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Easterners made Rock Island's railroad dream a reality

By John Beydler, Staff writer

The men who turned Rock Island's dream of a railroad into reality were both easterners.

Joseph E. Sheffield was born June 19, 1793, into a well-to-do-family in Southport, Conn. He entered business early, and by 1814, at age 21,

Photo/ Rock Island Magazine, 1922
Joseph Sheffield ... a financier, his resources and contacts played a vital role in finding money to build the railroad to Rock Island.
he became a partner in a New York mercantile house.

He spent 22 years in Mobile, Ala., as a cotton trader before moving to New Haven, Conn., in 1835. There he invested in the New Haven and Northampton Canal, thus beginning his long relationship with Henry Farnam, the canal's superintendent and chief engineer.

The younger by 10 years, Mr. Farnam was born Nov. 9, 1803, in Scipio, N.Y., one of 11 children in a farm family. About 1820, he went to work on the Erie Canal. Interested in engineering, he took a job as a cook because he knew a better job would open eventually, according to his son, Henry. He was soon a rodman for a surveying crew, then a surveyor.

A self-taught mathematician, he went to work at the New Haven and Northampton Canal as an engineer in 1825 and became superintendent in 1827.

Photo/ Rock Island Magazine, 1922
Henry Farnam ... a self-taught engineer, he saw the Chicago to Rock Island railroad as a first link in a larger project.

He and Mr. Sheffield, attempting to improve the company's fortunes, built a railroad along the canal route in 1846-48. But Mr. Sheffield's larger ambitions for the company were blocked by competitors and by the complicated transportation politics of the time, according to Mr. Farnam's son.

Mr. Sheffield sold by interest in the company, and Mr. Farnam resigned his position. Then, as Sheffield & Farnam, they contracted to complete the line of the Michigan and Southern Rail Road into Chicago.

Publicity about that project, which would bring Chicago its first rail link to the east, and talk that Mr. Farnam might build a route from Chicago to Galena stirred Rock Island to action. A delegation visited Mr. Farnam and touted the advantages of routing a railroad to the West through Rock Island.

Mr. Farnam and Mr. Sheffield ``saw at once not much could be made of the road'' unless it ran through to Chicago, instead of linking to the Illinois and Michigan Canal at LaSalle, Mr. Farnam's son said. But if the charter could be amended, they said, they would provide capital and build the road.

The change was obtained, and Sheffield & Farnam agreed to build and equip the road for $3,987,688, all but $500,000 of it in bonds and stock certificates. In just over two years, the 180-mile line from Chicago to Rock Island was in operation.

Mr. Sheffield and Mr. Farnam worked as a team, Mr. Farnam's son wrote, with Mr. Sheffield ``generally attending to all matters of finance'' and Mr. Farnam ``dealing with the practical work in the field.''

During the time, the Rock was under construction, Sheffield & Farnam also built the Peoria and Bureau County line, linking Peoria to the Rock Island; formed the Rock Island Bridge Co. to build a bridge connecting Rock Island and Davenport; and launched the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad to connect Davenport to Council Bluffs, on the other side of Iowa.

Mr. Sheffield retired from active work about 1857. Mr. Farnam suffered setbacks on the line across Iowa when his new partner, Thomas Durant, ``unfortunately yielded to the general spirit of speculation which had taken possession of so many of the railroad men of that time,'' Mr. Farnam's son wrote.

Though Mr. Farnam at first believed Mr. Durant had ruined them both, they recovered sufficiently to build the Mississippi and Missouri 120 miles west to Grinnell before Mr. Farnam retired in 1863. In 1866 the Mississippi and Missouri was absorbed into the Chicago and Rock Island, which changed its name again, to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific.

Both Mr. Farnam and Mr. Sheffield spent their last years back in New Haven, where among other philanthropies they made generous contributions to Yale University.

Mr. Sheffield paid for the construction, equipping and staffing of an engineering school that in 1861 was named the Sheffield Scientific School. He left a seventh share of his estate to Yale.

Mr. Farnam, among other contirbutions, built a dormitory and, upon his death, left his house, ``one of finest in the city,'' to Yale, to be used as the ``president's house.''

Joseph Sheffield died April 18, 1882. Henry Farnam died 18 months later, on Oct. 4, 1883.

John Beydler is news editor of Quad-Cities Online.

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