Illinois Central Railroad
The first passenger train in the area arrived two miles west of Urbana in 1854. The track missed Urbana, not out of spite —as some have accused, but because of the need to avoid areas that would make laying track difficult. Originally, there were four routes under consideration. The Western route was chosen because it did not require the track to cross swampy land or require bridges to be built across the Salt Fork or Embarrass rivers. The railroad also claimed that this route allowed them to cross Yankee Ridge at a low point. Although the railroads were notorious for avoiding towns so they would be able to sell off their huge tracts of land, that was not necessarily the case in Champaign County.
The area was not considered the best place to put a railroad. Workers feared a variety of diseases, including cholera, milk sickness, ague and fever. It was also considered dangerous to eat local beef, butter or milk. While it's hard to imagine now, workers then described the area as "one vast pond ... whose green, scum-coated surface was crossed by the trail of water-moccasin."
Despite the "cholera and water-moccasin," a small town popped up along the Illinois Central rails, it was given the name of West Urbana. In 1858, the town's population was 3,358 and boasted over 30 businesses. This was even greater than Urbana's size. The rapid growth caused Urbana to attempt to incorporate West Urbana. However, the people of West Urbana resisted the idea and filed for separate incorporation. The incorporation was granted by the state, and West Urbana was renamed Champaign. Hence, two cities were formed in which transportation would forever play a role in their development.
The first passenger trains that the Illinois Central (IC) operated through Champaign took over 50 hours to make the trip from Chicago to New Orleans. By 1889, the introduction of The Chicago & City of Orleans Limited had cut that time to 23 hours. On February 4, 1911, IC renamed the route The Panama Limited. On November 15, 1916, the train became a luxury, all-Pullman car service. While The Depression led to its withdrawal from service in May of 1932, it was only a temporary hiatus. In December of 1934, the Panama Limited returned to service, along with the first air-conditioned cars in the country.
In 1909, the Seminole Limited was created to carry passengers from Chicago to Jacksonville, Florida. The route discontinued its Carbondale-to-Jacksonville branch in 1969, and the Chicago-to-Carbondale leg of the route was renamed the Shawnee.
Eventually, an all-coach train named The City of Miami began every-third-day service between Chicago and Miami. In 1949, sleeping cars were added and service was increased to two of each three days in 1950. By 1957 the service was increased on the line to every other day.
Service between Chicago and New Orleans was increased in 1947 with the introduction of the City of New Orleans. Originally a "daytime" train, its service was aimed at the rural and intermediate income markets and provided a 16-hour schedule between the two cities.
In 1971, passenger service through Champaign changed drastically, when Illinois Central joined the Amtrak passenger system and all passenger service through Champaign was immediately discontinued, except for the City of New Orleans and the Shawnee. The City of New Orleans was renamed the Panama Limited, but Amtrak changed the name back after a short time. Eventually the Shawnee was renamed the Illini.
Every station has a story.
The first train station in Champaign was little more than a shed. The Doane House, West Urbana's first real train station, was built in 1856, serving as a depot, hotel, telegraph office and social center for the community until it burned to the ground in 1898. In early 1899, the ICRR built a depot. And while it may not have been the grand building the community was expecting, it served as a reception center for many landmark events in C-U history. President McKinley, President Roosevelt and President Diaz of Mexico all spoke from its platform. The Liberty Bell was also displayed there on its way to the St. Louis exposition.
On July 2, 1923, many changes began taking place around the Champaign train station. The old depot was settled onto its new foundation that day, after having been moved 114 feet north of its original location. Even when moving, it remained in service with hoses providing gas and water. On August 9, 1924, the new Champaign train station was dedicated. The depot served as many as seven trains and included a waiting room, smoking room, ticket office, railroad offices and dining facilities. Along with the construction of the depot, the track was elevated to relieve track congestion. The earth for this project was dredged from the section that passes through Paxton.
The Big Four Railroad
The Danville, Urbana, Bloomington and Pekin Railroad Company, incorporated August 28, 1866, eventually built a road from Danville to Pekin and to the eastern boundary of Illinois. This rail line merged with a line in Indiana to form the Indianapolis, Bloomington and Western Railway Company. The railroad was opened to traffic on October 1, 1869.
The IB&W, or the "I Better Walk" as it was affectionately known, made Urbana a stable and independent community. Prior to its construction, freight shipments were made between Urbana and Champaign via a horse-drawn streetcar system. Direct rail made delivery easier and more reliable. The new railroad had been a bargaining factor in obtaining Danville's strong support for locating the University of Illinois in Champaign County. The IB&W eventually became the Peoria and Eastern Railway Company (P&E).
On February 22, 1890, the P&E "surrendered to The Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway Company (The Big Four) the operation and control of its railroad." This was one of three railroads to provide passenger and freight service to Urbana. People were also transported to and from Urbana via the Wabash Railroad and the Illinois Traction or Illinois Terminal Line (See the Interurban and Trolley section).
The Big Four opened a yard and shops on the east side of Urbana in April of 1871. This location now houses MTD's garage and offices, but before that there were machine shops, switching yards and a roundhouse capable of servicing 15 steam engines. In 1897 the shops underwent major renovations. A smoke stack for a power plant was erected, becoming a landmark in the Urbana area. The stack was 133½ feet tall and 13 feet square at the base. There was also a water tower with a capacity of 100,000 gallons. After the turn of the century, the "Big Four" reverted back to the Peoria and Eastern Railroad.
Urbana's train station was located near the Downtown area. It now houses a small theater on Broadway Street. This station provided service for both the Big Four and the Wabash Railroads. The Big Four had a second station on the line in Champaign, which was located near Neil and Randolph. The last passenger train passed through Urbana in 1959.