It’s natural for us to take so many things for granted. And yet everything we see, no matter how mundane, has some history behind it.
That goes for the towns we live in, the roads we drive on, and even the geography of the areas in which we live. Some of those things seem such a part of the landscape that we tend to discount them. The area’s rail lines, for instance, usually don’t enter our thinking unless we have to wait at a crossing for a seemingly endless freight train to pass or we need to catch a commuter train into Chicago.
The short line that once ran from Streator to Ottawa and then north up the Fox River Valley all the way to Geneva is one of those bits of the local landscape that seem to have been there forever. But, of course, it hasn’t been. Like everything else we see on the modern landscape, it had a beginning—and in it’s case, a pretty contentious one at that.
When it was finished in 1870, the line was envisioned not as a mere spur or short line, but rather an independent railroad line that would vigorously compete with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad’s local rail monopoly. The idea was a good one, but perhaps the hardball financial practices of that era should have warned the Fox Valley residents and local governments who financed the road’s construction that they stood a chance of being cheated out of their investment. And, as it turned out, they were.
In 1853, the Aurora Branch Railroad—what, in 1855 would become the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad and eventually today’s Burlington Northern- Santa Fe Railway—crossed the Fox River at Aurora and then pushed west through northern Kendall County, bypassing the established villages of Oswego and Yorkville.
Though bypassing those towns—Oswego, at the time, was the county seat of Kendall County—the line’s construction did result in the creation of a brand new town at a station between Aurora and Sandwich, which its founders decided to call Plano.
As the Civil War ended, business and agriculture interests began calling for construction of more railroads to serve the Fox Valley. The CB&Q’s monopoly resulted in high freight charges that most farmers thought unfair. For instance, farmers living east of the Fox River were charged lower freight rates than those living west of the river, because the railroad was trying to entice farmers from farther away to use the line.
In 1866 serious agitation began for a CB&Q alternative. Farmers wanted cheaper grain and livestock haulage, while the rest of the Fox Valley communities were looking for a cheaper way to obtain coal from the mines near Ottawa. Coal at the time was becoming an extremely energy source for heating homes and other buildings, as well as fueling the steam engines that were slowly replacing other means of powering everything from farmers’ corn shellers to factory machines to newspaper presses.
As a result, talks about reviving the old Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Railroad Company were held up and down the Fox Valley. The company was originally established at Newark here in Kendall County in 1852. The OO&FRV was to have followed the river north from Ottawa to Elgin via Oswego. The list of directors from local towns reads like a list of Who’s Who among pioneer Kendall County residents: L.B. Judson (founder of Oswego), Nathaniel Rising (a pioneer Oswego miller), William Nobel Davis (prominent politician, farmer, and lawyer), Samuel Jackson, Samuel Roberts (an Oswego hotelier), John L. Clark, and Johnson Misner. But Kendall County voters decided by a narrow margin of 43 votes against borrowing $25,000 to support the road’s construction.
For the next several years, the railroad’s charter was amended a number of times by the Illinois General Assembly, until local interest waned. But then in the post-Civil War years fuel costs rose sharply. And as noted above, coal heated homes and fueled the steam engines that more and more often powered local businesses and industries.
“The general cry from the people of Kane and Kendall counties for cheaper fuel seems to have awakened this slumbering enterprise into a new and more vigorous life,” suggested editor and publisher John R. Marshall in the May 31, 1866 Kendall County Record.
The difference was that residents and local governments seriously promised to put their money where their mouths were concerning the new railroad. In early September 1866, Oswego Township residents voted 220-51 to buy $25,000 in railroad stock (the total was eventually raised to $50,000). Other municipalities and county and township governments along the proposed route expressed strong interest, too. That was a substantial sum for the era, equivalent to about $1 million in today’s dollars.
In 1869, the Illinois General Assembly formally authorized the cities of Ottawa and Aurora, and the counties of Kane and Kendall to sell bonds to pay for stock in the rail line, now named the Fox River Valley Rail Road, which was to extend down the Fox Valley from Geneva to Ottawa and then due south to Streator.
Streator was a relatively new town located on the Vermilion River, on the border between LaSalle and Livingston counties in the midst of what were then called the Vermilion Coal Fields. Originally a hamlet named Hardscrabble, the name was changed to Unionville when it was formally platted in 1865. Just three years later the name was changed again to honor physician and capitalist Dr. W.L. Streator. Streator, from Cleveland, Ohio. Streator had been elected by its board of directors to head the newly formed Vermilion Coal Company, established to exploit the region’s huge coal deposits.
