Knox County History

Part X: Mobility

by Terry Hogan

When Knoxville, Galesburg and many of the other early towns in Knox County were formed, they were little islands of humanity in a sea of prairie grass. Transportation between towns was slow and uncertain. Roads quickly turned to mud. With railroads came transportation both in and out of wherever the rails went. Towns fought hard to get the railroads. Other towns sprouted along the existing tracks. Some were platted by the railroads themselves or by speculators who saw the value of the rails before others did. But whatever form it took, transportation was, and is, key to a town's growth and survival.

In the earliest days of Illinois, transportation was almost synonymous with rivers. The early French as well as many of the Indians relied on the rivers to move from point A to point B. But the French and the Indians tended to be mobile and were not inclined to establish villages and towns in hopes of growth. The notable exceptions to the transient French trappers were the French priests who settled in remote territories, leaving little pockets of French influence in Illinois. But settlements were largely left for others who arrived by water later, either by river or by Lake Michigan. Illinois' early towns were river and Lake Michigan towns such as Chicago, Peoria (French and Indian origin), and Oquawka (originally known as "Yellow Banks").

Some town founders didn't want the hustle and bustle of business and growth. They wanted peace and isolation. This was the environment to grow a religious college and to shape a community in one's own image. Thus Galesburg was formed in the center of a prairie - about equal distance between the Mississippi and the Illinois rivers. What few roads in and out were dirt in dry weather and mud in wet. Even Main Street could bog down carriages and pedestrians, until brick streets arrived.

And then came bricks. Paving bricks opened the streets to passage in good weather and in bad. Country roads were improved and we added a new word that is hardly used any more - "hardroad". Who says "take the hardroad to Abingdon" anymore or refers to it as "the Abingdon Hardroad"? Some, but they probably have gray hair. Hardroads were invented to accommodate another invention - the car. Galesburg even had its own car, the "Gale" which really was more like an electric carriage.

Electricity wasn't just limited to mobility in electric cars. Illinois towns that were so proud of their brick main streets, soon had them being interlaced with tracks. Electric trolleys and "Interurbans" provided rapid and cheap transportation within and between neighboring towns. Old photos of Galesburg, Abingdon, Knoxville and Monmouth, just to name a few, show the ubiquitous tracks in the streets and the electric wires overhead. Town councils spent much of their time dealing with charters to run a trolley here or a train there. I have even seen one Galesburg photo postcard that showed rails going through the City Park (later to be "the square") instead of going around it.

Railroads by the 1860s were numerous, probably too numerous for their own good. Numerous railroad companies were formed, sold stock, built some track, and perhaps even ran some trains before they went bankrupt or were sold to another railroad. There is a whole history of railroads in the old railroad stock certificates that still remain as collector items. But railroads consolidated and consolidated again and again until we have what we have today. In some ways, we were lucky or smart. In the 1860's, President Lincoln established a standard size (width) for the rail lines. Congress, I believe, quickly changed it, but the point is that the U.S. had a standard rail width so that trains could travel on uniform sized tracks from Maine to California. This uniformity probably helped to promote railroad consolidation. It was easier when "one size fits all". This need for standardization grew out of Lincoln's farsightedness and long pre-Presidential railroad history. Despite being involved in the Civil War that was taking a great financial and emotional toll on the American people, Lincoln was determined to build a railroad across the continent.

Wood burning steam locomotives, which had funnel-shaped stacks, were replaced with coal burners, which had round stacks that were replaced with the sleek diesels. The stainless steel Burlington Zephyr's modern design rippled through our lives in the 1930's and 1940's. It gave great speed to travel, and set the tone for modern designs. Even vacuum cleaners became sleek and horizontal with lots of chrome. Remember the horizontal "Electrolux" vacuum cleaner that was cylindrical, and had lots of chrome? Squint a little and you will be reminded of the looks of the Burlington Zephyr. The Chicago Science and Industry Building has an interesting display of how the Zephyr influenced designs of the day, located near the Burlington Zephyr which is on display there.

Towns that grew and flourished had mobility; paved "hardroads" could support cars and trucks in great numbers and at good speeds. Towns that grew and flourished had railroads for hauling agricultural products out and manufactured goods in. Where would Sears or Montgomery Wards have been, if there had not been good transportation to haul goods to the purchasers? Sears sold entire homes (some assembly required) by catalog. It is likely there are Sears houses still standing in Galesburg. They were sold by mail and delivered by rail.

