The Railroad and Towanda Compiled, edited and written by Dale M. Sutter, 2006 Sources: History of Mclean County 1879 The Lexington Unit Journal 1954 Personal recollections In February of 1847, an Act was passed by Congress, granting a charter for construction of a railroad from Alton Illinois to Springfield Illinois. Another Act was passed in February, 1851 which extended the railroad on to Bloomington, and this was completed in 1852. Another Act was passed at that time to complete the railroad from Bloomington to Chicago. This was completed in 1854 and was known as the Chicago and Alton Railroad. The portion of the railroad that passed through what is now Towanda Township and its' adjacent areas was completed in 1853. This was a great undertaking. The roadbed for the railway had to remain almost level for its' entire length with only very moderate grades to be encountered by the trains. High spots in the terrain had to be cut down, low spots had to be filled in and bridges built to cross streams and rivers. Ditches were dug on both sides of the roadbed to provide proper drainage. Manpower and horses were responsible for getting these jobs done. Graders pulled by horses were used to shape the land. Horses pulling wagons carried the fill dirt. Men with shovels did the digging. Others built the bridges, placed the ties, laid and bolted the rails and then the spikes were driven - - all by manual labor. Needless to say, many living in the township at that time were involved in building the railroad. A person could say, "the Chicago and Alton Railroad gave birth to the Village of Towanda". As the railroad was being completed through the northwest corner of the township Peter A. Bedeau entered the land for the Village of Towanda. The certificate of entry for the southwest quarter of Section 5 was dated February 18, 1853. The original plat of the village included only forty acres from the center of this quarter-section. Jesse Fell helped to plat the original forty acres and it was donated by Peter A Bedeau for town purposes. This was recorded December 7 1854. The remaining part of the quarter-section was sold by Mr. Bedeau to Jesse W. Fell and Charles W. Holder on May 1, 1855. The proprietors immediately surveyed it and laid it off into town lots. Charles Roadnight, an Englishman, who was also an executive of the Chicago and Alton Railroad, bought a great deal of land on both sides of the railroad. He soon became the largest property owner in the village. In order to promote his interests in the village he built a large two story wooden structure known as Roadnight Hall. It housed several businesses and provided a meeting place for many community activities. Towanda was born! The completion of the railway changed the tide of the early settlement of Towanda. It made the village much more accessible and the population began to quickly increase. It brought from Ohio sturdy families, Burch, Hilts, Lormor, Jones, White, Biddle, Stover, Cameron; and from England, Scotland, Wales and Germany, immigrants can be traced today by the names Geiger, Weber. Kraft, Sutter, Falkingham, Womack, Crichton and Schlosser. Irish immigrants, having a common religious life, settled as a unit in the southeastern part of Towanda Township.
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. A depot was soon constructed about halfway down Main Street and next to the tracks. In one end of the building was a waiting room for train passengers and a ticket window. The middle section of the building contained the depot agents office and telegraph operation. At the other end of the building was a storage area used to house incoming and outgoing freight. Passenger and freight service became an important enhancement to living in Towanda. Both the north bound and south bound passenger trains would stop at the depot to pick up and unload passengers. This gave the citizens a much easier method to travel to Bloomington or other destinations as compared to a horse and wagon. The trip could be made in one day with very little hardship. The passenger service continued into the 1940s'. The advent of the automobile and improved roads were the factors that soon ended the railroad passenger service in Towanda. The freight service became very important to the growth of Towanda. The train would, with regularity, bring inventory to re-supply the several merchants that had established businesses along Main Street. One of the largest users of the freight service was the Towanda Grain Company which had been built on the south side of the track. Deliveries there included large quantities of lumber, gravel, sand, hardware and tools for building purposes. Coal was also delivered in large quantities for use in heating homes and buildings. In the early 1900s farm machinery began to be unloaded at the Towanda Grain Company site. This included tractors, threshing machines and automobiles. The Towanda Grain Company was not only a large receiver of goods but was a larger shipper also. Complete railroad cars would be filled with various grains that had been harvested by local farmers. The grain elevator next to the tracks would fill these cars as they stood on the side track. An engine would come and "switch" the filled cars onto the main track and into the train. Then they were off to various markets in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Southwest of the elevator, pens and a corral were built next to the track. This provided a shipping point