With no truly direct rail connection from the new coal fields north to the growing towns in the Fox River Valley, the new line’s promoters figured a new railroad running along that route would be a definite financial success.
But before the rail line could be built, the definite route had to be selected. Business interests in Morris, due south of Yorkville, lobbied hard for the line to leave the Fox Valley there and run down into Grundy County to access the county’s coal fields south of Morris. But Kane and Kendall promoters of the new line were unimpressed with the Morris boosters’ arguments.
Commented the Record’s Marshall in a Jan. 19, 1865 editorial: “Now, it is patent to all that the business of a road running in that direction with a terminus at the coal fields of Morris would be of little utility, and offer none of the advantages of a heavy freight and passenger trade. The carrying coal of itself is nothing. The natural channel for this road is down Fox river, where the greatest facilities are offered for manufacturing, flouring mills, and general produce trade, and at the same time reaching as good goal fields as at Morris, and developing by far a richer agricultural country than can be found in Grundy county.”
As finally established, the plan was for the Vermilion Coal Company to build their own shortline from Wenona, situated on the Illinois Central Railroad, to Streator. Then the OO&FRV line would be built north from Streator to Ottawa and then up the Fox Valley. In the end, Streator’s location in the midst of 26,000 acres of rich coal land, became a rail hub, with six lines passing through or near it.
By June 1866, the route north of Ottawa had been roughly finalized and engineers were hired to survey it. On July 19, the Record reported that: “The surveyors who are laying out the route for this road arrived in Yorkville on Tuesday evening and will have the survey completed from Ottawa to this place today. The gentleman in charge of the survey informed us that he finds the route very favorable for the economical and rapid building of the road. The route surveyed commences at the Illinois river [in Ottawa], crosses Fox river at Mission island, passes a little back of Millford [modern Millington], crosses Hollenbeck’s creek just west of Millbrook church, runs a little north of Mr. West Matlock’s and comes into Yorkville on Hydraulic venue. The river bottom at the Mission crossing is of solid rock and favorable for bridge building.”
Work on the road was nearly ready to begin in March and April 1867, when Fox Valley interests had to fend off an attempt by Will County interests to have the road run north to Plainfield from Streator. Ralph Plum, treasurer of the Vermilion Coal Company, hastened to reassure Fox Valley residents the route up the Fox was assured. In a letter to the editor of the Record on April 18, 1867: “The work we have already undertaken cannot be regarded by any business man in other light than as a guaranty that our whole interests are identical with your own…
“We have never doubted since we first looked over the map of Illinois, that our best market lay up the Fox River Valley, and we are sure that the superior quality of the Vermilion Coal will secure for it a sale in many localities where other coals are sold, yet the Fox River Valley (and Northern Illinois to be most directly reached therefrom) is most emphatically out best market, for we can reach it to a better advantage than any competitor, the moment the Fox River Valley Railroad is completed.”
Then on March 5, 1868, the Peoria Democrat published an unsourced bombshell of an article contending the OO&FRV company as well as the Vermilion Coal Company, were willing to turn over their charters to the CB&Q Railroad as long as the Burlington promised to offer guarantee a “perpetual” fair coal transport rate to Fox Valley communities. The bombshell report caused a huge uproar because the whole idea behind building the OO&FRV in the first place was to escape the CB&Q’s stranglehold on Fox Valley freight rates.
But on March 18, the Ottawa Free Trader reported the Democrat’s article wasn’t true—at least as far as anyone knew. “On inquiry of the officers of the F.R.V.R.R, we have come to the conclusion that, beyond as a sketch of what might be and very possibly yet will be, there is nothing in it. The officers of the Burlington Road and certain capitalists interested in the Fox R.V.R.R. have for a week or two past been in close consultation in N.Y., and it is possible that a hint from that quarter may have inspired the article in the Peoria paper, was thrown out as a feeler; but no definite agreement or arrangement of the kind indicated in that article, we are satisfied, has yet been arrived at.”
In retrospect, the OO&FRV’s board members and local boosters should have given a little more credence to the story.
The railroad company, with proceeds from its tax-purchased stock in hand, contracted with a man named Oliver Young to build the rail line from Streator north. And that’s where it got interesting. As part of the contract, signed Jan. 20, 1869, the railroad, upon completion, could be “used, managed and controlled” by Young.
