Tracking History


by Terry Hogan


Galesburg owes much of what it is, and what it isn’t, to being a railroad town when it was important to be one. Much of the old railroad history is gone.  There is a lot of space where the old Q buildings used to be, along south Seminary.  The old “humps” aren’t humps any more. The name is as anachronistic as “dialing” the phone.


Trains that used to stop at Galesburg now just pass on through, perhaps not as quickly as car traffic would like. The beautiful old Q railroad depot is long gone, and now just a relic on post cards and other memorabilia. The current depot is a poor substitute for its ancestor that reflected the glory days of passenger rail travel.


But there are still a few relics around from when Galesburg was tracking its history by the successes of the railroads.  Lake Bracken and Lake Storey are the direct spawn of the thirsty demands of steam locomotives and their support facilities.  It was only just a few years ago that the old Q pump house at Lake Bracken was torn down. The old pipe that carried the water from the pump house to the Q still remains, at least in some areas.


As a child growing up at Lake Bracken in the 1950s and early 1960s, the pump house was an easy walk from home.  You could hear the large old piston pumps (high volume, low pressure) running, pushing water to the Q.  It is all gone now.  Only the brick tower, surrounded by water, remains, marking the intake site.  But it looks to be on the endangered list as the roof has collapsed.


Even the interurbans are largely gone without a trace.  Rails are gone or buried under asphalt.  A small portion of the interurban track that connected Galesburg and Abingdon still exists along the west edge of the Koppers tie plant, near the highway.   


The CB&Q was good for Galesburg.  Galesburg was good for the Q.  In my youth, the Q paycheck supported many Galesburg families, and they, in turn, supported the local merchants.  For example, I am the only one of the three sons in our family whi did not work for the Q.  I have a cousin who worked on the Q.  Many other long-term Galesburg residents can probably make similar claims.  The Q, in its day, was a big employer in Galesburg. And it was a good employer.


Galesburg’s most famous son, Carl Sandburg, was fed and clothed from the money his father earned in the Q’s blacksmith shop. In his autobiography, Sandburg recalled his father coming home black and sweaty. He would wash his hands vigorously, trying to extract the soot from the pores and creases of his hands. Sandburg told of how his father’s back became unevenly humped due to the muscle build up from the use of heavy blacksmith tools that predominately “worked” one arm.  


There are still those around Galesburg who recall the Burlington Zephyr race through Galesburg in 1934, on its nonstop, record-setting run between Denver and the Chicago Worlds Fair. Guards were placed along each railroad crossing to ensure no harm came to the train or the public as it sped by.  Cars were parked and folks stood along the right of way to watch the historic stainless steel train making history. My parents were among those who stood between Galesburg and Wataga to see the Zephyr go by.  The hard road provided a good view of the train.  The Zephyr was a “silver streak” as it traveled a distance of 1,015 miles between Denver’s Union Station and Chicago’s Halsted Street Station. The train averaged a speed of 77.6 miles an hour during its run of thirteen hours and five minutes.  The Burlington Zephyr shortened the travel time by twelve hours and forty minutes from the regular running time of the Aristocrat, which normally traveled from Denver to Chicago.  This was nearly two hours faster than the goal set by the CB&Q for the record-breaking run.


The Burlington Zephyr, once a state-of-art passenger train, is now relegated to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, where an animated burro, Zeph, speaks to museum visitors.  I don’t know what happened to the original Zeph that was a passenger and the mascot on the Burlington Zephyr when it set the record.


The importance of the railroad to Galesburg far exceeded the immediate payroll.  It also facilitated the success of other industries.  Folks often remark about the presence of the right type of clay and shale to support the Purington Brick Factory that was located near East Galesburg. And this is true.  However, less is mentioned of the importance of the railroad.  Bricks are heavy, bulky, and without rail, transportation costs become too expensive to ship very far.  The railroad tracks adjacent to the brick factory provided access to a much larger marketplace.  The railroad could cost-effectively haul bricks not only to adjoining states, but to ports for transportation by ship to overseas markets.


The railroads also helped to change the face of the land, and contributed to the decline of small farms and small businesses.  Sears could ship entire houses in kits for relatively easy assembly.  Lumber could bypass local lumber yards.  Skilled labor wasn’t as necessary.  Household goods, dresses, appliances, and the like could be purchased by catalog and delivered by rail.  Local slaughter houses were replaced by shipping livestock to Chicago or Cincinnati where economy of scale put the local businesses out of work.


Chicago became a major rail and inland water port.  Livestock and agricultural products were shipped by train for processing in Chicago.  Finished products were shipped out of Chicago to major population centers, mostly in the East.  This infrastructure encouraged the economy-of-scale development of the Illinois farmland.  Farms became larger, rural populations declined.  Houses were torn or burnt down and farm fields expanded in size.  Fences and hedgerows were removed to allow for an extra row or two of crops and to accommodate the bigger farm implements needed for the bigger farms.


The decline of the rural, small-farm family adversely affected small towns and their merchants.  There was a too small rural population to support local merchants, and with the loss of volume sales, they could not successfully compete with the prices of larger merchants located along the bigger city rail supply lines. Better roads and better cars, giving greater mobility to the remaining rural community, further exacerbated the economic hardship of the small towns.


We have now taken the next step.  It is a global economy.  If you haven’t noticed, China and Mexico are the source of manufactured goods that used to be made in the US.  If you have a doubt, go sit along the railroad track. Watch the names on the sides of the containers being hauled through Galesburg.  When they says “China”, they are not referring to dishes. 


You can learn a lot about history by tracking the railroad. It will all tie together.