From coal to fracking sand: The evolution of a small rail line

We’ve recently noticed a substantial increase in the size of trains traveling our small rail line. It’s not uncommon these days to see trains stretching more than 100  closed hopper cars in length pulled by three big diesel engines, and sometimes with a fourth pushing as the trains climb the gentle, steady grade past our house. “Our” rail line opened for business in 1870 as planned competition for the dominant Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad that monopolized rail transport here in the Fox Valley of Illinois. In particular, area farmers and householders were desperate for cheaper coal, a stranglehold on the shipping of which (along with lumber, livestock, and grain) was held by the CB&Q. As John Redmond Marshall commented in the Kendall County Record on May 24, 1866:

The general cry from the people of Kane and Kendall counties for cheaper fuel seems to have awakened this slumbering enterprise into new and more vigorous life.

The Oswego Depot on the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road about 1880 before it's expansion and remodeling in 1886 was similar to the small stations that dotted the rail line from Streator north to Aurora. (Little White School Museum photo)

The Oswego Depot on the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road about 1880 before it’s expansion and remodeling in 1886 was similar to the small stations that dotted the rail line from Streator north to Aurora. (Little White School Museum photo)

The Ottawa, Oswego, and Fox River Valley Rail Road had been authorized by the Illinois General Assembly in 1852. But the Civil War intervened and it wasn’t until the war’s immediate aftermath that serious efforts to build the road began. By the late 1860s, the company had been invigorated and interest in creating an alternative to the CB&Q was running high. It was so high, in fact, that counties, townships, and municipalities along the route, along with individuals, purchased stock in the new rail line, hastening its construction. As construction plans moved ahead, huge levels of interest developed along the proposed route. In September 1867, eager for construction to begin, the citizens of Unionville–proposed to be the southern terminus of the new line–voted to change the name of their town to Streator, in honor of Worthy S. Streator, who financed the first coal mine in the area. With rich veins of coal underlying the entire area, all that was needed was a way to get it to market, and so enter the O.O.&F.R.V. Rail Road. By the fall of 1869, real progress was being made. Lorenzo Rank, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported on Sept. 2 of that year that:

Surveyors of the O.O. & F.R.V.R.R. extended their operations through this village last Saturday; the survey is running on the west side lots of Adams street, diagonally crossing said street near and at the junction of Washington street, thence running on the east side of it to the Waubonsee [Creek], on the other side of which it runs partly on Water street.

By Oct. 14, construction crews had reached Oswego and were busily grading the right-of-way. But unbeknownst to the local investors in the rail line, efforts were well underway to steal the whole thing right out from underneath them. The directors of the O.O.&F.R.V. had unwisely given the line’s construction superintendent, Oliver Young, the power to “use, manage, and control” the line upon completion. After securing this broad mandate from the line’s directors, he contracted with C.H. Force & Company to actually build the rail line. In July of 1870, Force & Co., contending the new rail line didn’t have any equipment to operate after construction was finished, secretly contracted with James F. Joy, president of the CB&Q, to provide rolling stock and other equipment for the line—despite the fact the O.O.&F.R.V. actually owned two locomotives and dozens of rail cars. On Aug. 20, 1870, Force & Co. secretly leased the whole railroad (which it didn’t own—yet) to the CB&Q for 99 years. The last piece fell into place in October when Young, for “a valuable consideration” (we can only guess what it was) assigned all his interest in the rail line—remember he could “use, manage, and control” the line—to Force & Co. The upshot was that the CB&Q managed to dupe its own disgruntled customers into taxing themselves to build a rail line which the company stole from right under their noses.

The sprawling H.D. Conkey Sand & Gravel Company mine supplied gravel for three decades. Part of the mine is now the site of the Oswegoland Park District's Saa Wee Kee Park. (Little White School Museum photo)

The sprawling H.D. Conkey Sand & Gravel Company mine supplied gravel, transported on the O.O.&F.R.V.,  for three decades. Part of the mine is now the site of the Oswegoland Park District’s Saa Wee Kee Park. (Little White School Museum photo)

Not, of course, that the new railroad didn’t provide a badly needed link to the outside world for the towns up and down the Fox River. Farmers, business owners, and regular householders all rejoiced at being able to take a passenger train or enjoy the most modern telecommunications service with the line’s accompanying telegraph. As Marshall put it in the Nov. 3, 1870 Record:

On Thursday last, the 27th of October, 1870, a train of cars on the Fox River Valley Railroad entered Yorkville for the first time. It made the people of the villages feel big.