for pigs and cattle going to processing centers located mainly in Chicago and Kansas City. Special cars, with horizontally slatted walls to provide ventilation, were loaded on the side track. They were then integrated into the train in the same manner as the grain cars and quickly delivered to their destinations. The animals no longer had to be "herded" over long distances by a group of men on horseback. The Towanda Postoffice was another establishment to receive benefit from the railroad. Incoming and outgoing mail service was provided daily by the railroad. A special car on the train was designated the Mail Car. Workers rode in the car and processed mail as they were going to their destination. For delivery to Towanda, the incoming mail was placed in a large heavy canvas bag. This bag was simply thrown off the train as it passed near the depot. The postmaster/mistress would simply pick up the bag and return to the postoffice. On some occasions , rare we hope, the bag might be sucked or blown back under the train and cut open by the wheels. Needless to say this was a major problem and many hands were enlisted to aid in recovering mail strewn along the track. The outgoing mail was handled in a different manner. Page 2 of 4
A metal pole stood beside the track. On top of this pole was a large metal U shape laying on its side with the open end facing the track at the height of the Mail Car door. The outgoing mail was placed in the same type canvas bag which was then hung in the opening on top of the pole. As the train passed through Towanda an arm attached to the Mail Car would grab the mail bag and it would swing into the open door of the Mail Car to be retrieved by the workers inside. This daily service was a great improvement. Previously mail was received and sent when someone rode into Bloomington. There may have been days or weeks between deliveries. As transportation and roads improved, trucks eventuality took over the mail delivery service. Employment was another benefit provided by the railroad to some residents of Towanda. A "section gang" was stationed at Towanda. This was comprised of approximately six men whose job it was to maintain a certain length of the track. Many of the towns along the route had Section Gangs so the track was 100 percent maintained. The Gang had a small car, approximately 4 foot by 10 foot, which had flanged steel wheels that would ride on the rails. It had handles at all four corners to aid in setting it on the track. At first it was powered by two men (sometimes one) operating a long bar with a handle on each end in a teeter-totter fashion. This was later replaced by a single cylinder gas engine when they became available in the early 1900s. A second car for carrying tools and supplies was hitched to the first. The crew would go out each work day to check the track and make any necessary repairs to their assigned section. In addition to the Section Gang several residents over the years held railroad jobs. These included depot agent, engineer, conductor, fireman plus several others worked in the railroad shops in Bloomington. The railroad definitely contributed to the economy of Towanda. Another benefit that Towanda received from the railroad probably was not planned. That was the trail that began when travelers rode their horses and or wagons along the side of the railroad tracks. This activity occurred from one end of the railway to the other and the trail became a prominent feature of the landscape as time passed. With the advent of motorized vehicles the trail was upgraded to a hard road and became Route 4. October 11 1926 U.S. Route 66 was to replace the old route. It lasted until it was decommissioned on June 27, 1985. The Interstate System was formed and the trail was now known as Interstate 55. All of these routes were important to the growth of Towanda, some passed through and the others passed close to the village limits. The railroad was formed and constructed to conduct the business they saw as their future. Little did they know what fringe benefits would evolve. This writing can be considered to be a very brief history of the railroad and how Towanda prospered from its' formation. From a spot on the map in 1854, it grew to be a village of 500 people over the next 25 years (1879). A complete book could be written using the many stories that could be told and describing the many people whose lives were affected by the railroad. It is an important part of the history of Towanda and many other similar towns and villages. The railroad itself would also have a history all its' own - starting as the Chicago & Alton, it soon became the Chicago, Alton and St. Louis. Later changes brought names like Gulf Mobile & Ohio, Illinois Central Gulf, Chicago Missouri & Western, Southern Pacific and now the Union Pacific. It has gone from steam engines to diesel electric engines, from open window passenger cars with soot and smoke to the air conditioned Dome Top cars of today, to specialty cars such as Page 3 of 4
refrigerator cars, auto carriers, tank cars for liquids, only to name a few. The railroad was a significant part of our history and will continue to enhance the future.
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Illinois State University, Milner Library, Normal, IL, 61790 - for the Towanda Area Historical Society/Towanda District Library
Towanda Area Historical Society/Towanda District Library
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