The Street Railways of
Urbana and Champaign, Illinois

Chapter 2

A Railroad for Urbana
1859 — 1890

H. George Friedman, Jr.

Copyright © 2001, 2011 H. George Friedman, Jr.  All rights reserved.
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Without rail connections, the growth of Urbana was stunted, while West Urbana quickly grew to equal and surpass the county seat in size.  Farmers had to travel to West Urbana to ship their produce; it was natural that they would shop there at the same time.  But to transact county business, everyone had to travel to railless Urbana.

An early attempt at a solution to this problem was the establishment of an omnibus line by H. N. Russell and John Gere, about 1855.  J. O. Cunningham described the vehicle as “an omnibus of the regulation pattern,” and reports that it “ran to meet all trains and carried the mails.”  The fare was twenty-five cents.

But the omnibus was inadequate to carry freight between the railroad and the county seat.  Urbanaites therefore sought a branch railroad connecting the two towns.  When established railroads showed no interest in constructing a two-mile branch line, local people decided to do it themselves.  The editor of Our Constitution wrote in his January 8, 1859 issue that he thought there was “more in it than mere talk,” and that he understood that more than $12,000 had been pledged so far.

It was indeed more than talk.  At least, there was enough activity that the state legislature was induced to pass an act of incorporation for the Urbana Railroad Company, which Governor William H. Bissell signed into law on February 24, 1859.  The charter authorized a railroad, not only between Urbana and West Urbana, but also between Urbana and “some point upon the Great Western Railroad.”  It seems to have been assumed that trains would be propelled by steam engines.

The editor of Our Constitution promptly urged that “If our people intend to carry out this project, it is time they were about it.”  However, it seems to have taken time to show concrete results.  In October, the same editor wrote of the “reviving” of talk about building the railroad.  And the editor of the Clarion, the same month, saw fit to print an item on the report of a committee of aldermen of Boston about horse railroads in cities (if Boston, why not Urbana?).  He added: “The road between the two Urbanas will not be half the length of many in the cities, which are found to give satisfaction.”

By February 1860, things did seem to be starting to move.  The Urbana Railroad Company held a meeting of the stock holders on February 16, at which they elected Archa Campbell president, T. S. Hubbard treasurer, A. P. Cunningham secretary, and L. M. Cutcheon, John Gere, Edward Ater, J. W. Sim, and William Park directors.  There was discussion in the newspaper about what route the railroad should take.  One proposed route would run just south of the Springfield Road, the other would run on a direct line across country from the Urbana Mills to the Doane House (the IC depot).  The second route would be a quarter mile shorter, but would require more grading.

During March 1860, the decision on the route was made.  A plat was filed on March 31 for a route running from a tentative eastern terminus just east of the present intersection of Vine and Water Streets, west in the center of Water Street almost to Race Street, then curving southwesterly into the line of Main Street extended, and proceeding due west about 185 feet south of the Springfield Road to a point near present day Third Street.  Here, the route turned to the northwest, crossed Boneyard Creek just northwest of the present intersection of Springfield Avenue and Second Street, and turned again on a long, gradual curve to end on the Illinois Central right of way near the depot.

In all the maps and pictures in this article, click on the map or picture for an enlargement.
Map 2-1.
The plat for the route between downtown Urbana and the Illinois Central depot (the Doane House).  This is copied from Champaign County records.  Unfortunately, it is not as clear as might be wished, but the route is there!  Most of it is a straight east-west line parallel to, and about 185 feet south of, the Springfield Road (later called Springfield Avenue), which is the main east-west street on the map.  This became the private right-of-way for horse and later electric streetcars.  It was known informally as Railroad Street, but it was not a publicly-owned street until after the tracks had been removed.  The next two maps show the west (Champaign) and east (Urbana) ends of the map.
Map 2-1-West.
On the Champaign end, the route left the line parallel to the Springfield Road and curved to the northwest, crossing the Springfield Road and cutting through various lots until it turned into the Illinois Central right-of-way.  Later, the area south of Springfield would be subdivided and a park established, eventually called Scott Park, south of Springfield between Second and Third Streets.  This right-of-way cut the northeast corner of that future park.
Map 2-1-East.
In downtown Urbana, we can see how West Main Street angles off to the northwest, and the streetcar right-of-way stays in a precise east-west straight line with the central portion of Main Street.  The map shows the streetcar line curving across Main Street and entering the west end of Water Street.  However, that portion of the route was never built.  Instead, the track stayed on the line of Main Street and followed Main to the County Courthouse at Market Street (present day Broadway).

