2.5. THE CENTRAL RAILROAD: THE ST. LOUIS CUT-OFF

Meanwhile, within a year of Bucklin’s having been given his task to cost out the canal options in 1831, the first proposal for a railroad in Illinois surfaced in the Illinois legislature.  However, the proposal was not an alternative to the canal, but one that aimed at strengthening the chances of the canal’s success. Illinois’ Lieutenant Governor A. M. Jenkins foreshadowed the coming battle between St. Louis and the yet-to-be chartered town of Chicago by proposing what was to become referred to as the “St. Louis Cut-off:” a “Central” railroad from the end of the canal at La Salle straight south through the center of the state to the junction of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.  St. Louis’ location at the junction of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers had naturally allowed it to become the economic capital in the trans-Mississippi Valley as it was much less expensive to travel and ship goods to the Atlantic seaboard via the Mississippi downriver to New Orleans than it was either overland or via the Ohio River upriver to Pittsburgh and then overland to the Atlantic.  Therefore, the majority of Illinois’ early settlement had economically gravitated toward St. Louis.  St. Louis’ economic position would be vastly enhanced with the construction of the Illinois & Michigan Canal, for the Illinois River joined the Mississippi at Alton, IL, just upriver from St. Louis.  Great Lakes traffic via the Illinois River, therefore, destined either for the West would have to pass St. Louis on its way to the Missouri River, or for the South would have to pass St. Louis on its way to Memphis or New Orleans.  Hence, St. Louis’ political leaders had all thrown their support behind the Federal improvements of the Chicago canal.

The first proposed route for the Central Railroad started at the end of the planned Illinois & Michigan Canal at La Salle (top dot) and ended at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers (lower dot). (Online)

Thus, the proposed canal presented a political problem for those politicians who wanted to unify the new state, for the presence of St. Louis tended to divide Illinois into the southern half that naturally gravitated toward St. Louis (and was pro-slavery), and the emerging northern half that in the western portion centered around Galena, that although being larger than St. Louis, was still dependent on St. Louis’ connections with New Orleans as it shipped its lead down the Mississippi.

The politicians whose goal was to build Chicago and its canal as a political counterbalance to St. Louis in the northeastern portion of Illinois, therefore, eventually had to trick St. Louis into supporting the canal, and then stab its older competitor in the back by building an alternative means of transporting goods in the southern half of the state.  Water in a canal has no current, however, and once having secured St. Louis’ support in gaining the Federal aid, Illinois’ leaders now began their campaign to bypass the river city’s central position in the region by diverting traffic away from St. Louis with the proposed Central Railroad, and thereby reroute the state’s inland traffic either north through the Chicago canal or south via the proposed railroad to Cairo (at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers).  Thus, the Central Railroad was planned to gain more Downstate legislative support for the canal scheme, that up until this time had been viewed as one that would benefit only the northern half of the state.  Lacking initial support, however, the Central Railroad proposal would lay dormant for three years, until a political compromise would finally break the political logjam over the construction of the canal.

FURTHER READING:

Andreas, Alfred T. History of Chicago, 3 vols. Chicago, 1884-1886. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Fergus, Robert, Fergus’ Historical Series, No. 18: Chicago River – And – Harbor Convention, Chicago, 1882.

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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