“The object of the Directors to build this road and run it independently, with a view to making it a valuable road to the public and a paying one to the stockholders,” Marshall wrote in the Record on Jan. 28. But that clause gave Young virtual carte blanche, something the line’s board members apparently overlooked in their eagerness to get it built and operating.
Not a railroad builder himself, Young then contracted with the firm of C.H. Force & Company to actually build the line. Construction went fairly quickly. On Sept. 16, 1869, the Ottawa Free Trader reported: “The determination is to have the iron horse from Streator at Ottawa before the 1st of December, and to have the whole road done before another year is gone.”
On Oct. 14, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that: “Work on the Railroad is now commenced; the ground through town was broken yesterday; the initiatory ceremonies were limited to a short speech from John W. Chapman, briefly showing the auspiciousness of the enterprise and that everything connected with it augurs success. He welcomed the shovel and spade saying there were the basis to greatness to wealth, to civilization, and to many other things…[Oswego founder Lewis B.] Judson with a spade broke the first ground and [wagon maker William] Hoze conducted the first wheelbarrow full of dirt; to-day a gang of from 15 to 20 men and several teams are at work.”
The Record reported in December that “Railroad hands hereabouts now get $1.50 a day.”
Then in early March 1870, the old rumor of the secret sale of the OO&FRV line to the CB&Q raised its head once again. The Ottawa Free Trader said not to worry though, that they’d looked into it. “There is quite a buzz up Fox river, we are told, over a rumor that the Fox River Valley Railroad has been sold out to the Burlington road, or some other road or connection, and instead of running to Aurora and Geneva, will stop at Sandwich, Somonauk or somewhere in that vicinity. These reports are without the slightest foundation. The road, we are confidently assured, will be completed to Aurora within the coming year. The sale of the road from Streator to Wenona to the Jacksonville and St. Louis R.R. Company in no way affects the road from Streator northward. The people up Fox River may rest easy. The road is ‘all right.’”
Work on the railroad moved forward steadily, with a few housekeeping details finally settled. On June 2, 1870, the Record reported that “The Common Council of Aurora has at length granted right of way through the city to the Ottawa and Fox River Valley Railroad by a vote of 8 to 2. This question has been agitated for over a year, and is just settled. The road will run up an alley just back of River Street.”
In that same edition, the Record reported that it wouldn’t be long before actual rails would be laid along the line through Kendall County: “On Wednesday the 25th, nine carloads of railroad material belonging to the Ottawa & Fox River Valley Railroad arrived at Montgomery. It consisted of 5,000 ties and the remainder of bridge timber for use on the bridge across the Fox River. It is the determination of contractor Young to have all the grading between Aurora and Ottawa finished before June 15th when the men will be free to labor on the extension to Geneva.”
Not that there weren’t a few legal snags still in the way of getting the road built through Kendall County. The “not in my backyard” movement is nothing new, and it was big enough to cause some initial headaches for the rail line’s boosters. Eventually, county government had to take the unusual step of condemning land for the rail right-of-way. As the Record reported on June 9, 1870: “Messrs Henry Sherrill, John K. LeBaron, and Oliver Havenhill were engaged on Tuesday and Wednesday in assessing damages and condemning certain lands over which the Fox River Railroad is to pass. There are several farmers who will not give the right of way, nor do they want the road to cross their farms, and this course has been forced upon the Railroad Company. Three men of more integrity could not have been found in the County than the gentlemen above named. Engineer Wilson accompanied the party.”
If anything, enthusiasm for the line’s completion was increasing. Marshall, writing in the June 16 Record, observed that “Passing through Montgomery on Saturday we were pleased to see huge pile of ties and bridge timbers for our railroad. Also, the grading done from that village to the river. We will have a ride on that road before 1870 is passed,” he predicted.
To a general community-wide celebration, on Oct. 6, the first engine and cars puffed into Oswego from Aurora on the newly laid rails. Exulted the Record’s Oswego correspondent: “There is no longer any need for Oswegoans to be poor or have the blues, no excuse now for dull times. I want to form a co-partnership with someone who has plenty of stamps in order to start a Daily newspaper; somebody ought to set themselves up in the banking business and furnish with money, which is still tight, the OO&FRV to the contrary notwithstanding. This town is now presenting fine opportunities for capital seeking investments.”