Two weeks later, on April 14, 1860, the Clarion announced that the grading was ready to begin.  John G. Brown and Peter S. Collins had contracted to grade the west end, and Michael Sheahan and James Marshall were to grade the middle part, while the company itself would grade the eastern end of the route.  In his 1905 history, Judge Cunningham says that “Many citizens, in their enthusiasm and determination, turned out and worked upon the grading and bridging with no other incentive than that of helping their town to a railroad connection.”  The Clarion enthused that soon “the snort of the iron horse will be heard in our streets.”

For the next several months, the newspapers reported steadily on the progress of the grading.  They also reported the periodic calls of the company for payment of installments on the stock which had been subscribed, so as to pay for the grading.  In June, the Clarion reported that the western end was ready for the ties, and the eastern end was approaching completion.

Campbell was trying to raise additional capital for the purchase of the iron for the tracks.  The Urbana city council on March 21 called an election on a proposition that the city subscribe to $10,000 of stock in the Urbana Railroad Company.  The election was held on April 14, and the proposition passed.  So on August 1 (no explanation for the delay is known), the city council passed an ordinance providing for the sale of bonds to finance the stock purchase, and establishing other details of the transaction, and another pledging that the city would not subscribe to the stock of any other railroad until these bonds were retired.

The report of these actions of the city council in the August 4, 1860 Clarion is the last newspaper mention of the railroad for almost two years.  Suddenly, the whole project seems to have died.  The grading was complete, the ties were on the ground; but Campbell was unable to raise the capital needed for rails.  Apparently, the young city's bonds were not particularly attractive to capitalists, and the outbreak of the Civil War was the final blow.

In the meantime, the old omnibus line continued in operation, but under new management.  We read in the Champaign County Democrat (new name of the Clarion) on March 30, 1861, that Messers. Russell and Gere had sold the line to Dr. A. Sweeney & Co.  “The new company design making some four or five trips each way, every day.”  The fare was reduced to “the extremely low price of ten cents.”

In May, 1862, efforts to complete the railroad were resumed, and the bonds were again offered for sale.  But on June 5, the Democrat reported that they were selling very slowly.  There matters languished for almost another year.

Then a New York financier and railroad man, Nathan Randall, entered the picture.  The terms of the agreement with Randall were embodied in an ordinance passed by the Urbana city council and approved by Mayor Edward Ater on March 18, 1863.  This ordinance begins as a fairly routine franchise ordinance, granting to the Urbana Railroad Company “the right of way” in Main Street, Race Street, Market Street (present day Broadway), the first alley north of Main Street, and “any street or alley over or through which the road bed is now constructed” (presumably, Water Street).  The road must be completed by September 1, 1863.  The remainder of this ordinance was anything but routine.  It specified that Randall was to provide $7000 worth of rails for the track, and was to build the road and have it in operation by September 1.  In return, all city owned stock was to be transferred to Randall, plus $4600 in interest-bearing city bonds.  Finally, “the road bed, track, rolling stock, ties,” and all lots, lands, and improvements “made for rail road purposes,” were exempted from all city taxes for the life of the company.

These extraordinary provisions show us how much the citizens of Urbana wanted the railroad completed.  Judge Cunningham later put it this way:

This railroad, built by the means contributed by the citizens, but given to one who had the ready money to put the project in motion, was worth more than it cost to Urbana; and was, without doubt, the means of staying and of finally defeating the agitation for the removal of the county seat. It effectually laid the closeted ghost, which for years threatened to materialize in the destruction of the town.
Thus, the road was finally completed.  The Patriot (another name change for the Democrat, formerly the Clarion) reported on April 23 that the contracts had been signed, on June 11 that ties were being laid, and on June 25 that the road bed had been “extended up the line of the Central to the Doane House in Champaign.”  On August 13, the Union and Gazette reported that “the iron ... has arrived, and the contractor is engaged in laying it down.”  The company's first car was delivered on August 17, pulled by mules on its own track.

