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Blazing the Trail

The American dream of transcontinental transportation did not end when the “Golden Spike” was driven into the ground on May 10, 1869. That may have marked the completion of the first coast-to-coast railroad, but nearly 50 years later, technology would soon offer a different way to convey oneself across the country: the automobile. This is the story of the creation of Route 66, the nation’s first transcontinental auto highway, which made its way through Logan County, Illinois, in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Creating An American Highway System

Conceived in 1912, the Lincoln Highway, a 3,000-mile “patchwork” of existing roads, stretched from San Francisco to New York, and predated Route 66 by fourteen years. The Federal Aid Highway Act of 1921 did not provide funding for a transcontinental highway, but its intent to create a national highway system kept the idea of a coast-to-coast highway alive. 

As more roadways began to criss-cross the United States, the Joint Board on Interstate Highways was appointed in 1925 by Howard M. Gore, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, to create a numbering system for the highway network. A year later, Cyrus Avery, an Oklahoma businessman, founded the U.S. 66 Highway Association and coined the nickname “Main Street of America.” Avery also worked with Missourian John Woodruff to lobby for the creation of a highway that went from Chicago to Los Angeles.

A year later, the construction of Route 66 began, and a decade after that, thanks to Avery’s dogged lobbying, the route was fully paved.

Americans On The Move

Route 66 ran from Los Angeles to Chicago.  It became a major thoroughfare for southwest trucking and connected hundreds of small towns for the first time. As these towns experienced new growth in the form of roadside eateries, hotels, and gas and auto shops, the route became more prominent in the American conscience. It gained more fame in 1939 with the publication of John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, in which he dubbed Route 66 “the Mother Road.” 

During the Great Depression and the accompanying Dust Bowl, 2.5 million people packed up their trucks and cars and left the Great Plains states in search of jobs and better lives. An estimated 400,000 of those migrants traveled Route 66 into California, while many others took the route north toward Chicago.

Route 66 Through Logan County

Besides evoking the freedom of the open road, Route 66 became a major highway for commerce between Los Angeles and Chicago, and all points in between. The most direct route to get the highway through Illinois took Highway 66 into Logan County, through the town of Lincoln. Economically, every town and city along the route benefited from the tourism initiated by the popularity of the road, and of course interstate trade was greatly eased all the way from Lake Michigan to the southern California coast.

Eventually, any well-traveled road falls apart, with the attendant potholes, cracks, and upheavals. New automobile technology and new technology for road construction made the older highways obsolete, especially after the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 launched the age of interstates. American motorists may have moved on, but many states are committed to maintaining their portions of the historic Route 66.


Visitors to Logan County today can check out old Route 66 hotspots like the classic “Tropics” neon restaurant sign in Lincoln, the sign for the old Pig Hip Restaurant in Broadwell (the Pig Hip served a famous sandwich to motorists beginning in 1937), the Heritage Corner in Elkhart, or the the Route 66 Park, Museum, and Arcade Museum, all in Atlanta, IL.

Contact the Logan County Tourism Bureau to plan your visit or get more information!

On July 16, 1853, a month before a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln would christen a Logan County town named after him, construction began on the Rock Island Bridge between Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. The bridge would be the first railroad span across the Mississippi, uniting the East Coast with the Western territories. It was completed in 1856, but a steamship wreck that year led to a lawsuit that threatened the bridge’s future. With the high-profile interests of both the rail and steamboat industries looking on, Lincoln’s meticulous argument in defense of the Rock Island Bridge put him in the national spotlight as an up-and-coming lawyer.

Bridging the Lives of Future Foes

Beginning when he was 19, Abraham Lincoln spent three years transporting goods and commodities down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and other southern locations. Several years later, he was an attorney working for the Illinois Central Railroad, one of the nation’s most prominent railroad lines at the time. 

As a lawyer, Lincoln used his knowledge of the river—as well as a survey conducted by one of his future adversaries—to defend the Railroad Bridge Company against a lawsuit brought by a steamship owner to halt the reconstruction of the Rock Island Bridge. In 1856, the steamboat Effie Alton cleared the bridge’s draw, but the starboard engine failed and the port engine drove the boat into the bridge, causing damage and starting a fire that destroyed the steamer and damaged the bridge. The captain of the Effie Alton filed a lawsuit seeking damages from the Railroad Bridge Company for the loss of his boat. 

