Monday, June 14, 2010

Workin' On the Railroad

[reprinted from the Henry Hoffman Family News of January 2002]

Henry Hoffman arrived in Illinois as the railroads boomed

When Henry Hoffman arrived in the U.S. in 1854, according to his 1889 biographical sketch, he “soon made his way to Chicago believing that the Great West offered the best opportunity for the poor man to acquire a home.  On his arrival in Chicago, he secured work on a grading train, and made his way to Scales Mound in [Jo Daviess] county.  Here he determined to make for himself a home, and, returning to Chicago to get his baggage, he came back to Scales Mound, and upon getting there had but twenty cents in his pocket.”

If Henry only had twenty cents, he needed other work. In an 1854 U.S. Gazetteer is the tantalizing statement in the description of Galena, Jo Daviess County: “A branch of the Central railroad from Peru to Galena is about to be constructed.” The grading train on which he worked his way from Chicago was probably part of the construction of the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad to Freeport, or the Illinois Central from Freeport to Galena.

From the map you can see that in 1850 Illinois had barely begun the construction of rail lines, the total perhaps 120 miles, none extending across state lines. The newspaper in New York when Henry arrived in March of 1854 advertised rail travel to Chicago with connections to St. Louis or Dubuque, Iowa, but there were still no bridges then and much had yet to be constructed. Henry's arrival coincided perfectly with the expansion of rail lines in Illinois and the development that followed.

The Illinois Central Railroad (IC), a private company, was chartered by the state of Illinois in 1851 and from the state received the first federal land grant for railroad construction. The interior of Illinois was then thinly settled and the railroad was expected to encourage development and provide cheap transportation of grain and livestock for the settlers. Of course the railroads needed the new customers as well.

The charter to Illinois Central did not dictate the route which had been chosen to run north-south, but did require the inclusion of five specific places: Galena and Dubuque, Chicago, Cairo in the south and the southern terminus of the Illinois and Michigan canal. This last was an eye-opener for me—what was this canal and where was the terminus?

Actually, it might be a bit of a puzzle solution. The canal ran from Chicago to La Salle or Peru in central Illinois on the Illinois River linking Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. The two towns fought over designation for the railroad and I'm still not sure which won. Finally though I see how Peru could be an important place, first as part of the important waterway transport and then for the railroad. The 1854 gazetteer says the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad intersected the IC there and I've seen an historic map that makes it look like a major junction. Finally we might understand how Henry Hoffman came to marry a woman there and even file his naturalization papers in La Salle County.

Segments of the IC were completed and a painting of a work crew in 1856 shows piles of ties and a tent town along the rails. Fourteen miles of track from Warren to Scales Mound was done on Sept. 11, 1854, so was probably where Henry worked. The railroad opened in September 1856, but it was only partially completed. It wouldn't have been a comfortable ride.

By 1860 Illinois supported many miles of rail lines all across the state in a network that played an important role in support of the Union Army during the Civil War. Bridges did eventually span the Mississippi River carrying the trains, but the first to do so at Rock Island, Illinois, was destroyed by a steamer, thought by many to have struck the bridge intentionally.

Steamboat owners and all those connected to river and canal traffic were fighting a strategic battle against the railroads in which the Mississippi bridges were vital. The owners of the ship that struck and burned the bridge sued the railroad claiming the bridge caused a change to the river currents that swept the riverboat out of control.

The case came to trial in Chicago on Sept. 1, 1857 with the railroad represented by Springfield, Illinois, lawyer Abraham Lincoln. The case is now represented as pitting Northern versus Southern economic interests as stifling the railroads would continue shipping of Midwestern produce southward on the rivers making St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans national centers of trade. But victory of the railroads took that flow eastward making Chicago and New York primary markets.

I found it amazing to imagine the country at that point when shipping was on rivers and canals. Henry Hoffman's part in the building of Illinois rail lines was small, but he would have endorsed the shift away from the south that benefited the north in the Civil War.

Henry's selection of Derinda Township over Scales Mound in Jo Daviess County took him somewhat away from the railroad, but as he later specialized in the Chicago yearling market for his calf production, he was able to benefit from the railroad's existence.

Brought to light by the World War I draft registrations was that nearly all the men of the family in Savanna, Illinois, and La Crosse, Wisconsin, worked for the railroad. So while the first generation made use of building the railroad, the following generations became part of it.

Jacob Benz's son George in Savanna and Henry Benz in La Crosse were employed by the CB&Q while the others (La Crosse: Louis Kjarsgaard; Savanna: Lawrence O'Neal, Harry Hoffman, Clarence Bowers, Otto Grill and Rudolph Hoffman) worked for the CM & St. P. I reported these facts, but was chagrined (having been drilled on railroad abbreviations as a child) to have no idea what the acronyms stood for. Of course it was easy to learn about these railroads and the Library of Congress even has historic maps of their routes on the Internet.

Burlington Route. The CB&Q was The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (or just the Burlington) an 1856 merger of four short lines near Chicago. It was a line that expanded through land grants and also remained fiscally sound. In 1970 the CB & Q merged into the Burlington Northern Railroad along with the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific. Burlington Northern merged again in 1995 with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad creating the current BNSF railroad.

Perhaps the Burlington's best-known achievement took place in 1934 with the introduction of the Pioneer Zephyr - America's first diesel-powered streamlined passenger train.

The Milwaukee Road. The CM & St. P was the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific (the last “P” a later addition) and was in fact a familiar face when I saw its logo. A Granger Railroad like the CB & Q, its focus was the midwestern farmland.  The CM & St. P did not fare as well financially as it underwent bankruptcy at several points, the final blow coming in 1977. Thousands of miles of line were abandoned and what remained was sold to the Soo Line in 1986.

Sadly 1970s hopes of revival of U.S. passenger trains have not been realized.

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