On Jan. 12, 1871, Marshall reported on the on-going business excitement in Yorkville caused by the completion of the tracks all the way from Aurora to Streator:

On Sunday night the last rail was laid between Aurora and Ottawa at the Sheridan bridge. The trains are now running from Streator to Aurora. The effect of the road on Yorkville is already seen and the town assumes a business air that seems foreign to it. The passenger house has been built south east of the Paper Mill; a temporary office has been opened by the CB&Q Co. opposite the grist mill with a gentleman from Sandwich as Station Agent. On Monday workmen from the CB&Q Co. commenced making a cattle yard and chute just above the water tank, and Lon. Halleck expected to ship hogs by it last night (Wednesday). Capt Bolster is on this work. Tuesday morning a train went over the road to Streator consisting of a passenger car and two flat cars loaded with telegraph poles We may expect regular passenger trains shortly. Helme & Dolph are to have a coal yard near their saw-mill and D.G. Johnson and Andrew Welch have one just east of the rag house. Take it all in all, Yorkville promises to be a business town of no little importance, and there are many inducements for capital to come here for investment. It will pay.

Starting with the line’s completion in 1871, it hauled hundreds of thousands of tons of grain and innumerable head of cattle and hogs to market from towns up and down its length, while bring back coal, lumber, mail, and other necessities. Some products came and went like the ice that was harvested at the mill dams at Yorkville and Oswego. Livestock shipments petered out in the 1930s, and grain shipments in the 1970s. Lumber shipments to towns up and down the line continued through the 1980s. Coal, the reason the line was built in the first place, stopped being a regular cargo in the early 1950s, finally disappearing altogether by the end of that decade. Other natural products replaced some of the losses. Gravel, for instance, began to be mined in substantial quantities between Oswego and Yorkville in the 1880s, continuing through the 1940s. And pure, white silica sand began to be mined from the exposed St. Peter formations at Wedron and Ottawa. There was plenty of the stuff; historic Starved Rock is made of it, as are a spectacular series of soaring bluffs along the southern reaches of the Fox River. It’s nickname, in fact, is Ottawa sand. Originally, the sand was mined for use in the glass factories that clustered around Ottawa, for use in molding, and by railroads to improve traction for engines.

By September of 1965 when this photo was taken, the old O.O.&F.R.V. line had already changed. No more passengers boarded at the Oswego station and coal shipments had ceased. (Little White School Museum photo)

By September of 1965 when this photo was taken, the old O.O.&F.R.V. line had already changed. No more passengers boarded at the Oswego station and coal shipments had ceased. (Little White School Museum photo)

But it’s been a long time since more than the remaining Pikington Glass Factory has been in operation, and the other traditional uses for abrasives, locomotive traction, and molding sand simply don’t require that much sand, So why the relatively sudden increase in the size of trains on the old O.O.&F.R.V. line? For the answer, we have to look west. A long way west, to the Dakotas where hydraulic fracturing–”fracking”–has created an oil boom. It turns out that Ottawa sand is the perfect thing to mix with the liquids that are used in the fracking process. Tons of it are needed; so much that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has been forced to issue a safety warning concerning fracking workers. Turns out that silica sand can be dangerous stuff to breathe in by workers, causing the same kind of silicosis that plagues coal miners. And that doesn’t even take into account all the other dangers of fracking, including groundwater pollution and earthquakes. Born in controversy and the financial hardball of the Gilded Age, the old O.O.&F.R.V. Railroad has soldiered on into the 21st Century, hauling an evolving list of products and providing an economic boost to the towns up and down its right-of-way in spite of its legally questionable beginnings. Originally conceived to haul the primary fuel of the 1870s–coal–the line is now contributing to the extraction of another fossil fuel–oil–in ways the line’s builders could have never envisioned.

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1 Comment

Filed under Fox River, Illinois History, Kendall County, Oswego, Science stuff, Transportation

One response to “From coal to fracking sand: The evolution of a small rail line

  1. Bert Gray

    Great piece, Roger. 🙂

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