When the Iron Horse Came to Town

Chicago’s first railroad was set to travel through Galena, straight through Rockford. But even in the 1830s, bringing rail service to Rockford was no easy work. Learn how it happened the first time.

Pioneer, now on display at the Chicago History Museum, was the first locomotive to rumble along the Galena and Chicago Union railroad lines.

We know Galena, Ill., today as a quaint small town in Jo Daviess County, a county that the glacier forgot to flatten, leaving hills, streams and picturesque scenery for tourists to enjoy. But in the 1830s, Galena was a boom town with a population of 10,000. It was the biggest town in northern Illinois and had easy access to the Mississippi River.
The word “galena” means “lead ore,” and the town is named for the mineral that created the first metal rush in the country. Chicago, at that time, had a population of about 200 people, many of them employed at Fort Dearborn. Even Rockford, with 235 inhabitants, was bigger than Chicago. However, Chicago’s location on the shore of Lake Michigan was a promising one commercially, at a time when waterways were the principal routes of heavy freight. It didn’t take long for the idea of a railroad between Chicago and Galena to take shape.
In January 1836, a charter was issued to construct either a single- or double-track railroad, to be named the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad Company, with a capital stock of $100,000 and privilege to increase capitalization to a figure not exceeding $1 million. It would be the first railroad built from Chicago. Rockford, briefly called “Midway” because it was halfway between the two railroad termini, could expect to receive rail service, too. A year later, a survey of the route began. It got as far as the Des Plaines River before the money ran out and work was suspended in 1838, to the great disappointment of citizens in the Rock River Valley.
It was years later, in January 1846, that a convention was held in Rockford, attended by delegates from Cook, DeKalb, McHenry, Rock, Ogle, Boone, Lee, Kane, Stephenson, Jo Daviess and Winnebago counties, for the purpose of raising money by selling stock, especially to farmers and businesses on the route.
Attempts to sell the stock were met with skepticism from people who knew of the failures of other fledgling railroads, and with opposition from men who had invested heavily in a canal that ultimately failed. And, many businessmen feared the railroad would draw business from their cities to points west.
Among those who had faith that the railroad would increase the value of their holdings were farmers’ wives, who bought stock with their egg money, on an installment plan. William B. Ogden, who held office as the first mayor of Chicago in 1837 and 1838, was prominent in the 1847 subscription drive to fund the rail venture. (His memory and name are preserved by a major thoroughfare, Chicago’s Ogden Avenue.)
By September 1848, the finances at Galena & Chicago Union Railroad were improved enough that the directors bought two engines. The “Pioneer” was the first, unloaded from a ship on Lake Michigan and used initially for hauling construction equipment. The Pioneer retired after serving on the railroad for many years. In 1893, it came out of retirement to be exhibited at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition along with its first engineer, John Ebert, and attracted a great deal of attention as an example of a primitive locomotive.
By 1850, the railroad had reached Elgin, and on Monday, Aug. 2, 1852, a train on those tracks arrived in Rockford. Clanging church bells and roaring cannons greeted the snorting iron horse. It would be a boon to Rockford industries. This railroad was built out from Chicago, with no corresponding construction from Galena, and it never did reach Galena under its founding name. Instead, the Illinois Central, in 1858, bought the right of way. Such changes in railroad ownership were commonplace at the time. Charles Church, in his 1900 History of Rockford and Winnebago County, wrote, “The system owned and operated by the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company, as it exists at the present time, is a consolidation of not less than 45 distinct roads.”
By 1856, prominent Rockford businessmen such as C.C. Briggs, C.H. Spafford, Jesse Blinn, David Penfield, Seely Perry and others felt that the rates charged by the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad were too high, and planned to break the monopoly by building a competing road from Kenosha, on Lake Michigan, to Rockford and Rock Island. They sold shares at $100 each, and in January 1857 received a charter, just in time for an economic depression that slowed construction. Nonetheless, a banquet at the Holland House in Rockford, on Nov. 21, 1859, celebrated the entry of the Kenosha and Rockford Railroad into town. The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad soon absorbed both of the competing roads in Rockford.
The 1860s and ’70s were a time of tumult in the railroad business, as competing lines struggled for supremacy. There were mergers and bankruptcies, allegations of corruption, financial scandals and skullduggery of all kinds. In Rockford, there were many plans, mostly on paper, to build railroads. The most ambitious of these was the Rockford, Rock Island and East St. Louis. Bonds were issued, routes were surveyed but the tracks never were laid. It reminds us of the airlines that nowadays appear, go bankrupt, and get swallowed up by larger companies, or else consolidate and change ownership.
The Rockford Central Railroad was incorporated on March 4, 1869, with Ralph Emerson, one of Rockford’s greatest business minds, as one of its board members. The road was to connect with the Illinois Central at Mendota, on through Rochelle and Rockford to join Wisconsin roads at the border. June 26, 1871 was the date of the formal groundbreaking, amid more booming cannons and ringing bells, but by January 1872, that railroad was history.
