Genesis of a Railroad

by Terry Hogan


I really like the title of this article. I liked it so much that I stole it from Earnest Elmo Calkins, a distant relative of mine, I'm told. His article by that name appeared in the 1935 publication of the Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society. I recently came across 21 volumes of the transactions, dating from 1909 to the mid-1940's. Some issues were missing. But they were cheap so I left the antique store with two boxes of hardback books. Now I need to make use of them to justify the expenditure and the overcrowding of the bookcases.


Interestingly, there is an asterisk by Calkins's name. The associated footnote reads "Earnest Elmo Calkins is better known as an advertising manÉthan as an historian. However, he is now at work on a history of Galesburg where he lived for several years, and Knox College, where he graduated in 1891." I think most folks now think of Calkins as the author of "They Broke the Prairie" and therefore as a historian, rather than his commercial life as an early pioneer in the area of mass marketing. They Broke the Prairie is the history that was being written in 1935 that the above cited footnote was referring to. I guess it was history making history.


Calkins presents a very interesting history of Galesburg; the fight for the railroad; and Oquawka's loss of being a railroad terminal on the Mississippi (it went to Burlington, instead), among other things. But he also had a frank, straight-forward presentation that we'd call a little "edgy" in current terms. Perhaps Calkins didn't figure many Galesburg folks would hear his talk or see the written version. But here is one of my more favorite descriptions of early Galesburg:


"For the first few years it [Galesburg] was self-contained and self-sustained, more than usually isolated because of lack of sympathy between it and its neighbors, a little island of straight-laced Puritans in a sea of shouting Methodists, slack farmers, slovenly housekeepers and irresponsible squatters, the people they had come west to save from eternal damnation. The Galesburgers were Whigs in a Democratic state, abolitionists in a pro-slavery community, and sharp Yankees to boot. The 'Hoosiers' looked upon them as interlopers." (page 45).


I cannot begin to summarize the information provided by Calkins in this work. The battle between Galesburg and Knoxville for a railroad and between Burlington and Oquawka is worth the read. The Galesburg and Knoxville fight was probably provoked by all the differences in cultures between the two towns, and inflamed by the knowledge that whichever town got the railroad would flourish, and the other would wilt. And this is what happened. Galesburg got the railroad. Galesburg later returned to Knoxville and "made off" with the county seat. Galesburg had the money to dedicate the land and the cash to build a new and spectacular court house that has held up pretty well to the passage of time.


But Calkins had the trait of a good, or at least an interesting, historian of not being bound in by the title of his article or talk. Calkins frequently threw in tidbits of knowledge that he found interesting and wanted to pass on. This indulgence made the article more enjoyable to read than his more restrained book.


For example, I knew that Oquawka used to be called "Yellow Banks". It was Yellow Banks back in the days of the Black Hawk War. But I didn't know the source of Oquawka. According to Calkins, it is Algonquin, meaning "yellow earth". It is one of the oddities where a name went from English to "Indian" (Native American, if you must). Calkins, on a roll, bemoans the "smug busybodies unable to appreciate the humor and raciness" of some of the early town names. "Young America" became Kirkwood. "Spunky Point" became Warsaw, named after a popular book of the time - "Thaddeus of Warsaw".


This railroad history goes to considerable length in telling how Galesburg won and how the railroads were slowly consolidated through buyouts or through bankruptcy and buyouts, to become the CB & Q ("the Q") that many of us remember. Many of the Q lines in Illinois were the result of the consolidation of small lines, rather than the Q running new lines. Calkins tells the story told about how John Murray Forbes of the Q felt about all the promoters who came to him to sell bits and pieces of railroads. Forbes is credited with the recollection that these promoters reminded him of the cats at his country place. There were so many cats that were killing birds and other animals, that Forbes placed a bounty on the cats, with the bounty being paid upon the presentation of the cat's tail. The bounty was of sufficient value, that Forbes became convinced that the locals started raising cats in order to turn in their tails for the bounty. Similarly, Forbes believed that speculators were building short railroads with the idea of selling them to him for a profit. As this tale spread, the small branch lines of the Q began to be known as "cat's tails."


In 1935, Earnest Elmo Calkins ended his history of the railroad on a sad note. After describing the new stream-line trains that whiz through Galesburg, he observed,

"But the new railroad will not recapture the romance of the old, any more than the ocean liner can take the place of the tall, wind-driven ships. It is safer, faster, smoother, more wonderful in its machines, but less in the men it breeds."


I can only wonder what Calkins would have to say about the freight trains that pass through Galesburg every day. Cargo containers resembling blocks and bearing overseas names; semi trailers stacked two high, and a train that merely ends - No caboose. No friendly wave from a railroader as he passes through town. It is like a story without an ending or a prayer without an ŇamenÓ. Many of the rail cars are defaced with graffiti and look to be long on miles and short on maintenance. Often rust appears to be the new coating of choice. And I dare not mention the loss of Galesburg's beautiful railroad depots.


Perhaps we need another Calkins to write the last chapter of the railroad history. Perhaps the next Calkins will conclude that Knoxville won after all. It may have been better to never have had, than to have had and lost.



Calkins, Earnest. 1935. Genesis of a Railroad. In Transactions of the Illinois State Historical Society, 1935. Publication No. 42. Pages 39-72.