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Building the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad

This section draws from Roald Tweet’s essay, “Building a Mighty Fine Line,” in the 2004 book, Grand Excursions on the Upper Mississippi River.

The beginnings of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad trace back to a meeting in June of 1845 at the home of Colonel George Davenport on the island of Rock Island (now Arsenal Island). Amongst those present at the meeting were Judge James Grant and Ebenezer Cook, Davenport lawyers; A. C. Fulton, a Davenport storekeeper and entrepreneur; Lemuel Andrews and P. A. Whittaker, Rock Island businessmen; and Charles Atkinson, one of the founders of the town of Moline just east of Rock Island. The men were well aware of all the railroads rushing east toward Chicago. Was it time for Rock Island, Davenport, and Moline to get into the railroad business? For Judge Grant and most of the others, a small, eighty-mile railroad from Rock Island on the Mississippi to the Illinois and Michigan Canal at La Salle would permit direct access to Chicago and Lake Michigan. A railroad would serve, not compete with, the older waterways.

Plans for a Rock Island railroad were halted less than a month later when, on July 4, 1845, George Davenport was murdered in his home by bandits. It was not until early in 1847 that Judge Grant and his partners were ready to petition the Illinois Legislature for a charter for the Rock Island-to-La Salle route.

Progress on the road was slow, partly because of difficulty in raising funds from investors along the route. Then in the fall of 1850, Grant contacted one of the most respected railroad contractors in the United States, Henry Farnam of New Haven, Connecticut. Farnam and Joseph Sheffield, a partner who subsequently would help finance the road, became convinced that of all the possible rail routes to the Mississippi and beyond, this was the best. Further, the narrow part of the river between Rock Island and Davenport, with a limestone island to use as a stepping-stone, was the most logical place for a bridge. A railroad here could be more than a spur to La Salle, it could become transcontinental. With the involvement of Farnam and Sheffield, funding would come from eastern investors.

Route and dates of completion, Chicago and Rock Island Railroads


Work began on October 1, 1851 and by October 1, 1852, the forty miles of track was complete to Joliet. On Sunday morning, October 10, a locomotive dubbed the Rocket left Chicago, pulling six yellow coaches. It reached Joliet in two hours and after a brief celebration, returned to Chicago. On September 12, 1853, the rail line reached Bureau, where they met tracks heading toward Peoria, forty-seven miles south. Further west, where a station was necessary to provide the frequent water and fuel supply needed by the locomotives, Joseph Sheffield and several investors, including Henry Farnam and Judge Grant, bought a large tract of land adjacent to the railroad right of way, and established the town of Sheffield. Local lore in Sheffield suggests that the two men flipped a coin to name the town, with Farnam coming out the loser.


Plaques at Sheffield, Illinois installed for the 70th Anniversary of the
Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, 1922. (2001 photos)


As the tracks approached Moline in January of 1854, Farnam suggested February 22, Washington’s Birthday, as a fitting date to mark the completion of the railroad. The Rock Island City Council appropriated $1,000 for the celebration, and set up committees to handle invitations, housing, meals, and programs. By 5:00 p.m. on February 22, hundreds of Rock Islanders, many of whom had never even seen a picture of a train, had assembled on the station grounds to meet the train. The gaily-decorated locomotive pulled six yellow passenger cars, crammed full of joyful guests from Chicago waving flags and handkerchiefs. A second equally decorated locomotive followed, pulling five cars of guests picked up along the route from Chicago.

At the celebration, Napoleon B. Buford, a Rock Island iron-founder and banker, was President of the Day. He arose to propose thirteen official toasts. According to the Rock Island Weekly Republican (March 1, 1854), The toasts began with a salute to “February 22, Washington’s Birthday.” The second toast was to “February 22, the espousal day of the Mississippi River and the Atlantic Ocean. May no vandal hands ever break the connection.” And Napoleon Buford raised a toast “to the Rock Island and La Salle Railroad-- It never met death, but was translated.”

For Rock Islanders, this Washington’s Birthday celebration was much grander than the Grand Excursion held the following June, and received far more publicity in the local press. The Grand Excursion of June 1854 was a national event, planned by Sheffield, Farnam, and the railroad. February 22 was largely a Rock Island affair. On July 10, 1854, a month after the Grand Excursion, Joseph Sheffield and Henry Farnam officially turned over the completed Chicago and Rock Island Railroad to the corporation.

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