Fulton County Narrow Gauge Railroad
by Terry Hogan
The Fulton County Narrow Gauge Railroad has been of interest to me for a number of years. It is one of those topics that pops up on the horizon briefly and then disappears, only to reappear in some other manner a few years later. Probably the key moment was, however, the beautiful Railroad Days poster that featured this railroad. I have a framed copy of the poster and do not tire of it. My oldest grandson also has a copy of the poster on his wall.
However, what drove me to the article recently was the appearance of Fulton County Narrow Gauge Railroad stock up for sale on eBay. I bid more than I thought it was probably worth because of the “local interest value” to me. Apparently somebody else valued it more than I did. But that was what got me off dead center. I write this with some trepidation as there are many railroad enthusiasts out there who are much better informed than I am on this subject. To those, I request: forgive my errors; I know not what I do, but I am well-intended. Of course, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, or so I have been told.
Starting on firm ground, the 1901 Historical Encyclopedia of Illinois provides the following dry, but concise snapshot of the railroad.
“…a line extending from the west bank of the Illinois River, opposite Havana, to Galesburg, 61 miles. It is a single track, narrow-gauge (3-foot) road, although the excavations and embankments are being widened to accommodate a track of standard gauge. The grades are few, and, as a rule, are light, although, in one instance, the gradient is 84 feet to the mile. There are more than 19 miles of curves, the maximum being 16 degrees. The rails are of iron, 35 pounds to the yard, road not ballasted. Capital stock outstanding (1895), $636,794; bonded debt, $484,000; miscellaneous obligations, $462,362; total capitalization $1,583,156. The line from Havana to Fairview (31 miles) was chartered in 1878 and opened in 1880 and the extension from Fairview to Galesburg chartered in 1881 and opened in 1882.”
A second source I found on the Internet reports the distance from Havana to Fairview as being 29.59 miles (not 31). The average construction cost was reported to be below $3,000 per mile. The track has been described as taking a “devious course”. Apparently, it was cheaper to run more miles of track, at less than $3,000 per mile and take advantage of the best terrain, than it was to travel in a more straight line (shortest distance), but have the cost/mile climb because of less “friendly” terrain.
It is reported that the first president of the railroad was Edward Harris of Lewiston and the first vice president was I. M. Hummell. The Board from 1878 to 1884 consisted of D.A. Burget, Oliver Rice, J.A. Gray, I. C. Worley, W.G. Swartz, I. M. Hummell, J.C. Willcoxen, Henry Phelps and “Judge Shopo”.
Although I have remember being told that the little narrow gauge primarily hauled coal, which was why it was built, this may not be the original intended use for the railroad. A railroad pamphlet (which I have not seen and cannot cite) is attributed as professing, “this railroad will be built for agricultural purposes in the richest farming tract in this region and a narrow gauge should be built because we can do so for less money and the running expense will be nominal”
An excellent written description of the wandering path of this little railroad can be found at the above cited Internet site. For those who are interested in looking for remnants of this railroad, this written description would be an asset.
It is reported that the narrow gauge railroad from Galesburg to Lewiston was converted to standard gauge on October 20, 1905.
It appears that the CB&Q became the primary stock holder of this railroad and took ownership of the railroad including a reported 59.3 miles of track either December 1, 1906 or December 1, 1908 (both dates are shown in the same reference). It appears that the ownership change was probably in 1908 as elsewhere in the article, it mentions that the CB&Q leased and operated the line beginning on January 1, 1906 until it acquired ownership.
On August 25, 1933, the CB&Q applied for approval to abandon the Fulton County Branch that extended from Galesburg to Fairview, a distance of about 29 miles. Train service was abandoned on August 22, 1934 and rail removal began in December 1934. (www.usgennet.org/usa/il/county/know/railroads.html).
Perhaps on a calm, damp, foggy night, the old narrow-gauge locomotive can still be heard, by those who are either very young and believe, or are very old and remember.