Railroad Ties

by Terry Hogan

Galesburg still has them. Oquawka and Knoxville don't. Galesburg owes a lot to the railroads. Galesburg's economic growth was once tied to the railroads which its citizens paid dearly for. Galesburg's citizens served the railroad directly or served those who did, or those who shipped their products on the railroad. Much of Galesburg's ethic makeup has ties to the railroad. The Irish, the Swedes, the Mexicans, all played their role, having muscle, sweat, and later, intellect, tied to the railroad. The railroads' work force help shape Galesburg's working class culture and helped to moderate the effects of Knox College's early religious zeal.

It was the railroad towns that were growing, that had the jobs for the untrained but willing to work. Railroad, by definition, meant travel, adventure, freedom, and a place to go toward when leaving home. Much of what Galesburg takes for granted has railroad ties.

This is not idle speculation or mere abstraction. I need not look beyond my own family. I grew up at Lake Bracken, back then known as the Knox County Country Club. It was owned by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad; built by the CB&Q for the purpose of providing a water supply for steam locomotives and related activities. The pump house was about a quarter mile from my house. Its large electric motors, driving flat, wide belts, pumped the water from Lake Bracken toward Galesburg. The pipe ran by my house, passing within 100 yards, passing under the corner of a neighbor's house. Water from the pump house basement was pumped back into Lake Bracken. In moderate winter temperatures, it resulted in a small open area, not frozen. In colder times, the spot would freeze over. It could catch an unsuspecting or absent minded teenage ice skater. It caught me one cold afternoon, returning from a hockey game. I nearly drowned­­ ice breaking repeatedly under me as I tried to pull myself from the freezing water. Railroad's ties runs in both obvious and subtle ways.

At about the same time frame, I worked part-time on a small farm situated between Galesburg and Knoxville. The field had a linear section of harder packed soiled, heavily laced with coal ash, marking the physical remains of an abandoned right-of-way. I don't know how long it had been abandoned. I don't even know the name of the railroad that had the track. It was an early fatality.

How many of us with established family roots in Galesburg can look back and not find a railroad worker in the family. Both my brothers have worked for the railroad. One still has strong ties, working at the "tie plant." I don't live in Galesburg, or even in Illinois any more. I can go for months and never have my progress impeded by a train, unless I return to Galesburg. Some railroad ties are obvious.

I believe, but cannot prove, that my own Hogan line ended up in Galesburg because of the job opportunities of the railroad. Some of the sons of my great grandfather moved to Galesburg to find work. My great grandfather, in his declining years, followed, and lived with one of his sons, until he died. One of his sons, my grandfather, Ernest Hogan, worked for Drury Nursery, located on the northwest side of town, and later, he worked for the City of Galesburg as a gardener. While a young greenhouse worker of 21, he met a young girl of 13, whom he gave some flowers trimmed to promote growth. When she was 14, they were married. They would have two sons and five grandchildren. Both sons would live at Lake Bracken, as would ultimately Ernest and Sarah Hogan. Of their 5 grandchildren, three would work for the "Q" at some time or another. All five lived at Lake Bracken, built by the "Q" and one is married to the Lake Bracken club manager. Galesburg's railroad ties can be subtle.

With the growth of highways and the independence granted by cars, passenger rail was falling on hard times. The grand railway stations began to echo with the footsteps of the last passengers. Railroads did not give up easily on the passenger trains. The gleaming stainless steel Denver and California "Zephyr" still stopped in Galesburg in my college days. The gondola cars allowed the young, hardy traveler a view of America unequaled by other means. With a gentle sway and a repetitive clack, rural America and the industrial side of the cities, unfolded, mile after mile. Green fields of corn gave way to wheat, turning to different shades as the setting sun was replaced by darkness. Towns and individual farms were but points of light, coming closer, at apparent increasing speeds, only to zip by in a flash. The Zephyrs brought people to and through Galesburg, and carried some to and from, on their only real, extended train ride. A sleepless night as America passed by in a way no text could describe, no history could record. The Zephyrs were aptly named. Galesburg's railroad ties are strong in memory.

It was the "movers and shakers" of Galesburg that brought Galesburg its railroad ties. The final commitment that brought success was from Chauncey Colton and Silas Willard who jointly put up the remaining $50,000 to bring the railroad to Galesburg. Other well-known names were active in the pursuit­­ Clark M. Carr, George Churchill, William McMurtry, George W. Gale and Selden Gale. The history is treated well by Earnest Calkins, in "They Broke the Prairie" for those who are interested in the "hows" and "whos" of Galesburg's efforts.

Knoxville didn't get the railroad. It lost to Galesburg. Oquawka didn't get the railroad. It lost to Burlington. Galesburg and Burlington grew with the railroads. Knoxville and Oquawka did not.

Galesburg ceased being considered a spot between two locations. In 1850, Galesburg was considered as simply being "on the main stage line between Peoria and Oquawka." In 1837, "Galesboro" and "Hendersonville" were described as "small villages, a few miles from Knoxville."

Oquawka had great expectations­­ it had reason. It was already a major stop on the Mississippi River. It only made sense for the railroad to come to Oquawka. Oquawka expected to have railroad ties; perhaps it expected it too much. Steamboats stopped at its wharf, loading and unloading. Passengers from Europe would arrive at Oquawka, taking the Mississippi River route to the Midwest. Some traveled east to Knox County. Oquawka have already envisioned itself great. Governor Duncan invested $50,000, anticipating Oquawka's success. N. Currier published a lithograph of a great Oquawka, reaching 16 blocks along the river, and 10 blocks inland. Oquawka failed. The railroad that could have been the "Chicago, Oquawka, and Quincy" was not. Oquawka went casual to the railroad­­ no ties.

Galesburg can learn from history. Galesburg knows the past importance of the railroads and that the railroads continue to play an important role in the local economy. The railroad industry is again in turmoil with mergers and restructuring. Some communities will be winners with the restructuring. Some will not. What will be Galesburg's future railroad ties?

Posted to Zephyr Online March 14, 1999
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