Knox County Early History

Part IV. Playing Trains


by Terry Hogan


Galesburg is, or at least was, a railroad town.  It wasn't always that way.  It probably wasn't even intended to be well connected to anything but the founders.  Galesburg was originally intended to be a religious island in a sea of prairie.  Isolated from worldly sins, but close enough to the centers of sins (river towns like Peoria) to draw youth from the areas to educate.  But things change. New people with new ideas move to the foreground, establish a powerbase, and move the town in new directions.  Such was the way of early Galesburg.  


With the approach of railroads, Galesburg was one of many towns that knew they spelled economic success. Railroads would be the deliverer of goods and people. Railroads would be the hauler of local goods to distant markets.  Railroads would reduce costs of shipping and receiving goods.  Railroads would make local merchants profit.  Railroads would allow farmers to expand.  Railroads would ease the burden of shipping industrial goods.  Railroads would make towns grow and the town leaders more important.


Early railroads were like mushrooms.  They popped up every place there was a little fertilizer,  in the form of capital, to make them grow.  Some actually built lines and ran for awhile before being gobbled up with consolidation.  Some sought to be acquired before bankruptcy.  Some didn't beat it. Early railroads looked for good deals from towns that were more than willing to enter into bidding wars to attract the railroad to their town.  Such was Galesburg's game.  A few towns were so confident that they were in the right spot at the right time that they just waited for the railroads to come.  One such place was Oquawka that was sure the railroads would come.  It was wrong, and growth passed it by.  But Galesburg and Knoxville both understood the importance of having a railroad.  The battle would be undertaken.


Galesburg versus Knoxville

But Galesburg had local competition.  It was none other than Knoxville, the neighboring town and the county-seat. If one can believe Calkins (1937), it appeared that Knoxville wasn't so much interested in getting a railroad or two, as it was in preventing Galesburg from getting them.  Galesburg started the competition with some real disadvantages.  First, Knoxville was the county seat. Second, Knoxville had more "pull" in the state legislature than did Galesburg, and the railroads got their charters and were regulated by the state legislature.


In 1849, the Illinois legislature granted a charter for the Peoria and Oquawka Railroad.  As the name implies, the railroad was to connect the Illinois River (Peoria) to the Mississippi River (Oquawka).  At this point of history, the early railroads were viewed more as a way to connect navigable rivers, rather than being long distance transporters themselves.  This proposed railroad would logically pass very close to both Galesburg and Knoxville, if a straight route was established. However, according to Calkins, Knoxville worked as hard or harder to keep Galesburg from getting the railroad as it did trying to get the railroad for itself.  Perhaps even at this early stage, Knoxville was worried that Galesburg might prevail economically and claim the county-seat for itself. Calkins (1937) concluded that Knoxville preferred to have no railroad, to having a railroad that was shared with Galesburg.


The Peoria and Oquawka Railroad had about a half of million dollars to use for construction.  The idea was that the line would be constructed for about $8,000 per mile and the track construction would begin at each end (Peoria and Oquawka) and work towards the middle.  However, Oquawka failed to raise the $40,000 that it was supposed to contribute to the effort.  Despite Oquwaka's apparent indifference to the proposed scheme, Peoria wanted a railroad. It started the construction program, but aimed the tracks not at Oquwaka, but rather toward the Mississippi at Warsaw.  The track passed through Farmington and reached Elmwood before the money dried up.  The work halted before the Mississippi was reached.


Oquwaka's apparent indifference did not go unnoticed by a small river town in Iowa that had big dreams and wanted a better connection with Illinois than a ferry.  Burlington stepped up to the plate and raised money to attract the railroad to come to Burlington instead of Oquwaka.  The track was initiated on the east bank of the Mississippi, just across the river from Burlington. This track made it all the way to Kirkwood ("Little America") before it ran out of funds. 


Thus at this point, Galesburg and Knoxville had two rail lines unconnected, but each aimed in their general direction.


Next came another railroad charter from the Illinois legislature.  This was for a line from or near Quincy, but within Adams County, with a terminus at or near the Chicago Canal.  However, the charter specified, in effect, that the line would go to Knoxville, missing Galesburg by about five miles (Calkins, 1937).   


If this wasn't a big enough affront engineered by Knoxville, with the aid of John Denny who was the Knox County representative in the legislature, Denny got the Peoria and Oquawka charter modified so that the line would run through Knoxville and Monmouth, missing Galesburg by three miles.  With this move, Knoxville had awarded itself and Monmouth the economic advantage at the cost of Galesburg.  Galesburg would have little chance to grow and threaten Knoxville under these conditions. 


So the ante had gone up even higher in the battle between Galesburg and Knoxville.  Now there were three rail lines aimed in the general direction of the two towns, one originating in Peoria; one originating on the east bank of the Mississippi River, across from Burlington; and one originating from Quincy.  And at this point, Knoxville had the upper hand with the wording in the charters.


