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.
The earliest history of the Illinois Central can be traced back to proposals in 1836 to construct a new railroad from Dunleith, Illinois (present-day East Dubuque), reaching Galena, and spanning the entire length of the state to Cairo along the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. However, more than a decade would pass before any serious efforts were undertaken. In 1851 the Illinois Central Railroad was finally chartered with intentions to build a line connecting Cairo, Illinois with Galena. Like many now-classic railroads the IC's growth and expansion over the years 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.
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 trim.
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.
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.
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