There was also a parasite, of sorts, that accompanied the rail lines. But it was a good parasite. It was the telegraph line. Towns that had rails not only had mobility of goods and people. These towns also had nearly instant access to the news of the world. Telegraph lines followed along the railroad rights of way. Railroads needed the telegraph to operate properly but the telegraph served in so many other ways. News reached these towns in hours rather than in weeks. They had knowledge mobility. And information is power.

Galesburg's famous Lincoln and Douglas debate was transmitted all around the civilized parts of the United States, one key stroke at a time, via the telegraph. Those in cities and towns served by the telegraph often could read about what was said in newspapers that received and transcribed the debates. A reader in New York might have had Galesburg's Lincoln and Douglas Debate facts before someone in nearby Oquawka due to the mobility of information via the wire along the track. The telegraph was also instrumental in bringing both the good and the bad news concerning the progress of the Civil War.

River towns had their steamboats that functioned much as railroads did. The lucky river towns had both steamboats and rail. In fact, the first anticipated use of the Midwestern railroads was to connect the agricultural communities to river towns so that the good could be shipped from the farm to the river town by rail and then shipped by steamboat. It took awhile before the railroads expanded enough to become a "long-haul" competitor to the steamboats instead of a servant to them. Lincoln's famous bridge case concerning the steamboat that struck a railroad bridge and sunk was a microcosm of this burgeoning struggle between the two modes of transportation. Lincoln's common sense argument that a bridge had no more right to obstruct river traffic than the river traffic had to prevent bridges from being constructed.

This feud between the railroads and steamboats was inevitable. There were several reasons. First they were natural competitors, both after the same market. Second, most of the rivers flowed generally from north to south whereas most of the railroad tracks were laid from east to west. If either one could restrict passage of the other, the "game was over". The railroads had a number of advantages over the steamboats. Railroads were a fairly reliable means of transportation year around. In the northern states, ice shut down river traffic in the winter. Flooding was also a problem for steamboats. Wooden hulls were vulnerable to trees and other objects that washed into the channel.

Cars, trucks, and buses became bigger, more reliable and faster, accompanied by improved road surfaces. Tires improved so that blowouts were less frequent and greater speeds could be more safely attained. Gas stations and garages popped up to fill the need of the new motorists. Motels and restaurants popped up. Distant towns became close neighbors, tied by brick, concrete and asphalt roads. Some of us will still remember the roadside pull offs that had a picnic table and a hand pump well providing cold, fresh well water. Interstate traveling was an adventure with bad roads and incorrect road maps. Roadside camping came into being before there were facilities designed for them. Camping along the road; beside or under a bridge; or along a creek; was not uncommon. Campers often carried a gun for whatever need might arise, but it was seldom used.

Soon the funny little biplane evolved from an oddity to another means of public transportation. Towns built airports. Airmail stamps could get mail delivered faster. Towns celebrated being connected by air postal service. "First Day Issue" postal envelopes and stamps were issued to commemorate these days. Such was the case in Galesburg. Before WWII was over, the Burlington Railroad was applying for permits to start flying passengers by helicopters from small towns to major rail depots. The "Q" also ran a bus line, serving its rail connections. Towns that survived and grew were towns with mobility. Towns that survived best were towns with the greatest array of mobility options.

Galesburg won railroads and grew. Oquawka didn't and despite its location on the Mississippi and a great start, stopped growing. The upstart Iowa river town, Burlington, got the railroad, the railroad bridge crossing the Mississippi, and the Mississippi. It made the best of both forms of mobility available to it. Burlington's gain was Oquawka's loss.

I think it is a defensible conclusion that the arrival of the railroads in Knox County, generally, and in Galesburg, particularly, represented a turning point in history. Galesburg turned its back on isolation and embraced economic growth. With that growth came railroad workers who were German, Irish, Swedish, Mexican and with them came religions and cultural beliefs that were fundamentally different from the "New York Yankees” that formed Galesburg in their own image. Other towns and villages reaped the benefits or suffered the loss, depending whether the tracks came to their doorsteps or passed them by. Some towns literally upped and moved to the railroad if the railroad didn't come to them.

Such mobility had profound effects, often not recognized. Galesburg's loss of small farms in favor of big farms is a function of mobility. Thousands of acres of soybean and corn are grown and shipped not to local families but to markets around the world. Soybeans grown in Illinois are consumed in Japan. The death of the small farmer and the farming family can be attributed to mobility. Distant, but attainable markets, accommodated and called for economies of scale.