However, Emerson and others from that board formed the Chicago and Superior Railroad. When local money was not sufficient, James Campbell, the president of the road, and Robert H. Tinker (of Swiss Cottage fame) went to London in 1873 to negotiate the sale of bonds. A general financial panic that year defeated their efforts, but on Feb. 24, 1874, Robert Tinker received a letter from F. E. Hinkley, president of the Chicago and Iowa Railroad. Hinkley, a man of vision and for whom the town of Hinkley is named, proposed a branch running from Rochelle to Rockford, to be named Rockford Central, with Robert Tinker as general manager.
Tinker vigorously promoted the idea and the citizens of Rockford responded generously, buying $200,000 worth of bonds. But the name had been used earlier, so in November a new charter was secured under the name of the Chicago, Rockford and Northern Railroad (CR&N). With his popularity possibly enhanced by his work with the railroads, in May 1875, Tinker was elected mayor of Rockford. Concerning the CR&N Railroad, historian Charles Church wrote, “The work of construction was pushed with energy. The bridge was completed over Rock River at Rockford in July 1875. Trains were running a few days later, and thus, after many years, Rockford’s dream of a new railroad was realized. The final success of the Chicago, Rockford & Northern was due in no small measure to R. H. Tinker.” On March 5, 1877, Tinker became president of the CR&N Railroad.
The Chicago & Iowa Railroad then leased all of the CR&N equipment and the road was ever after called the Chicago and Iowa, with the Chicago, Rockford & Northern name surviving only in its charter. Financing the road was at least as difficult as installing the track and it wasn’t long before trouble set in. Twice, bond issues of the CR&N were foreclosed. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad came to Rockford in 1881 and tried to take possession of the Chicago and Iowa depot. It claimed that the lease between the Chicago & Iowa and the Chicago, Rockford & Northern was not valid.
After much legal tussling, judges decided against the Milwaukee Road, whereupon the Milwaukee built a track from Rockton to Rockford and entered the city from the north, then leased C & I tracks running from Davis Junction and came into Rockford from the south. This arrangement continued until 1892, when the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy absorbed the Chicago & Iowa and operated the line under its own name.
By 1886, the Illinois Central Railroad (known as “the wrong way railroad” because it ran north and south instead of the usual east and west) decided to turn west at Chicago and go through Elgin, Rockford and Freeport and travel north to Madison, Wis.
As the Illinois Central approached Rockford, Tinker realized that the railroad’s best route through the city would be to follow Kent Creek from the Rock River, bisecting one of the town’s most scenic areas, where the manicured and blooming properties belonging to the Manny, Withrow and Tinker families all joined to form a virtual 21-acre park along South Main Street and the creek. Tinker had his Swiss Cottage south of the creek, safely on the bluff, but his wife, Mary, the widow of inventor John H. Manny, owned a grand estate on the north side, and for several years the family had lived in her house in the summer and in Tinker’s house in the winter. A footbridge connected the two houses.
The Swiss Cottage was not in the path of the railroad, but Mary’s exquisite formal garden, designed by famous landscape gardener John Blair, was. We don’t know how Mary felt about Robert’s intent to sell her land to the I.C. She could have said “Not in my front yard,” but apparently she didn’t. The land went for $60,000, and some years later, to make room for a train depot, her large buff brick, vine-covered mansion was sold to the I.C. for $15,000 and torn down in 1900. The Gothic Withrow house was moved to Corey’s Bluff, south of the city, and was destroyed by fire in 1901. Thus, beauty was sacrificed for commerce; busy railroad tracks and freight yards replaced flowering shrubs and lush flower beds.
But the railroads still weren’t done despoiling the scenery. In July 1904, the Rockford Daily Republic reported plans of the Illinois, Iowa & Minnesota Railroad (I. I. & M) to lay track on the south side of Kent Creek, destroy Tinker Swiss Cottage and its extensive gardens, and put a passenger station and railroad yards in their place.
Now Tinker, the outspoken promoter of railroads, who had sold his wife’s home and gardens to the I.C. seemingly with no second thought, was outraged. Officials of the I. I. & M. declared, “The railroad will take that cottage, and there is no doubt of that … You know that beauty must be sacrificed to utility …”
Tinker publicly responded in the newspaper: “If the officials of the Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota Railway think they can get this property from me peacefully, if they think they can tear away this Swiss Cottage without a struggle on my part, they are mistaken. If those railroad men come around here, they will find a cannon loaded with grape shot pointed their way.”
His cottage and the gardens he had designed and planted along the creek for the enjoyment of I. C. passengers were well known both to local residents and to travelers from all over the country. Railroad conductors always pointed them out to riders as they passed through the city.
Tinker won that skirmish, though we know not how. His Swiss Cottage still stands on the bluff and there are no train stations on the south side of the creek.
Today, freight trains still rumble past the Cottage on what is now the Canadian National tracks, but the surrounding area is nearly barren, its future uncertain.
Proposals of renewed passenger service for Elgin, Rockford, Freeport and Dubuque have been discussed at length and for many years, but so far we still drive our cars or ride a bus to Chicago.