IC SD70s lead southbound freight MEBR through Jackson, Mississippi on April 14, 2000.
While the beginnings of the IC date to before 1840 it has its beginnings in 1851 when it was originally chartered to build a line connecting Cairo, Illinois with Galena. Like many now-classic railroads the IC's growth and expansion was a combination of new construction and takeover of smaller railroads. After its chartering in 1851 and completion of its original main line, the Illinois Central expanded to Chicago via a branch from Centralia, Illinois.
An IC 4-8-2 Mountain, #2537, is at the yard in Memphis, Tennessee on July 6, 1940.
The opening of this line gave Chicago its first transportation
connection to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans. However, it was not the
result of a through route by the IC or railroad at all but a connection from Cairo, Illinois
to a steamboat line that used the Mississippi River to complete the
journey south. This changed in 1872 when traffic agreements with the
New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern and Mississippi Central Railway earned the IC a through connection to the Gulf Coast (and in 1877 the IC reorganized these railroads into the Chicago, St. Louis & New Orleans Railroad).
Expansion for the railroad continued through the 1880s and early
20th century. Under the direction of E.H. Harriman the railroad
expanded west and north reaching (via branch lines) Madison and
Dodgeville, Wisconsin along with Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Omaha, Nebraska;
and Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Later it reached cities like
Indianapolis, Birmingham and Fulton, Kentucky. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Illinois Central
was its electrification project around Chicago (perhaps the
largest Midwestern Class I to ever electrify any of its lines),
connecting the city's suburbs with its urban centers.
However, what the Illinois Central is best remembered for is
a simple locomotive engineer who gave his life trying to avoid a train
collision, John Luther “Casey” Jones. The wreck itself occurred on
April 30, 1900 when a freight and passenger train (the New Orleans Special)
collided at Vaughan, Mississippi. In his efforts to avoid the
collision Jones saved everyone’s lives except his own. Today, of
course, there is now the legendary folk song, “Casey Jones,” which was
actually inspired by a worker of the IC who also knew Jones, Wallace Saunders. Another notable person associated with the railroad was Abraham Lincoln, who worked for the company from 1853 to 1860 just prior to the Civil War as the IC's corporate lawyer.
As for the IC itself, the railroad throughout much of the early
part of the 20th century was quite conservative, partly due to the fact
that it had a rough time surviving the Great Depression
of the late 1920s and early 1930s. It was not as quick to dieselize as
most other carriers and did not completely do so until 1960 (part of
this reason was due to the railroad serving a number of mines along the
eastern part of its system and had a cheap source of fuel for its
locomotives). Even after the railroad began purchasing main line
diesels it chose to paint them in a drab all-black livery with white
One of the IC's large 2-10-2 Santa Fes, #2816, runs light through the yard at Freeport, Illinois on July 4, 1946.
This conservative nature, however, changed in the mid-1960s when new
management updated the railroad’s image with a split-rail logo with
orange and white livery. Along with the new look the railroad also
began aggressively purchasing new locomotives and equipment. By the
1970s merger was in the air and in 1972 the IC merged with Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, a rival railroad with much duplicate trackage, forming the Illinois Central Gulf. The successes of the ICG have often been questioned and by the
1980s the railroad was showing the result of a marriage that probably
should never have happened. The parent company of the railroad, IC Industries, began looking for interested buyers during this time and while no interest was shown in the railroad, the ICG's management knew something had to be done to turn the railroad’s fortunes around.
In an effort to stabilize the ICG management sold or abandoned large
sections of the railroad to shrink down it to a much smaller system of
around 2,800 miles.
The effort worked and the railroad once again enjoyed profitability and
growth. Also of interest is that during this time the railroad decided
to return its name to simply the Illinois Central and drop the
“Gulf.” Throughout the 1990s the railroad remained strong and
profitable and not surprisingly because of its new success, other larger
railroads became interested in it. This railroad was the Canadian National Railway and after negotiations were completed the CN took control of the IC in 1998.
During the ICG era three Geeps, with GP38-2 #9606 up front, lead a string of coal hoppers northbound through Hammond, Louisiana during September of 1976.
The Illinois Central gave CN a direct southern route through the Midwest and
connected it with the Gulf Coast at New Orleans. While the IC
name continues to remain on paper the railroad itself and its identity
have mostly disappeared into CN as the Canadian road has integrated much
of the IC into its system. While no longer an independent company the
IC's main lines continue to serve as an integral part of the Canadian
National. Along with this the IC is still alive and well under Metra
which took over its commuter operations in the Chicago area and Amtrak
has resumed the IC's City of New Orleans passenger train between Chicago and New Orleans.