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`Grand new technology' assured the future of the Quad-Cities

By John Beydler, Staff writer

Railroad fever was upon the land.

Merchants and mechanics. Farmers and bankers. Dreamers and schemers. All saw opportunity in the grand new technology introduced into the country in 1830, when 13 miles of track creeping

Photo/Rock Island Magazine, 1922
This 1844 view of what is now the Quad-Cities is dominated by Rock Island (now Arsenal Island). Davenport is on the left bank; Rock Island on the right.
westward out of Baltimore opened to all-mechanized passenger and freight service.

Hundreds of railroad companies sprang into being in a time when land transport had evolved but little for two millennia or more: It was still beasts of burden and wagons, dirt and mud, with the occasional few miles of plank road.

The leading lights of Rock Island and Davenport wanted a railroad, too. They already had the river, but the men who gathered at the home of Col. George Davenport, on what is now Arsenal Island, in June 1845 envisioned more. Their bustling communities could only benefit from faster, easier ties to their neighbors -- especially to Chicago.

But progress -- hampered by Col. Davenport's murder shortly thereafter -- was slow. It was Feb. 27, 1847, before the Illinois Legislature chartered the LaSalle and Rock Island Railroad.

Eastern clout

The company's goal was relatively modest: a rail link to LaSalle, about 75 miles east, from whence the Illinois and Michigan Canal provided an opening to Chicago and the Great Lakes. Now money had to be raised, routes surveyed, right-of-way acquired and roadbeds made ready.

But little happened until 1850, when the railroad promoters contacted Joseph Sheffield and Henry Farnam.

The two Easterners -- Mr. Sheffield, a financier, and Mr. Farnam, an engineer -- had big plans for railroads. They had formed a partnership, Sheffield & Farnam, after Mr. Sheffield sold his interest in a Connecticut canal/rail company and Mr. Farnam resigned as its chief engineer and superintendent.

The two were perfectly matched, Mr.Farnam's son wrote in an 1889 memoir of his father, Mr. Sheffield ``generally attending to all matters of finance,'' and Mr. Farnam ``dealing with the practical work in the field.''

The two liked what they saw in Rock Island, but they thought the plan too small. Mr. Farnam's son (also named Henry) wrote, ``Mr. Sheffield and my father saw at once that it would be hopeless to make much of this road, unless the charter was amended as to allow it to run through to Chicago.'' If the charter could be amended, the two told the road's stockholders, they would provide the capital, the track and the equipment to build and run the road.

The amendment would be no easy thing to get from a legislature heavily influenced by canal and river interests. The job was assigned to James Grant, a Davenport lawyer who was the road's president during the critical 13 months beginning in November 1850.

Mr. Sheffield and Mr. Farnam retreated east, where they were building the last 40 miles of the Michigan and Southern into Chicago. (The job, completed in 1852, gave Chicago its first rail link to the east.)

From Chicago, Mr. Farnam wrote to Mr. Grant -- in Springfield fighting the legislative battle -- that the charter change should be obtained even if it meant ``payment of tribute to the canal.''

That's what it took. In return for its new charter, issued Feb. 7, 1851, the Rock Island agreed to pay a toll during ``open months'' to the Illinois and Michigan Canal on all passengers and freight to and from points served by the canal, and for 20 miles to the west. The toll was to remain in effect until a competing railroad opened, or until the state retired the debt it had incurred in the canal project.

Laying the road

Events now built up steam.

On Sept. 17, 1851, the LaSalle and Rock Island's board of directors signed a contract to pay Sheffield & Farnam $3,987,688 to build the road. According to Mr. Farnam's son, $2 million was to be in 7 percent bonds, $500,000 was to be in cash -- payable at $25,000 per month -- and $1,487,688 was to be in stock certificates bearing 10 percent interest, and convertible into stock when the road was completed.

The first shovel of dirt was turned Oct. 1, 1851, at the southern limits of Chicago.