Galesburg was facing a challenge to its economic life, and it was done with a very heavy hand.  In 1850, Galesburg was only a small town of 882 folks, but most of their ire had been raised.  Perhaps the greatest exception to this was Knox College President Blanchard.  Despite having a significant potential economic benefit to Knox College, Blanchard was concerned that the railroad would be a bad influence on Galesburg and the college. At this point, Knox College was the largest landowner and thus likely to receive the greatest economic reward if the railroad came through the town.  But the religious island in the sea of prairie grass would be invaded by non-believers who would not easily fall into line with Blanchard's religious views. 


Galesburg's leaders decided to try to control their own destiny. They did not try to overcome the apparent selected routes of the Peoria and Oquawka and the Quincy lines. Instead, they decided to throw another rail line into the mix connecting Galesburg to Chicago directly, or tying into some other line that would connect to Chicago.  Galesburg, with a little help from its friends, got its own railroad charter - Central Military Tract Railroad Company.  This new charter allowed the line to connect with the La Salle and Rock Island in either Henry or Bureau County.  Notable officials of the new paper railroad included William McMurtry, Seldon Gale and George Gale, as well as Silas Willard and Chauncy Colton.  George Churchill, another familiar name, was a surveyor involved with laying out the line from Galesburg toward Sheffield.  Money was collected and almost immediately spent to keep the venture going. Galesburg's Clark Carr was involved in the money collection effort from potential investors.    


However, like any good novel, there has to be a twist, a surprise, and a new turn of events.  The Galesburg railroad story is no different.  As the story goes, Galesburg's Chauncey Colton traveled to Boston on a buying expedition for restocking his Galesburg store.  While there, he bumped into a couple of other railroad fans who had their own railroad agenda.  Skipping the details, Colton, J. W. Grimes (a future governor of Iowa), and somebody named Wadsworth who was promoting railroad connection for Aurora, Illinois to Chicago.  Grimes wanted a railroad to cross the Mississippi and connect Iowa with any place east. Iowa was still without a railroad.  Their encounter and discussions soon made it clear that each of their interests could be jointly accommodated. The Military Tract railroad could be connected to the Aurora Railroad at Mendota; the Burlington and Peoria route could pass through Galesburg, which would also give it a tie-in to Chicago, so that products from Iowa could be shipped through Galesburg to Chicago.   


Again, skipping details, John Murray Forbes was a financial backer of the Aurora Branch.  He became involved with this new idea.  Galesburg came up with $300,000 to back the venture and the deal was done.  Galesburg got its railroad.  Burlington got its railroad. And the groundwork was laid for the consolidation of railroads that would become known locally as "the Q". 


In December 1854, the first train pulled into Galesburg. It was a construction train and was being pulled by a coal and wood-burning locomotive with the timely name of "Reindeer".


So Galesburg got its railroad, and in due course the trains began to arrive at Galesburg.  But, as the story goes, Knox College President Blanchard was not quite ready to give up the view that trains should not run on Sunday.  On a Sunday, President Blanchard stepped in front of the steam locomotive, about to pull out of the Galesburg station.  He told the engineer to take the locomotive to the roundhouse.  The engineer is reported to have asked "Who are you to give me such orders?"


President Blanchard responded that he was President Blanchard of Knox College "…and again I order you to take the engine to the roundhouse and not run this train on Sunday."    


Again, the engineer is purported to have said, "Well, President Blanchard of Knox College, you can go to hell and mind your own business, and I'll take my train out as ordered."  (Calkins, 1937)


At least, this is the story that is written and rewritten and written once again, above.  I personally am skeptical of the quotes.  Steam locomotives tend to be noisy and it may be questionable whether someone was standing by taking good notes.  But it makes a good story and does reflect the influence of the railroad on Galesburg.  It would never again be isolated from the world. It would become the melting pot and receive many folks from many places.  Galesburg's culture would broaden; Galesburg would become at least a little more tolerant of "different folk", and the little village on the prairie would blossom. 


Knoxville made a good run at it, but the railroads, for better or for worse, came to Galesburg.  And that event was to shape Galesburg's future in unforeseen ways.



Bateman, Newton, et al. 1899. Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois and Knox County. Munsell Publishing Company. Chicago. 968 pages.


Calkins, Ernest. 1937. They Broke the Prairie. Charles Scribner’s Sons. New York 451 pages.


Chapman, Chas. 1878. History of Knox County, Illinois. Chicago. 718 pages (reprinted version by Knox County Genealogical Society, Galesburg, IL)


Davis, James. 1998. Frontier Illinois. Indiana University Press. 515 pages.


Mitchell, A. 1837 Illinois in 1837; A sketch descriptive of the situation, boundaries, face of the country, prominent districts, prairies, rivers, minerals, animals, agricultural productions, public lands, plans of internal improvement, manufactures etc. Philadelphia. 143 pages.