Opposed to the rail bridge from the beginning, steamboat interests rallied behind the case, making it far more prominent than many of the other cases Lincoln had worked on. To defend the railroad and its bridge, Lincoln relied on his own previous knowledge of rivers and railroads, as well as a survey on the Rock Island site itself done some twenty years earlier by a young lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers—Robert E. Lee.

The lawsuit wasn’t the first attempt to stop the Rock Island Bridge; nor was Lee the only future Confederate involved in the Rock Island Bridge saga. As the bridge was being built in 1854, then-U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis—who would become president of the Confederacy—filed an injunction against the continued construction. Davis sought to block the Rock Island bridge so one could be built across the Mississippi farther south. A federal Judge denied Davis’s injunction because it was determined that the War Department no longer had claim over the land. 

Getting a Hung Jury

Not satisfied with descriptions of the steamboat wreck, Lincoln also consulted data from Lee’s survey and a local railroad worker. He considered the speed of the river, traffic on the river, and the engineering specifications of the bridge. The point in question came to whether the bridge presented a hazard to steamboat travel. Lincoln’s defense produced a hung jury, and the judge tossed out the steamship operator’s case in a victory for the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad. The case raised Abraham Lincoln into national prominence as a diligent and persuasive attorney.

The Rock island Bridge was rebuilt shortly after the 1856 wreck. During the Civil War, the Rock Island site was again acquired by the Department of War and transformed into a Union POW camp. It later became the location of an arsenal. Today called the Government or Arsenal Bridge, the first bridge to span the Mississippi River still stands as a double-decked monument to one of Lincoln’s signature legal achievements. 

Want more Lincoln history? Contact Logan County tourism for more information on Lincoln’s activities in central Illinois!

  • Further Reading: Brian McGinty, Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America (2015).

The first train in Illinois was a little bitty thing named the Rogers—a wood-burning, 4-2-0 locomotive. On November 9, 1838, this engine made its first run from the small burg of Meredosia to where the track ended abruptly, eight miles to the east, just outside of Chapin. The Rogers was the first train operated by the state-run Northern Cross Railroad, the first of what became a growing network of railways across Illinois from 1833 to 1873. The Rogers—a little engine that could—began to deteriorate and made its last run in 1847. The Northern Cross line was shut down and auctioned off by the State of Illinois for $21,000, and was merged into the Wabash Railroad system.

Prior to 1848, Illinois had relatively few miles of track, but from 1850 to 1860, twelve private railroads had laid their rails from one end of Illinois to the other, in all four directions. The development of these railroads was crucial to the establishment of Logan County towns and the livelihood of those who called them home. 

Railroads Across Logan County

The Chicago and Alton Railroad was the first in Logan County in 1853. With the arrival of the railroad Alton, Logan County farmers now had an efficient means to ship farm products across central Illinois and as far as Chicago. The Chicago and Alton remained in operation for nearly 100 years until it was absorbed in 1972 by the GM&O. That line merged with the Illinois Central (IC) in 1972.

The next railroad to arrive in Logan County was the Illinois Central, which reached the town of Lincoln in 1871. The Illinois Central was the first U.S. railroad to receive federal land grant financing from the Land Grant Act of 1850, and when its initial route was completed in 1856, it was the longest railroad in the world. The IC acquired more land throughout the 1870s and 1880s, and its size and geographical reach to the Gulf Coast made it the most significant railroad in the state. It not only opened additional markets for Logan County farms but also was crucial to the development of Chicago and its eventual role as the railroad capital of the country.

The third railroad in Lincoln, which made its first run through Logan County in 1896, was the interurban Illinois Terminal Company. The company provided major freight and passenger transportation throughout central and southern Illinois. The system became essential to linking the manufacturing and industrial development of the Alton area with financial interests in Chicago.

Decline & Legacy

During the decade of the Great Depression, 1929—1939, many railroads became insolvent and were shut down. Others were bought by larger railroad companies, but in time those also began to decline because of competition from the automobile. Nothing reflects this shift in travel preferences better than the creation of Highway 66 along previously popular rail routes.

Today, more local produce is shipped by truck than rail, but the railroads that chug across Logan County are still vital to moving freight across the country. The occasional train horn is a reminder of the infrastructure that played an essential role in putting Logan County on the map. 

Want more information on central Illinois railroads, or where you can see railroad artifacts in central Illinois? Contact the Logan County Tourism Bureau to learn more!


Logan County Tourism Bureau

101 North Chicago Street
Lincoln, IL 62656

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