How the railroad came to Pekin

Here’s a chance to read again one of our old Local History Room columns, first published in November 2011 before the launch of this blog . . .

How the railroad came to Pekin

By Jared Olar
Library assistant

The story of the America’s rapid and unprecedented growth as an economic powerhouse is tied inextricably to the story of the railroads, which played a very important role in the life and development of the city of Pekin.

As this column previously has had the occasion to mention more than once, Pekin was once a thriving hub of the railway industry. Let’s take a look at the kinds of things we can learn from the Pekin Public Library’s Local History Room about how railroads got their start in our city. In Pekin’s case, this is a story with a key event that happened on the Fourth of July.

The first attempts to bring a railroad to Pekin were made in the 1830s, but it would take more than 20 years for a Pekin railroad to open. “Pekin, Illinois, 1824-1974 Sesquicentennial” tells us that the Pekin and Tremont Railroad Co. only began to build in 1835, and two other companies also tried in 1836 and 1847 but “neither ever drove a spike here.” (Charles C. Chapman’s 1879 “History of Tazewell County” relates these events at some length.)

Then in 1853, the Illinois River Rail Road Co. was chartered. In October 1856, the city of Pekin voted to give $100,000 to the company, and the railroad finally was opened on July 4, 1859, a whole decade after Pekin’s incorporation as a city and more than 20 years after the first attempts to build a railroad in Pekin. This is how “Pekin Centenary 1849-1949” tells the story:

“In 1858, Bitzer’s lake was drained to make right-of-way for the new Peoria, Pekin and Jacksonville railroad (later the Chicago, Peoria and St. Louis, and today the Chicago and Illinois Midland). The depot was built up on piling where Bitzer’s lake had been, and much of the track there was trestle. The 16-foot ravine cutting across the river front area was filled, and the bridge over it destroyed. . . . The biggest day in that particular era came on July 4, 1859, when the first train finally pulled into Pekin on the new railroad tracks in the midst of a city-wide celebration complete with flags, bands, and a parade.”

Showing some damage and age, this photograph of the old Peoria, Pekin & Jacksonville Railroad depot -- Pekin's first railroad depot -- was taken about 1868 by George Bacon. The depot was built in or around 1859, and stood at the southeast corner of Third and St. Mary streets, now the location of the parking lot behind the Tazewell County Justice Center. Tracks still run past this spot today.

Showing some damage and age, this photograph of the old Peoria, Pekin & Jacksonville Railroad depot — Pekin’s first railroad depot — was taken about 1868 by George Bacon. The depot was built in or around 1859, and stood at the southeast corner of Third and St. Mary streets, now the location of the parking lot behind the Tazewell County Justice Center. Tracks still run past this spot today.

The 1861 City Directory says the line was completed as far as Virginia, Ill., and the fare for the 62-mile trip from Pekin to Virginia was $2.25. Regarding the early railroads in Pekin, “Pekin Centenary” comments, “Only a handful of the railroad crossings were actually ‘crossings’; most of them simply blocked the street effectively, buttressed by six foot drainage ditches along the right-of-way,” and also mentions that the Santa Fe railroad used to run afternoon shuttles out to Pekin’s horse race track which was located on the north side of Broadway in what today is 19th and 20th streets.

The Illinois Valley Railroad Co. (Illinois River Rail Road Co.) was taken over in 1863 by the Pekin, Peoria and Jacksonville Railroad. After several more mergers, it eventually became the Chicago and Illinois Midland. The Peoria and Pekin Union Railway Co. was incorporated in 1880, acquiring “the railroad belonging to the Peoria, Pekin and Jacksonville Railroad Company, from a point known as the Illinois Central Junction switch at Pekin, across the river at Pekin, and northward to the city of Peoria,” according to “One Hundred Years of Service, 1880-1980, Peoria and Pekin Union Railway Company.”

In the Golden Age of Rail, Pekin boasted five train depots. Two of them remain. One of them is the depot on Broadway and Third Streets, built in 1873 by the Pekin, Peoria and Jacksonville Railroad. It’s still in use, though no longer as a railroad depot.

The other is the old Chicago and Alton Railroad Station, built in 1898, a piece of Pekin history that has been saved by being relocated from the area near Broadway and 14th to a plot of ground in Mineral Springs Park along Broadway Road. Newspaper reports tell us that President Herbert Hoover visited Pekin on Nov. 2, 1932, arriving at the “Alton depot which is on Broadway at the east edge of the city.”

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