John M. Forbes and the CB&Q


By Terry Hogan


John Murray Forbes’ life reads like a novel.  He was not only the president of the CB&Q railroad in its early formative years, but also he spent time as an opium trader in China, a free-slave advocate, and a general “mover and shaker” in Lincoln’s time.  He even was sent on a secret mission to England during the Civil War. Perhaps we’ll see Sean Connery playing John Murray Forbes at the local theater.  


John Forbes was one of three brothers who were sent by their uncle to make money.  They did so, in a big way, by “blowing smoke”- Opium smoke that is.  Opium from Turkey was shipped to China and traded for goods such as Chinese tea and silk. In the 1820’s, John was in charge of this operation for Boston trading firms. By the mid-1830s, John Forbes had put together $100,000 from the lucrative China market trading work.  He was a wealthy man.


In 1846, Forbes and a couple of associates bought a 145-mile long railroad that connected Detroit and Kalamazoo.  They extended the railroad to the southwest, connecting to Chicago. Forbes became the president of the Michigan Central Railroad.  As Chicago grew and made use of its location for shipping agricultural and manufactured goods, Forbes became wealthier. 


Forbes and his associates, eastern investors, began investing in small railroads in Illinois such as the Illinois Central, Chicago and Aurora, Central Military Tract, Peoria and Oquawka, and Northern Cross.  In 1856, these were consolidated and became the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (CB&Q, or “the Q”). This name lasted until 1970, until the Burlington Northern merger. They next looked westward and began buying stock in the Burlington and Missouri and the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroads. Expansion and consolidation was the track to success.  The CB&Q also looked north and extended lines to Rock Island and the Twin Cities.


John M. Forbes became a CB&Q director from 1857 to 1898.  He was president for the period of 1878 to 1881 and also served as Chairman of the Board.


The growth, consolidation, and upgrade of the track and rolling stock, whatever their faults, were instrumental in the development of the Midwest.  Reliable, timely transportation allowed crops and livestock to be shipped to central, consolidated locations for processing.  Manufactured goods could be shipped cheaply to the farmers and their families.  Commerce helped to bind the country together and made for common economic interests.  The railroads were also to play an important role in America’s bloodiest war.


During the Civil War era, he was a proponent of freeing the slaves.  He also was an early advocate of using free blacks as soldiers.  With the draft riots in New York, he advocated using black troops to maintain order. This was probably not the idea he had ever come up with.  He also wanted to use blacks to replace striking fireman on the Michigan Central Railroad in 1862. This also seems to have been an immoderate and poorly considered idea. 


On the international scale, Forbes was sent on a secret mission to England in 1863.  His assignment was to raise money for the Union cause and to stop the shipment of two “ironclads” to the Confederates.  The ships were under construction in Liverpool. He is attributed to being successful and being responsible for the English government seizing the two ironclads before they could leave for America.


John Forbes died on October 12, 1898, but the family’s influence was to live on.  The husband of John M. Forbes’ niece, Charles Elliott Perkins, became president of the CB&Q.


John Forbes’ brother was the great grandfather of the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, John Forbes Kerry.