A History Of Carbondale’s Railroads

The city of Carbondale was founded on a site chosen because of the Illinois Central Railroad, which was being constructed through southern Illinois. The location was chosen because it was located roughly halfway between Makanda and DeSoto, both of which had already been planned as the sites of stations along the new railroad. The first train arrived in Carbondale on July 4th, 1854.

Carbondale soon became a junction town.

The Grand Tower & Carbondale was built eastward into town in 1868. The railroad was owned by the Mount Carbon Coal & Railroad Company and was initially built from Grand Tower to Mount Carbon, just south and across the Big Muddy River from Murphysboro. The railroad was continued to Carbondale to provide an alternate transportation option for the mining company’s coal and coke. Initially built to transport products to waiting steamboats and barges on the Mississippi River, the Carbondale connection offered an alternative when the river was closed to navigation and also opened up new markets not accessible by water.

Grand Tower & Carbondale #9 is seen at an unidentified location. This could be the junction at Carbondale, judging by the number of boxcars in the background.

In August, 1871, the Carbondale & Shawneetown Railroad began building eastward from Carbondale toward Marion. The railroad was started with grand designs to reach the Ohio River in Hardin County, but never built any further than Market Street in Marion. Traffic was light on the railroad, which was always on shaky financial ground.

In 1879, the C&S was leased by the new St. Louis Coal Railroad, which built westward from Carbondale to the village of Harrison in 1880. The St. Louis Central built southward from Pinckneyville to Harrison and Murphysboro in 1881, and was also leased by the St. Louis Coal Railroad. All three became a part of the Belleville & Southern Illinois Division of the St. Louis, Alton & Terre Haute Railroad, known as the Cairo Short Line for short.

In 1888, the Cairo Short Line completed the Carbondale & Shawneetown’s plan of reaching the Ohio River, but in a different direction.  The railroad created a subsidiary called the Chicago, St. Louis & Paducah Railroad to complete the line to the river.  Instead of building east however, the new line built south from Marion through the towns of Creal Springs, Ozark, Reevesville and Metropolis before terminating at Brookport (then called Brooklyn), across the Ohio from Paducah.  Ferry service was instituted between Paducah and Brookport.

Cairo Short Line #11 is lettered for the Belleville & Southern Illinois Division of the St. Louis, Alton & Terre Haute Railroad. It is seen making a stop at Belleville, Illinois.

In 1889, the owners of the Grand Tower & Carbondale formed a new railroad called the Grand Tower & Cape Girardeau to build between those two cities. Cape Girardeau was reached via a river ferry operation from East Cape Girardeau on the Illinois side. The two railroads were then merged into the Chicago & Texas Railroad, which built Carbondale’s last new railroad line to Johnston City in 1895.

Conductor Billy Bryan poses beside his train, the daily Chicago & Texas run from Cape Girardeau to Murphysboro, Harrison, Carbondale, Herrin, Johnston City and return. This train stopped at every small town along the way, and anywhere else “Uncle Billy” felt like stopping to pick up or let off a passenger.

In October, 1895, the Illinois Central quietly arranged to lease the Cairo Short Line. The deal would be denied until the next year, when it finally became publicly acknowledged in April, 1896. The Illinois Central then leased the Chicago & Texas in 1897, and all tracks into and out of Carbondale were operated as part of the I.C. The leased lines would be purchased outright in the first years of the Twentieth Century.

Following the absorption of the Cairo Short Line and Chicago & Texas railroads, the Illinois Central created its St. Louis Division, which was headquartered in Carbondale. At its height, lines radiating in six directions were controlled from the St. Louis Division office, which was located on the square downtown.

St. Louis Division Office to the left of the
tracks on April 27, 1905

With the end of construction of new lines in 1895, the next decade became a period of improvements.

After taking over the Chicago & Texas the Illinois Central moved the southwest end of the line from East Cape Girardeau to Gale, building new track several miles to the south. From Gale, the railroad reached the river at Thebes via the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad.

Then, in the first few years of the new century, the I.C. added a second main track to nearly its entire line from Chicago to New Orleans. In the Carbondale area, this included a new concrete arch bridge over the Big Muddy River that is still in use today.

The Big Muddy River Bridge under construction on January 7, 1903. The old iron truss bridge is visible behind it. The Big Muddy bridge was the longest concrete arch span in the world when completed, though it would not hold that distinction for long.

Even with the double-track mainline, the sheer volume of trains running up and down the mainline was stressing the line’s capacity. To relieve some of the strain, a line to allow St. Louis trains to avoid the hills between Carbondale and Mounds on the mainline was constructed. A short segment between Mounds and Olive Branch was built, with rights granted to use the C&EI between Olive Branch and Gale. To complete the route, a longer segment was built between Sand Ridge on the Grand Tower line and Matthews Junction, south of Pinckneyville on the St. Louis line. Opened to traffic in January, 1904, the route never saw heavy usage but did keep a few trains daily off the busy mainline.

A final line was built between Herrin and Christopher in 1905, allowing the Illinois Central to reach several mines in the Zeigler area. With the exception of short spurs to various mines, and a connection between Downey and Fredonia in 1914, this was the last new construction in the Carbondale area.