Within a year, the tracks reached Joliet, 40 miles to the west.

By March 1853, the Rock Island and Chicago papers were carrying notices that three passenger trains a day were running from Chicago to LaSalle, 99 miles away. From LaSalle, the notices said, ``first class'' steamships on the Illinois River could be boarded for points south, and stagecoachs were available to Rock Island, Davenport, Galena and Dubuque.

The editor of the Rock Island Republican, after an 1853 tour of Henry County, reported that John Warner's 1,400-foot bridge across the Rock River was nearing completion, and that grading to the east, also under Mr. Warner's supervision, was ``progressing rapidly.''

``The whole work,'' the Republican reported, ``is being pushed forward with skill and energy.''

By Dec. 19, the tracks had progressed an additional 59 miles westward, bringing service to Geneseo.

Rock Island's line

Some two months and 22 miles later, at 5 p.m. on Feb. 22, 1854, the first train arrived in Rock Island.

It disgorged hundreds of celebrants from towns along the line. ``Thousands'' greeted them at the depot, the Republican reported. There followed a night of cannonfire, bonfires, parades, dinners, and many a grandiloquent speech and toast to ``big people and big things.'' The Republican's editor. J.B. Danforth, offered a simpler one: to ``the Irish laborers who dig our canals and build our railroads ...''

The toast was ``vigorously applauded,'' the Chicago Courant noted.

Sheffield & Farnam officially turned over the road to the board of directors on July 10, 1854. The project came in ahead of schedule but with a cost overrun of slightly more than $500,000, according to Mr. Farnam's son.

The overrun came, he said, because the road was even more wildly popular than anticipated, and additional equipment had been necessary. The contract had called for 18 locomotives, 12 passenger cars, 150 covered freight cars and 100 platform cars. Instead, the railroad got 28 locomotives, 24 first-class passenger cars, four second-class cars, 170 covered freight cars and 170 platform cars.

Photo/Rock Island magazine, 1922
Identified as ``The Mills of Moline'' in Rock Island Magazine, in 1922, this circa 1850 drawing looks upstream from a point along Sylvan Slough. The large building at the upper right is probably the Deere Plow Works built in 1847. Deere was among the companies that greatly benefited from the railroad's arrival.

The impact of the road was immediate and profound. First-class passenger tickets to Chicago were $5, and the trip was just 7 1/2 hours, rather than two or three days -- or longer. Freight to Chicago was 35 cents a hundredweight in covered cars, or 30 cents a hundredweight on open cars. The Republican didn't report what the savings were to ``the average shipper,'' but the figures boded ill for the canal and riverboat companies.

From the July 10 turnover through the end of 1854, the Rock's earnings ``exceeded running expenses by $270,984, nearly 9 percent of capital stock,'' Mr. Farnam's son wrote. The money came from 168,825 passengers and 49,735 tons of freight, he said.

Land prices soared by 25 to 100 percent. The population exploded. Rock Island County tripled, from 6,937 residents in 1850 to more than 21,000 by 1860. Davenport, a village of 60 in 1836, was home to 11,000 people in 1856.

A mighty fine line

The railroad expanded rapidly. By 1862, the original 180 miles of track had grown to 494 miles. In 1866, it absorbed the Mississippi and Missouri Rail Road -- a Davenport-to-Council Bluffs line in which Mr. Farnam had interest -- and changed its name again, to the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific. By 1872, it had 1,288 miles of track.

That auspicious beginning heralded a long run for what came to be a nationally fabled road, celebrated in song as ``a mighty fine line.'' It included about 10,000 miles of track at its high point.

The Rock lasted 129 years, until 1980, when interstate highways, trucks, airplanes and a third bankruptcy finally did it in. A court decided the road could not be successfully reorganized and ordered its liquidation.

Other companies now run on the Rock Island's lines.

John Beydler is news editor of Quad-Cities Online.




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