An Illinois Central freight locomotive. (Photo: Illinois Central freight locomotive. (Photo:

There are many people interested in former transportation companies, whether they were trucking companies, railroads, airlines or ocean lines. They are called “fallen flags,” and the term describes those companies whose corporate names have been dissolved through merger, bankruptcy or liquidation.

The Illinois Central Railroad (IC) is among the most notable of the railroads that are now considered fallen flags. The IC’s slogan, “The Main Line of Mid-America,” described well its north-south routing. Simply put, it ran from Chicago to the Gulf Coast. But it was much more.

The Illinois Central had a number of branch lines in the Midwest and the South. The railroad was managed conservatively, and was a profitable and well-managed road. Of the Illinois Central’s numerous achievements, two of the most remarkable were retaining its original name and avoiding bankruptcy throughout its 148-year history.  

An Illinois Central locomotive passes through a manually controlled junction in Chicago on June 17, 1996. (Photo: Wade Massie/
An Illinois Central locomotive passes through a manually controlled junction in Chicago on June 17, 1996.
(Photo: Wade Massie/

But by the 1970s U.S. railroads were seeking to survive in a very difficult time. The IC merged with a rival railroad – the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio. Railroad historians consider the merger unsuccessful; the new railroad – the Illinois Central Gulf (ICG) – spent more than a decade seeking to reestablish profitability.  

Finally, during the 1980s (after the Interstate Commerce Commission’s power over railroads was ended), the ICG did better as a smaller railroad prior to its purchase by Canadian National Railway in 1998.

For those who don’t know much about U.S. railroads, the Illinois Central may be familiar nonetheless. Its “City of New Orleans” passenger train was made famous when Steven Goodman released his song by the same name in 1971. It gained even more attention in 1972 when Arlo Guthrie recorded the song.  

There is also John Luther “Casey” Jones. Jones sacrificed his life on April 30, 1900 to save those aboard the “New Orleans Special,” which was also known as the “Cannonball.” Near Vaughan, Mississippi, Jones successfully slowed his southbound Cannonball enough to spare the lives of his passengers and fellow railroad personnel before it crashed into a stopped southbound freight. Wallace Saunders, another IC employee and friend of Jones, is credited with writing “The Ballad of Casey Jones,” which made Jones a legend. 

The Illinois Central’s beginnings  

By the 1830s railroads were beginning to be built in several locations in the United States. Illinois political and business leaders wanted the state to have its own railroad after witnessing the success of railroads along the East Coast. Illinois became a state on December 3, 1818; in less than 20 years its population had more than tripled. A railroad in the state offered great potential.  

Tom Murray, author of “Illinois Central Railroad,” noted that with the passage of the Internal Improvement Act in 1837 by the Illinois legislature, $10 million was appropriated to construct 1,300 miles of track in the state.  

The first passenger train arrived in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1861. (Photo:
The first passenger train arrived in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1861.

Among the key routes was a link between Cairo, at the state’s southern tip along the Ohio River, to Galena, which is near the Mississippi River (and not far from Dubuque, Iowa). However, construction was delayed for years. That led to a federal land grant bill being passed by Congress on September 20, 1850. The legislation granted a huge sum of 2.5 million acres of federal lands to the railroad.  

The legislation stipulated that the acreage would aid the IC’s construction through the sale of tracts of land for a profit. The railroad agreed to complete the proposed route within six years as well as pay Illinois a small percentage of gross revenues. This was the first time federal lands were used to help a railroad be built. Similar land grants were used extensively afterward to help western railroads complete their routes.  

Illinois Governor Augustus French signed into law the charter for the Illinois Central Railroad on February 10, 1851. The IC’s “Charter Lines” included two routes – the main line north from Cairo would run 453 miles – through Clinton to Freeport, then turn west and end at East Dubuque along the Mississippi River. The second route would be built due north from what became Centralia and then be built to Chicago, a line of 252 miles.  

To begin the IC’s construction, startup capital was needed. The railroad’s backers first unsuccessfully tried to interest European investors. However, U.S.-based investors were interested. The IC’s groundbreaking took place in Chicago on December 23, 1851.  

An Illinois Central freight train at a depot. (Photo:
An Illinois Central freight train at a depot. (Photo:

Building south from Chicago, the first segment to Calumet opened on May 21, 1852. The entire 705-mile railroad, which was shaped like a “Y,” was in place by September 27, 1856.  

At the time the IC’s construction was an engineering feat. While its route had few physical barriers, its size made the railroad impressive. Only the New York & Erie’s (predecessor of the Erie Railroad) length of 447 miles between Lake Erie and the Hudson River came close to the IC. 

The IC began generating a profit almost immediately; people flocked to Illinois, farming across the state and building Chicago into the second-largest city in the U.S. – and later the railroad capital of America.  

Freight was important from the start 

The IC handled many types of freight, but coal was a key commodity from the railroad’s start. The first loads of coal were hauled in 1855; the railroad later served Kentucky coal mines. Coal was 38% of freight tonnage through the post-World War II period.  

Like many northern and midwestern railroads, the IC helped the United States during the Civil War, carrying men and supplies. Following the war, the IC’s management sought to focus on further expansion. The railroad’s first extensions were west from Chicago; this became the railroad’s Iowa Division.  

The Illinois Central logo. (Image:
The Illinois Central logo. (Image:

Expansion into Iowa

The IC had reached East Dubuque on June 11, 1855. The IC’s management had two goals for the railroad in Iowa – access to additional agricultural traffic and the establishment of a desired connection to Omaha, Nebraska, which would be the eastern end of the transcontinental Union Pacific when it was completed. 

