This section draws from Roald
Tweet’s essay, “Building a Mighty Fine Line,” in the 2004 book,
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
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.
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.
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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