In 1928 the I.C. opened the Edgewood Cutoff line between Edgewood in Effingham County and Metropolis, providing an alternate route for fast freight schedules and relieving congestion on the original mainline.  The new route replaced the Carbondale District through Marion as the primary freight route to and from Paducah.

By the fifties competition from trucks had seriously eroded freight traffic on the branch lines out of Carbondale; a problem for the railroad that would only get worse.  Being unable to generate traffic on the lines, the railroad soon found itself losing money operating trains on them and began to petition regulators for permission to abandon the lines.  The first pieces of track to be torn out were the southern half of the Carbondale District between New Dennison and Reevesville, and the Johnston City District between Johnston City and Herrin.

Freight traffic wasn’t all that was facing stiff competition.  The I.C. had re-equipped its passenger trains with new and rebuilt equipment in anticipation of a boom following World War II.  Instead of a post-war boom, the I.C. found potential passengers were instead taking to the roads or turning to an expanding airline industry.  The establishing of the interstate highway system in the fifties only accelerated the decline in railroad passengers.  The railroad dropped trains from its schedules in response, with the last trains to St. Louis disappearing in 1970.  On May first, 1971, the I.C. got out of the intercity passenger business altogether as the federally created Amtrak took over passenger service.

An early Amtrak train is serviced next to the old locomotive coaling towers in this scene from 1974.

In 1972, the I.C. merged with longtime rival Gulf Mobile & Ohio to form the Illinois Central Gulf.  The new I.C.G. wasted little time in seeking to shed more branch lines.  The first line to go was the old Grand Tower & Cape Girardeau south of Grand Tower.  It was abandoned in 1973.

The Herrin Local crosses Dillinger Road on the return to Carbondale. By the 1980s, the branch line locals only operated a couple of trips per week and the short trains were losing the railroad money.

The next line up for abandonment was the Carbondale to Marion.  Since 1973, the line had been hosting tour trains of the Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad in addition to the occasional freight trains the I.C.G. ran on the line.  The C.O.&E. trains ran from downtown Marion to a wye near Crainville.  The city of Marion fought the loss of its rail freight service, and partnered with the C.O.&E. to purchase the line between Marion’s east side and the wye near Crainville in 1978.  The C.O.&E. took over freight operations, using the steam locomotives on hand for the tourist trains.  The railroad still exists today.

Crab Orchard & Egyptian #17 rounds a curve as she approaches the west end of the line near Crainville. The CO&E gained fame in the seventies and eighties as the last steam powered common carrier railroad in the U.S.  It has used diesel since September, 1986.

The old Grand Tower & Carbondale was the next to go.  Tracks to Grand Tower had been retained to haul coal to the Central Illinois Public Service electric plant near Devil’s Backbone, but a derailment on March 27, 1979, destroyed the bridge over the Big Muddy River near Sand Ridge and the line was abandoned as a result.  By 1984, the I.C.G. was seeking to abandon all tracks to Muphysboro.  This included not only the old G.T.&C., but the remaining G.M.&O. tracks as well.  Like Marion, Murphysboro fought the loss of its rail service.  No deals could be worked out however, and the trains stopped running in the spring of 1985.

This load of lumber is thought to be the last load of freight delivered to Murphysboro. After the empty car was returned to Carbondale, the last remnant of the old Grand Tower & Carbondale would be removed from service and the rails pulled up.

The last active branch out of Carbondale would be the line to Herrin, built by the Chicago & Texas in 1895.  There was considerable local traffic in Herrin, but the I.C.G. found it did not cover the cost of maintaining the entire line from Carbondale.  In 1987, the city of Herrin bought the tracks in town.  A connection with the Burlington Northern was constructed east of town, and the C.O.&E. was brought in to operate the line.  The C.O.&E. took over ownership of the line soon after and still owns the track to this day, though after numerous industrial closures the tracks currently lay dormant.

The local freight from Carbondale arrives in Herrin. This was the last branch line that would see service from Carbondale, being abandoned in 1987.

In 1988, the Illinois Central Gulf underwent a major reorganization.  Several major portions of the railroad were sold off throughout the mid-eighties, including entire divisions in Iowa, Kentucky and Mississippi.  After being reduced to a Chicago to New Orleans core system, parent IC Industries spun the railroad off to its shareholders and employees.  The “Gulf” was dropped the name, and the railroad emerged as the “new” Illinois Central.

A freshly repainted GP10 leads a northbound train at Dillinger Road on Carbondale’s north side.

Through the nineties, steps were taken to make the Illinois Central Railroad one of the most efficiently run railroads in America.  So successful were these steps, that the I.C. became a prime target to be taken over by a larger railroad.  In the end, that is just what happened.  The Canadian National Railway purchased control in 1998, and officially took over operations on July first, 1999.

On July first, 1999, the Illinois Central officially became a part of the Canadian National Railway.

Today the north/south mainline remains an important part of the Canadian National system, and the Amtrak trains remain an important part of Carbondale’s transportation system.