The first goal was accomplished in October 1867 when the IC leased the Dubuque & Pacific Railroad (D&P). When the IC leased it, the D&P ran 143 miles from Dubuque to Iowa Falls. 

A million-dollar bridge over the Mississippi River opened into Dubuque in December 1868. This allowed through service into Chicago via track rights. Later the IC finished its own line into Chicago. While the IC was leasing the D&P it was continued to Sioux City, which it reached on July 8, 1870.

The IC formed a subsidiary, the Chicago, Madison & Northern Railroad, in July 1886. By August 1888 construction of a 112-mile line was completed, as well as a 59-mile branch to Madison, the capital of Wisconsin. 

Edward Harriman had been elected to the Illinois Central’s board of directors in 1883, and he quickly took control of the railroad. Harriman had led Union Pacific Railroad out of bankruptcy and also extended the Southern Pacific Railroad. In addition, Harriman held stakes in the Chicago & Alton, the Central of Georgia and the Erie Railroad – among others. Under Harriman’s leadership the Illinois Central had its greatest period; the IC purchased the D&P in 1887 and then in 1898 formed the Fort Dodge & Omaha Railroad to complete the Omaha/Council Bluffs route, which was finished on December 18, 1899.  

In addition, there was expansion across Iowa; service was begun to Cedar Rapids via a branch line. The IC also was extended to Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1887. 

An early Illinois Central train. (Photo:
An early Illinois Central train. (Photo:

Expansion via acquisition

The Illinois Central’s expansion south of Cairo is a more complicated story. But nearly all of its growth into Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama was due to a series of acquisitions.  

Those acquisitions began following the Panic of 1873 (a financial crisis that triggered an economic depression in Europe and North America that lasted from 1873 to 1877), which left the New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern (NOJ&GN) and Mississippi Central (MCRR) bankrupt. These two systems offered 548 miles of track; more importantly, they had a direct link into New Orleans. The IC acquired both railroads and merged them into its Chicago, St. Louis & New Orleans (CStL&NO) on November 8, 1877.  

New Orleans was linked with Canton, Mississippi via the NOJ&GN; the MCRR connected from Canton to East Cairo, Kentucky via Jackson, Tennessee. 

Harriman and the IC were piecing together a direct Gulf Coast route. However, a bridge over the Ohio River at Cairo was necessary. Construction of the bridge began in 1886. It was a huge, 4,644-foot bridge that also included an additional three miles of approaches. At a cost of nearly $3 million, the bridge was completed on October 29, 1889.

The completion of the bridge made the Illinois Central a unique north-south route that linked the Gulf Coast with the Midwest via Chicago. In Chicago, passengers or freight could be interchanged with almost every major railroad. Under Harriman’s leadership, the IC became one of the nation’s most important railroads by the beginning of the 20th century.  

A Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad train. (Photo: David S. Price Collection)
A Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad train. (Photo: David S. Price Collection)

Other acquisitions added to the IC network

The Illinois Central’s primary network was completed when it acquired the CStL&NO in 1877. However, it did not complete the acquisitions or the railroad’s expansion. The following railroad systems were added:

February 1882 – The Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad was originally incorporated as a wholly-owned IC railroad to manage the majority of its assets south of Memphis (most notably the LNO&T).  

May 1886 – the Mississippi & Tennessee Railroad provided a direct link to Memphis. 

October 1892 – the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas (LNO&T) led from Memphis, followed the Mississippi River to Vicksburg and Baton Rouge and terminated in New Orleans.

December 1893 – the Chesapeake & Ohio Southwestern (C&OSW), which ran from Memphis to Louisville, Kentucky via Paducah and Princeton. Centrally located within its system, IC later built its primary locomotive maintenance and repair facility in Paducah in 1927.

October 1895 – the St. Louis, Alton & Terre Haute Railroad was leased; it provided track to St. Louis. 

December 1899 – the Springfield to East St. Louis corridor was acquired from the St. Louis, Peoria & Northern. 

Acquisitions continued into the 20th century. The Illinois Central acquired a connection to Indianapolis in 1906. It then used trackage rights, new construction and acquisition to create a 216-mile line from Jackson, Tennessee to Birmingham in April 1908.  

Birmingham provided the IC with an interchange with the Central of Georgia Railway. Harriman gained control of the Central of Georgia in June 1909. This was his last significant action as the IC’s leader; he died on September 9, 1909. Under Harriman’s control, the Illinois Central had become a 4,547-mile network that was among the nation’s best railroads.

The Central of Georgia Railway Co. logo in about 1903. (Illustration: Central of Georgia Railway Historical Society)
The Central of Georgia Railway Co. logo in about 1903.
(Illustration: Central of Georgia Railway Historical Society)

The Central of Georgia gave the Illinois Central access to the heart of the South. While the Central of Georgia operated independently, it worked with the IC in many ways – particularly in scheduled passenger service.

However, the Great Depression forced the Central of Georgia into receivership in December 1932. It did not emerge from bankruptcy until 1948; by then the IC no longer controlled it. Years later (June 1963), the Southern Railway gained control of the Central of Georgia and integrated it into its network.

A Central of Georgia Railway advertisement to haul freight. (Image: Central of Georgia Railway Historical Society)
A Central of Georgia Railway advertisement to haul freight.
(Image: Central of Georgia Railway Historical Society)

Author’s note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating now in North America – and those that are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.

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