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The Rock founders faced tragedy and travail before triumphing

By John Beydler, Staff writer

On a late June afternoon in 1845, rowboats departed both sides of the Mississippi River, pulling for the home of Col. George Davenport on Rock Island.

Coming from Iowa were James Grant, a Davenport attorney

Photo/Rock Island Magazine, 1922
The home of Col. George Davenport, where he and other leading citizens of the area made the railroad plans. This photo is from a 1922 issue of Rock Island magazine, a railroad journal.
and former member of the Iowa Legislature; Ebenezar Cook, a Davenport banker and lawyer; and A.C. Fulton, who had extensive real-estate holdings in Scott County. The Illinois boats brought businessmen P.A. Whittaker and Lemuel Andrews from the city of Rock Island; from Moline, Charles Atkinson, who had laid out his town just two years earlier; N.D. Elwood, who had first traveled by stagecoach from far-away Joliet; and Richard Morgan, an engineer with railroad surveying experience.

Photo/Rock Island Magazine, 1922
Col. George Davenport ... he hosted the railroad planning meeting but his murder a few weeks later hampered the work.

It was railroads on the minds of all as they greeted each other in Col. Davenport's yard at sundown, then ``talked long into the night,'' according to ``Iron Road to Empire,'' William Edward Hayes' 1953 history of the Rock Island Lines. When the meeting finally broke up, the group had a plan: They'd petition the Illinois Legislature to charter a rail line from Rock Island to LaSalle, some 75 miles to the east. There, the soon-to-be-finished Illinois and Michigan Canal would provide an outlet to Chicago and the Great Lakes.

The benefits would be many, not the least being that such a link would lessen the hold on commercial life held by St. Louis and steamboat interests.

The group's enthusiasm was sharply tested less than a month later. On July 4, Col. Davenport was murdered by bandits in the very house where the railroad plans were made. But the project, bigger than even the towering presence of the colonel, proceeded.

After 20 often frustrating months, the Illinois Legislature acted, chartering the LaSalle and Rock Island Railroad on Feb. 27, 1847. Capital stock was set at $300,000, all of which had to be subscribed before the company could formally organize and elect officers.

The task was daunting. Illinois residents had been badly burned by railroad fever in 1837, when the legislature approved a grandiose scheme to connect the state's major cities by rail. The lawmakers appropriated $10 million ``that wasn't in the treasury.'' Farmers and businessmen subscribed to $5 million in bonds, and more than $1 million in script was issued to contractors. All that came of it was a money-losing line stretching 50 miles from Springfield to Meredosia. It was finally ``sold for nothing'' to private interests.

On top of the railroad-shy market, a stagnant national economy had settled in.

Taking on the tough sales job was an 12-man commission, with members from the four counties the line would traverse. Joseph Knox, F.R. Brunot, N.B. Buford, William Vandem and Nathanial Belcher represented Rock Island County; Joshua Harper and James Bolmer, Henry County; Cyrus Bryant, Justus Stevens and R.T. Templeton, Bureau County; and J.V. Horr and William H.S. Cushman, LaSalle County.

Three-and-a-half years passed, and the mood was glum as commissioners gathered on Nov. 12, 1850 to assess the situation. Mr. Morgan, the engineer, had surveyed a line to LaSalle. No other work had been done.

The financial picture was dim. Though a $100 share of stock could be had for a $5 down payment, subscriptions lagged. Mr. Buford reported that $75,800 had been pledged in Rock Island County. The figure from Bureau County was $50,400; from LaSalle, $25,000; and from Henry, just $20,000. The total: $171,200, far short of the $300,000 required to begin operations.

According to Mr. Hayes, the Rock historian, a deep gloom fell upon the meeting. Several commissioners lamented that they'd be blamed for yet another railroad fiasco. The death of Col. Davenport was bemoaned, for surely, had he lived, there would have been support from the city that bore his name.

Photo/Rock Island magazine, 1922
James Grant ... the Davenport lawyer was first president of the railroad and initiated contact with Joseph Sheffield and Henry Farnam.

At this point, Mr. Hayes writes, Mr. Grant and a Davenport delegation arrived at the meeting. They carried with them $128,300 worth of subscriptions. Joy shot through the room as the men realized they were but $500 short. It was quickly pledged, and the Rock Island Line was a living thing.

Besides the stock pledges, Mr. Grant brought a critically important idea. He had read, he said, about a man named Henry Farnam, who was building the Michigan & Southern's track into Chicago. Reports were that Mr. Farnam, a highly reputable engineer, was entertaining a proposal to build a line from Chicago to Galena, about 100 miles above Rock Island on the river.

Mr. Farnam should be contacted, he said, and pitched the idea that a road to Rock Island made more sense. There was quick agreement, and Mr. Grant led a delegation to a meeting with Mr. Farnam.

The engineer was intrigued enough to travel along the proposed line. When he reported back to the group, he said their idea did indeed hold great promise -- if, but only if, the charter could be amended so that the trains could go through to Chicago, rather than merely linking to the canal in LaSalle. If that change could be made, he said, he and his partner, the eastern financier Joseph Sheffield, would provide needed capital and build the road.

The job of obtaining the change from a legislature friendly to canal and river interests fell to Mr. Grant, the former legislator. He moved quickly, but lawmakers were stand-offish. They finally offered a deal: The charter could be changed if the railroad agreed to pay a toll to the Illinois and Michigan Canal on freight that the canal would otherwise haul.

Mr. Hayes writes that the upright Mr. Grant was offended by the offer and likely would have turned it down had not Mr. Farnam wrote him a letter urging him to accept, if the new charter was thereby obtained.

The legislature approved the charter Feb. 27, 1851, and the board of directors, of which Mr. Grant was now president, accepted it on April 8. The Chicago and Rock Island Railroad was born.

Photo/ Rock Island County Historical Society
Charles Atkinson ... Moline's founder attended the original railroad meeting and later, as a member of the board of directors, assured a routing dispute was settled in Moline's favor.

Several of the men who'd attended the meeting at Col. Davenport's house in 1845 served as officers and directors on the original board. Among them, Mr. Atkinson, the Moliner, played a particularly significant role for his city in 1851 when, ``by sagacious and timely action,'' he foiled a plan to bring the road down the valley of the Rock River, bypassing Moline.

The influence of the founders faded soon enough, however, as the road passed into the control of Mr. Farnam, Mr. Sheffield and their investors. Mr. Grant remained as president until Dec. 22, 1851, when he resigned, citing time demands imposed by a new term in the Iowa Legislature. He was replaced by John B. Jervis, an engineer and associate of Mr. Farnam's on the Michigan & Southern project.

On July 10, 1854, when Sheffield & Farnam formally turned the completed road over to the board of directors, Mr. Farnam himself was elected president. He served until his retirement in 1863.

John Beydler is news editor of Quad-Cities Online.




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