Knox College Railroads in the Midwest: Early Documents and Images (Knox College)
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About this Collection

Collection Description

From 1861-1890 the nation's railroads grew more rapidly than at any other time. Just before the Civil War, the United States had about 30,600 miles of line; in 1890 steam railroad line measured about 163,000 miles.[1] The men who ran the railroads at this time were cognizant of their roles in the expansion of the American nation and the American economy even as it was being played out. Agents selling bonds for the Chicago, Danville and Vincennes Railroad Company in 1870 said of Illinois that, "Rail-roads have made the State, and the State, with her increased population and productions, is now making a hand-some profit for her rail-roads."[2]

Chicago Danville & Vincennes RR map Documents in this collection covering the early history of railroads in the Midwest, and in Illinois in particular, provide evidence that railroads played the major role in the economic and demographic development pageant of westward expansion. In the 1850s more track was laid in the Midwest, east of the Mississippi River, than in any other part of the country.[3] Early annual reports and recollected histories, such as W. W. Baldwin's remarks on the history of the Burlington Railroad, document the rapid, and indeed, frantic pace of railroad-building that occurred during this period.[4]

Annual reports in this collection also give details about railroad company receipts from freight and passengers, operating expenses, costs of construction of new roads, number and type of cars and equipment on hand. Sometimes reasons given in these reports for cost overruns--the epidemic season, or a supplier not delivering, or the weather causing delays--are interesting tidbits for the study of local history, particularly for towns in the path of advancing railroads in the mid-19th century.

The Fast Mail Trains

In addition to carrying passengers heading west to settle the land, railroad companies in the Midwest carried freight back to the East: lead, coal, iron ore, marble, wheat, corn, hogs and cattle. The railroads also carried mail, providing a public service to the settlers in the new states and territories west of the Mississippi. Henry Farnam, President of the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad Company complained in his 1854 annual report that the U.S. government was dragging its feet on paying the Railroad to carry its mail. "But we have thus far continued to carry the mail," he wrote, "from a desire not to incommode the public, and to give the department time to acquaint itself with the amount and importance of the service required of us."[5]

Fast Mail Train

Photo of the C. B.& Q. fast mail train taken by Allen A. Green.

This collection contains many photographs on and of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy's (C.B. & Q.) fast mail train. Begun in the late 1870s, the fast mail trains from Chicago to points west were mandated by the federal Post Office to deliver mail within a specified period of time. By 1900 the Burlington's fast mail trains reached the Missouri River in just over nine hours.[6]

Many of the photographs of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy trains were taken by Allen A. Green (Knox College class of 1903). Green was, for a time, the C.B. & Q.'s official photographer. He photographed work trains, travelers and crews aboard passenger trains, and the engines, cars and interiors of the fast mail trains. Green pioneered the photography of trains in motion by developing a trigger device that allowed a train to take its own picture.

The Twentieth Century

Steam engine technology progressed as did the laying of track in the first half of the 20th century. In 1911 the 20-driving-wheel engine produced by Baldwin and the Santa Fe was the largest engine up until that point. The first diesel engine was produced in 1925, but didn't catch on until the Pioneer Zephyr of the Burlington Route was unveiled at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933. This digital collection of images and documents celebrates railroad history up to the introduction of the Zephyr.[7]




  1. U.S. Census Office, Compendium of the Eleventh Census: 1890. Part III (Washington, D.C., 1897), 893. And, U.S. Census Office, Statistics of the United States (Including Mortality, Proper, &c.) in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns and Being the Final Exhibit of the Eighth Census, under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior (Washington, D.C., 1866), 323.
  2. Chicago, Danville and Vincennes Railroad Company's $2,500,000 first mortgage sinking fund gold bonds, having 40 years to run, principal and interest payable in United States gold coin (New York: Chicago, Danville and Vincennes Railroad Company, 1870), 4.
  3. George Rogers Taylor and Irene D. Neu, The American Railroad Network 1861-1890 (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2003), 35.
  4. William Wright Baldwin, The making of the Burlington; Remarks of W.W. Baldwin... Before the Burlington Engineers of Lines East Section, American Association of Engineers, at Chicago, July 2, 1920 (Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company, 1920).
  5. Henry Farnam, Annual Report of the President and Directors, to the Stockholders of the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad Co. at the Annual Meeting at Chicago, Dec. 18, 1854, Together with the Reports of the Treasurer and Chief Engineer (New York: Chicago and Rock Island Railroad Company, 1854), 9.
  6. Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company, Burlington Route United States Map Showing Burlington Lines and Connections (Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Company, 1909), 13.
  7. Oliver Jensen, The American Heritage History of Railroads in America (New York: American Heritage, 1975), 268.



Credits: Laurie Sauer and Carley Robison coordinated and managed this project, with direction and guidance from Jeff Douglas, Director of the Knox College Library. Knox College student Heather Roberson provided valuable assistance with scanning materials.

Please send any comments or questions about the materials in the project to archives@knox.edu.