Mobility and distant market places had some interesting effects. When Chicago largely burned down, the Chicago fire and mobility was responsible for a pronounced effect on Michigan. Michigan's forests were cut to make lumber to rebuild Chicago. The face of Michigan landscape was changed, as a result.

Another more distant example can be found with New York City and New England. New York grew rapidly and reached a large population, while the horse was still a major player in the city streets. Hay and straw were needed for the horses and New York City created a great demand. The hills of Massachusetts met that demand and mobility allowed hay and straw to be delivered to New York. Massachusetts hillsides were cleared of timber and hay and straw were grown and shipped south. With the demise of “horse-power" in New York City, the hay and straw market declined. Hay and straw fields in Massachusetts were abandoned with the loss of the New York City market. Forests reclaimed the Massachusetts hill sides. Thus, if you have had the opportunity and pleasure of walking the wooded hillsides of Massachusetts, the mystery of encountering old stone fences in the middle of the woods is no longer a mystery.

History tends to repeat itself. Just as mobility created a market for Massachusetts hay in New York, and subsequent mobility (e.g. cars, trains, and trolleys) eliminated the market by replacing the horse, we see the adverse effects of mobility evolution again. Trains have lost the passenger market to cars and airplanes. Trains have kept much of the market for transporting of goods. Now trains carry containerized goods across country to their approximated destination. The containers are then off-loaded to trucks for ultimate site delivery. Now goods are manufactured overseas where labor is cheap; placed in containers and shipped to the U.S. coast. The containers are transferred from ships to rails and shipped as close as economically possible to their final destination. Here they are off-loaded from the rail to trucks that complete the journey. Such mobility decreases transportation costs and increases the competitive advantage to foreign made goods. Mobility can and does eliminate local jobs. Trains that used to stop in Midwestern towns to deliver and pickup goods now speed through these towns, offering few or no jobs to these towns. Rail jobs are eliminated; factory jobs dry up; and the mobility that made these towns appears to be the very tool that now is contributing to their decline.

There is another influence of mobility on the towns of the Midwest. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether it is good or bad. But the reader may be surprised to hear of the lament of the condition much earlier than might have been expected. Mobility in the form of communication, highways, airlines, and the like, has brought uniformity in America. Our architecture is the same. Our restaurants are the same. Our shopping malls are the same and are having the same effect on Main Streets everywhere. Listen to the national news or the national weather channel. We talk the same; we look the same. We have become homogenized. A McDonald's hamburger tastes precisely the same in New York as in Baton Rouge, as in Galesburg. This is done on purpose. Clean eating area; clean bathrooms; quick service - this is the market of McDonalds- predictability and reliability. No surprises.

So when did this happen? I would have said the 50's. I would have said it was a product in response to post WWII when consumerism favored cheaper mass-produced items. Price began to beat out quality. Price started to replace doing business with the neighborhood grocer or hardware store. But I would be wrong.

Calkins (1937) speaks of the "Standardization of America" well before the beginning of WWII. Calkins wrote in 1937 that a traveler in America would find "The same Main Street facade, chain stores, movie theaters, filling stations, government-built post offices, with the same vistas of people down the counter in the drug stores sucking up sundaes, the same groups of children on the street licking Eskimo Pie….The inhabitants of these Unite States have become more nearly like-minded than any other group in the world. Our country has made its greatest growth since means of intercommunication became common and plentiful. The railroad and the motor car have made the country smaller."

Galesburg of 2008 is not like Calkins' Galesburg of 1937. It has changed. It has changed significantly. But I will offer up that Galesburg has changed in the same manner as the other towns of its size throughout America. Calkins, if he drove through the towns of today, might be surprised by the change, but would not be surprised by the uniformity of change.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same." And it is mobility that brings the change.

This concludes my perception of Knox County over time. It is only my view and I'm responsible for the errors in facts and the omissions, both intentional and unintentional. Some topics that I have covered in great detail in other articles, I have chosen not to revisit here. Perhaps a few of you may find some new information, or perhaps a little spark of an idea to explain some facet of an ancestor's behavior or his decision to live in Galesburg. Perhaps not.


Calkins, Earnest. 1937. They Broke the Prairie. Charles Scribner's Sons. New York