Finally, on August 31, the day before the franchise deadline, the long awaited first revenue runs were made between the court house in Urbana and the Doane House in Champaign.  The conductor was a man named Rees R. Taylor, who had previously operated a one-horse dray hauling freight from the Doane House to Urbana.  The driver, who is known to history only as Fritz, furnished the team under contract.  Supposedly, that first team consisted of a horse and a mule.  The first day's revenue included $6.35 for passengers and 10¢ for freight; total disbursements were 50¢ for some locks.

A primary reason for building the road was, of course, to have a freight connection to the Illinois Central.  According to Judge Cunningham, IC freight cars were switched onto a side track near the depot, from which they were hauled by horse or mule teams to Urbana, and back to Champaign.  However, the company's first operating business ledger, which has survived, shows that freight receipts were a minor part of the company's total income.

[This chapter is incomplete.]

Picture 2-1.
In the mid-1800s, horsecar no. 6 starts out on the two-mile trip from the old Champaign County courthouse in Urbana to the Illinois Central depot, the Doane House, in Champaign.  Notice the track: next to the courthouse sidewalk here at the end of the line, it turned into the center of Main Street and proceeded through downtown Urbana.  The car is apparently a double-end car pulled by two horses and carrying a two-man crew of driver and conductor.  Our view is looking south.  This is the only known picture of a Champaign-Urbana horsecar.  — Brink, McDonough, History of Champaign County.
Pictures 2-2 and 2-3.
The only remnant of the horsecar line remaining in the community is this little bridge, on which the horsecars crossed the Boneyard Creek near the present day northwest corner of Second Street and Springfield Avenue in Champaign.  These pictures show its appearance on November 30, 1971.  The upper picture looks toward the bridge from the north, the lower picture from the south.  At this time, the land on each side of the bridge was privately owned.  The bridge had deteriorated greatly over the years, and the owner had erected a wooden rail to discourage people from crossing the bridge. — Photos by the author
Pictures 2-4 through 2-7.
The Champaign Park District eventually acquired the deteriorated bridge and the land around it, and created a mini-park on the site, centered on the bridge.  Volunteer stonemasons rebuilt the crumbling bridge.  Unfortunately, they took a few minor liberties with its design.  As these pictures show, the rebuilt bridge has a much higher crown than it had before.  In fact, the crown is now too high to have been practical for the use of horse cars.  Still, the bridge was saved in something close to its original form.  As can be seen in the second of these four pictures, a concrete stair was built, with safety railings, so that a visitor could gain a view of the interior of the bridge.  The two top pictures look toward the north and northeast; the third picture looks northwest, approximately along the line of the original right-or-way; and the bottom picture looks toward the south. — Photos by the author
Pictures 2-8 and 2-9.
In 2010, the City of Champaign, as part of its improvement plans for the Boneyard Creek drainage system, constructed a landscaped water detention basin along Second Street and Boneyard Creek from Springfield Ave. to University Ave.  This included the Stone Arch Bridge and all the land around it.  These pictures, taken June 29, 2011, show the results.  The bridge is essentially unchanged from its previous rebuilding, but everything around it has been changed, and railings have been added to both sides of the bridge.  The top photo looks southward, the bottom photo to the north.  There is a nearby pumping station which feeds a water cascade that flows under the bridge, as well as another and larger cascade a block further north.  These serve both an aesthetic purpose and a practical one, oxygenating the water of the creek.  Curiously, the direction of water flow under the bridge is now south to north, the opposite of the original direction of the Boneyard Creek, though the creek water itself continues to flow north to south.  The result is a park-like atmosphere that is suitable for recreation when not dealing with the flood problem that formerly plagued this area. — Photos by the author

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