Steaming through town

Illinois’ first railroad started in Morgan County

By Greg Olson

The first railroad in Illinois arrived in Jacksonville in 1840. It was called the Northern Cross and was part of a state scheme of internal improvements — canals, railroads and highways — designed to boost the state’s population and prosperity.

The Northern Cross Railroad originally was planned to run from Quincy, through Jacksonville and Springfield, to the Indiana state line. While most of the proposals never got beyond the planning stage, the railroad, in part, became a reality.

Surveys were begun from Meredosia eastward in November 1837 and the first rails were laid six months later. In spite of a national financial crisis in 1837, work continued and the Northern Cross was completed as far as Jacksonville by January 1840. However, it took two more years for the railroad to reach Springfield.

The right-of-way through Jacksonville was located along State Street and through the center of the public square. Initially, Jacksonville residents wanted this central location, but even before the railroad was in operation, many residents had begun to have second thoughts and clamored for moving the tracks away from the center of town.

The arrival of the Northern Cross Railroad’s steam engine, known as The Rogers, to Jacksonville was a memorable event and drew a large crowd to the public square.

“The public square was filled with teams, and when the engine steamed into the square making all the noise possible, there was such a stampede of horses as was never before heard of, nearly every team breaking loose, and at least one-third of the vehicles in the county were broken, and many of the people were as much scared as the horses at the steaming monster as it came rushing into the square,” according to the book, “Historic Morgan and Classic Jacksonville.”

By March 1842, the Northern Cross Railroad provided regular service between Jacksonville and Springfield.

The state now had a completed railroad but no money to maintain it. When the steam engines broke down, mule power was used; the road bed went unrepaired; strap rails were stolen for sleigh runners; and the only profit made was by the stagecoach lines between the two towns.

As a means of transportation both of people and goods, the Northern Cross Railroad was a failure and the state lost heavily. However, with its sale to private interests in 1847, and merger into a larger rail system, it became a moneymaker.

The new owners, the Sangamon and Morgan Railroad Co., changed the track location from State Street to where the Northern Southern Railway runs today.

The Northern Cross Railroad is part of Morgan County and Illinois history. Today, Illinois is at the center of the nation’s railroad network, with 40 rail lines providing service from the Prairie State to every part of the United States.

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