That same week, Marshall wrote an editorial in the Record about the coming of the new rail line to Yorkville that for the normally taciturn publisher was almost giddy: “By next Tuesday, weather permitting, the iron horse will be in Yorkville to awaken the people by a regular railroad whistle. On Monday afternoon we saw the train about two miles west of Oswego and the tracklayers hard at work laying from half to three quarters of a mile per day. The train is made up of three or four flat cars and the same number of box cars with CB&Q engine No. 54 to draw them…After 15 or 20 years’ working, the friends of this road are about to see their hopes realized by the completion of the road, and we all rejoice.”
On Oct. 27, Oswego received its first load of freight on the new rail line, a load of lumber for businessman William S. Bunn. By that date, the rails had been laid within a mile of downtown Yorkville.
Then on Nov. 3, Marshall reported from Yorkville that the county seat was finally a railroad town:
“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.
“Engine 54, belonging to the CB&Q R.R. drew the train. On Friday, Hon. W.P. Pierce came down as a passenger from Oswego.
“It was rather amusing to see the locomotive haul up along side of Crooker & Hobbs’ pump there to have its tank filled with water by means of buckets. Ground has been broken for a water tank just east of the Saw-mill, near the head of the [mill] race.
“A switch has been put in east of Black’s rag-house, with all the appurtenances. By the time this reaches our readers the train will be out of sight down the river, leaving only about 12 miles of track to lay between here and Ottawa.”
But those persistent clouds on the horizon concerning ownership of the new line were continually darkening. On Oct. 13, the DeKalb News reported that “The CB&Q company have gobbled the Fox River road, operations upon that line have been stopped north of Aurora, which city will be the northern terminus. The grading has been done as far north as Geneva, but the iron will not be laid.”
Marshall tried to find out what was really going on, and decided the report couldn’t be true, flatly stating “there is no doubt whatever but what the iron will be laid to Geneva.”
Unfortunately for the new railroad’s stock and bond holders and prospective customers, those rumors over the past several months turned out to be all too true. In July of 1870, Force & Co., the company actually building the rail line, using the excuse that 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 line did indeed own two locomotives and dozens of rail cars.
Then 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 of the elaborate con job 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 however he wanted—to Force & Co.
In early November, the facts finally got out that the CB&Q had indeed seized control and de facto ownership of the road by means of the secret Force & Company 99 year lease. The Railroad Gazette reported the facts of the CB&Q’s coup, adding: “We are authorized to say that the road will be completed to Geneva and the whole operated as a branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy road.”
This tangled but ruthlessly efficient series of events resulted in the CB&Q tricking its own disgruntled customers into taxing themselves to build a rail line which the company itself now controlled. And those dreams of cheap coal? The CB&Q’s lease pointedly stated: “The said party of the second part (the CB&Q) …agrees…that in the transportation of coal over said demised road it will charge no more or higher rates than shall be charged for the transportation of coal over like distances on the railroad of the said party…”
As Marshall dryly put it in a November 1872 editorial comment: “The great card the defunct Fox River Valley Railroad Company played to get subscriptions on its line of road was cheap coal and good coal, but they failed us in both particulars.”
The affair resulted in local governments holding a lot of worthless railroad stock—after all, it was stock in a railroad company without a railroad—and thousands in debts. The efforts of individual and local governmental bondholders to recover their money would stretch on for decades. One positive outcome of the fraud scheme was to spur the formation of a union of farmers and laborers that was politically active for some years, nominating the first female candidate for local office in Kendall County.
But it was generally acknowledge that while the new rail line was a huge economic boost for Fox Valley communities, its birthing process left a bad taste in nearly everyone’s mouth—except the CB&Q and those in the OO&FRV’s management who connived with them.
Commented the Rev. E.W. Hicks concerning the scandal in his 1877 history of Kendall County: “Happy the far off day of the mercantile millennium when every man can enjoy the sight of the world on wheels passing through his field without the discomfort of losing his railroad stock by swindling directors.”
2 responses to “Railroaded: How big business stole the Fox Valley’s independent railroad”
How does the 3rd rail (electric line) fit into the fox valley rail system?
Here’s a pretty good rundown of the Chicago, Aurora & Elgin running out here to the Fox River Valley:
Here’s a blog post I did recently about the interurban line that was eventually taken over by the CA&E from Aurora south to Yorkville. They decided to do an overhead trolley line down this way instead of a third rail system:
Hope this helps!