The railroad’s entry into Chicago from the east, however, was just the tip of the iceberg of the battle being fought between a number of competing railroad companies at this moment, for by the start of 1850, an economic and real estate boom in Chicago had been unleashed by the anticipation of the arrival of the railroads from the East.  The interest in building a railroad to the Pacific had increased exponentially only the year before with the discovery of Gold in California, but the real prize being fought over during the second half of 1850 was which group of investors would gain control of the largesse of 2.5 million acres of Illinois prairie (that consisted of a 200′ wide right-of-way and the even-numbered sections within six miles of both sides of the right-of-way) recently earmarked by the Federal government to finance the construction of the Illinois Central Railroad, for Sen. Stephen Douglas, Rep. John Wentworth, and Justin Butterfield, Commissioner of the Federal Land Office, had finally succeeded in getting the Federal government to approve the project on September 20, 1850, culminating a seven-year campaign in Washington by some of Illinois’ ablest legislators.

Map of the Illinois Landgrant to the Illinois Central Railroad. (Online) The Federal government was giving to a private company the even-numbered sections in the bordering six-mile wide swath on both sides of the railroad’s route: 2.5 million acres.

Sidney Breese, who together with Darius Holbrook were the original company’s two major investors and had been some of the earliest supporters of the IC since 1836, had been elected to the U.S. Senate in November 1842, where he was named as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Lands, the ideal position to eventually promote the Central Railroad proposal.  One of his first acts was to sponsor a bill in 1844 to study the feasibility of building a Federal Naval Depot on the Mississippi River at Cairo, IL, at the mouth of the Ohio River, that if constructed, could help justify the construction of the Central Railroad in the future with the aid of a Federal land grant so that it would link the new depot with Lake Michigan.  By this date, Stephen Douglas had joined John Wentworth in the House of Representatives, who could offer their combined support to the campaign as well.  The following year, Douglas had published his open letter to Asa Whitney, outlining his plan to construct a transcontinental railroad from Chicago.  In 1846, Breese, as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Lands, had published the first Congressional study of just such a railroad.  Douglas then joined Breese in the Senate following his election in November 1846, and once in the Senate, Douglas made the Central Railroad his top priority.  He had, however, become suspicious of Breese and Holbrook’s motives with the project, believing that their land speculation in Cairo was more important than the successful completion of the railroad, and, therefore, had proposed a bill that differed from the bill that Breese was sponsoring in two important ways.

The Route of the Illinois Central: 1850-1856. (Johnson & Supple, Boston Capitalists)

Douglas appreciated, more than most, the geopolitical advantage that Chicago would gain if it, rather than St. Louis became the intersection of an east-west transcontinental railroad with the Great Lakes and the north-south running IC linking Lake Michigan to the Gulf of Mexico, via the Mississippi River albeit downriver from St. Louis.  In order to gain support for the Central Railroad from both Northeast Illinois, as well as from the northern states that surrounded the Great Lakes, Douglas added an amendment into his bill that allowed the company to build a branch line from Centralia into Chicago (that was not part of the company’s original charter that called for the line to connect with the canal at its western terminus, La Salle, before angling northwest to the Mississippi River at the Illinois/Wisconsin border) that also increased the size of the final landgrant by some 40%. 

Douglas’ bill also granted to the State of Illinois the authority to enter into a contract with a private company to build the railroad in exchange for free ownership of the landgrant.  Douglas’ bill, therefore, differed from Breese’s bill in that the Breese bill granted the land directly to the company (owned by Holbrook and himself) slated to build the railroad.  Being a known real estate investor, as was Breese, Douglas also appreciated the profit potential represented by the proposed Central Railroad and quietly purchased 160 acres of land that bordered Lake Michigan and was centered around 31st and Cottage Grove.  Sixteen of these acres were along the lakeshore outside of the city’s southern boundary at 22nd Street, that extended to 35th Street, and Douglas hoped to eventually sell some of the property (some of which was under water, no less) to the new railroad at a tidy profit once he succeeded in having the project approved by Congress. 


Brownson, Howard Gray, History of the Illinois Central Railroad to 1870, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1915.

Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas, New York: Oxford, 1973.

Johnson, Arthur and Barry E. Supple. Boston Capitalists and the Western Railroads. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967.

Milton, George Fort. The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War. New York: Octagon, 1969.

Pierce, Bessie Louis. A History of Chicago– v.2. New York: Knopf.  1940.

Stover, John F. Iron Road to the West: American Railroads in the 1850s. New York: Columbia University, 1978.

Wille, Lois. Forever Open, Clear, and Free; The Struggle For Chicago’s Lakefront. Chicago: Regnery, 1972.

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

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