Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Macomb & Western Illinois Railway: One of Forgottonia's Forgotten Railways

There are many abandoned railroad lines and forgotten railroad companies all across the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and indeed all across the world. Many of these companies never even operated a railroad for a single day.

The reasons for abandonment of a particular stretch of railway could be a blog of its own, as each and every right of way has its own unique story, and economic factors which resulted in its demise. That said, the advent of paved roads and the trucking industry is a common factor in the abandonment of many tiny lines.

" Railroad Short Train circa 1905" Image: WIU Archives & Special Collections
Such is the case of the Macomb & Western Illinois Railway, known later in its life as the Macomb Industry & Litteton Railway, although one could also point to its poor construction and rural corridor as factors as well. Today we'll explore the relatively short life of this former line in the middle of Forgottonia.

The north end of the M&WI as depicted on the 1914 USGS Topo Map
The line first ran in late 1903, as a way for farmers of Western Illinois to get their yields to connect with the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad at Macomb.

The line's south end at Littleton in 1925, after it become the MI&L. (USGS Rushville 1925 Topo Map)
It was originally supposed to be an interurban electric railway in the same vein as the Illinois Traction System. The line didn't have sufficient capital to develop the electric infrastructure necessary, and thus was built as a gas locomotive powered line instead. This meant much of the right of way was next to, or in the middle of, local streets, angering property owners.

Image: Johnson St in Macomb, IL, along the line's original ROW. Image: WIU Archives & Special Collections
In Macomb, the original ROW was located on Johnson St, connecting with the CB&Q, before a westerly bypass of the town was built, scars of which can still be seen on satellite imagery. 

Image: Google My Maps
As can be inferred from the MI&L name, the line connected Littleton and Industry with Macomb, with additional stops at Henderson, Andrews, Four Mile, and Runkle. A map (not mine) of the right of way is pictured below, showing the locations of the stops. A northerly street running link to Western Illinois State Normal School, now known as Western Illinois University, was planned but never built.



While the line wouldn't run until 1903, a couple proposals for the road came much earlier, as the area between Macomb and Littleton was one of the widest stretches of land not served by rail in Western Illinois, according to Frank Hicks' book on the railroad, The Little Road: The Story of the Macomb Industry & Littleton Railway


The cover photo of Hicks' book, this scene depicts the M&WI #2 at Littleton in 1905 or 1906. Image: WIU Archives
Colonel J.M Piper proposed constructing a line from Macomb to the Mississippi River in 1895, which would have ran through Industry, Camden, Mt. Sterling, Perry, Griggsville, Detroit and Pearl, naming the proposal the St Louis Perry & Chicago Railroad. Such a road was never constructed, and only Pearl and Griggsville of the towns mentioned above has any rail service today. Mt. Sterling once a Wabash line run through it, but that is now abandoned between Meredosia and Elvaston, IL. Construction on the road actually began in 1896, but was soon quickly stopped when it became obvious that there wasn't enough funds to fully finance the line. The Burlington purchased the company and shelved the project.

When electric lines became viable alternatives to steam early in the 20th century, the proposal for a Macomb-Littleton rail link gained traction once again, even though it ultimately became a steam operation. It was powered by a gasoline locomotive, making it one of the first combustion engines in railroad service. (Hicks p.17). Even in spite of its gas power, it was still known to locals as The Electric Road.

In 1905, a small wreck occurred south of Industry along the line. Fireman James Hodges suffered a broken foot as a result.

Image: WIU Archives & Special Collections
Derailments were common along the line. Like many smaller lines, the road was poorly constructed, and the line had to speed construction along to open by the end of 1903.


DECLINE:
As stated before, not everyone was a fan of this line, particularly those who owned property adjacent to the right of way. Just one year into its operation, its gas engine was destroyed in a fire. The Macomb & Western Illinois, like many railroads, would not be long for the world.

By 1910, the M&WI had folded. The majority of its assets were owned by the now-bankrupt Bank of Macomb, and the line was acquired by the Chicago House Wrecking Company, who wanted to abandon the line and sell it for scrap material.

The farmers along the route purchased it instead and reorganized it in 1913 as the Macomb Industry & Littleton Railway.

Macomb, Industry, and Littleton Railroad #6. Image: WIU Archives & Special Collections
While the line would last longer than its predecessor, with new competition from the trucking industry, traffic along the line declined significantly, and this problem was further compounded by an aging infrastructure. By 1930 the line would make its last run, and the year afterward would see the right of way torn up, with all but one locomotive having been scrapped.

Image: WIU Archives & Special Collections
If you enjoyed today's blog and wish to delve further into this little line, I highly suggest reading Frank Hicks' book mentioned earlier on it. At 86 pages it was his Senior Thesis at Western Illinois University, and covers the history of this road much more than I can in the span of a few hundred words.

Thanks as always for reading!




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