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Stereograph of multiple train lines converging with a train engine coming towards the camera.
Network of main line tracks and relay depot, railroad yards, East St. Louis, Ill. Photographer unknown, 1917. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

All Aboard! Next Destination: Middle America

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This is a guest post by Britt Long, Detailed Reference Librarian in the Geography and Map Division.

Since the founding of the United States of America, our country has been in the import and export business. We have bartered and traded goods across land and sea, developing systems of transportation that are both innovative and reliable. From the first horse drawn carriage to motorized streetcars and automobiles, as a country, we remain consistent in our need to build infrastructure that keeps us connected and evolving. In a high demand world, we take pride in our ability to quickly get information and goods from one place to another. Though many ways of transportation have changed or become extinct, one thing has remained the same: we love our trains.

Part-way through the 19th century, in 1830, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was a 14-mile stretch considered to be revolutionary when it opened. This tracking system was the first in North America. Since then, the railing system in the United States expanded from one coast to the other, hauling freight and passengers to and from destinations across the nation. The fascinating thing about the railway system is how much of an impact Middle America has had on the success of its operation.

Map of Illinois with multi colored lines showing the railroads and a red list of railroad crossings.
Railroad map of Illinois. Map by Rand McNally & Co., Jan 1896. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Middle America doesn’t get much shine when it comes to cultural and significant influence in the history of our country, however, it plays an important role in the railway transportation system. In the map of Illinois above, from 1896, you see a colorful depiction of the railroad crossings traveling across the state that had interlocking and signaling devices. If you examine it closer you will see that there were two high traffic hubs in the state: Chicago and East St. Louis, Illinois.

As a part of St. Clair County, East St. Louis, IL has played an indelible role in the nation’s railway system. Dating back to 1896, this city at its peak operated over 180 miles of railroad tracking. If you’ve ever visited or driven through this metropolitan area, you know that you cannot drive from one end of the city to the other without crossing at least one set of tracks. Freight trains move in and out of the city on a daily basis, and as I’m sure many locals would agree, there’s nothing more frustrating than getting caught by a train that stops, sits, and waits for its turn to pull into the loading station.

With a current estimated population of over 26,000 people, East St. Louis was listed as a fast freight service port by Frisco Lines in 1912. Depicted in this desk diagram you will see it listed as one of the connecting points from Chicago, along with other Middle American towns such as, Tulsa, OK and St. Louis, MO. These cities have impacted our ability to remain connected and operational for centuries and even more in the midst of a global pandemic.

Black and white line drawing with three large city hubs and smaller lines radiating from those.
Desk Diagram of Fast Freight Service for Busy Merchants. By E.S. Stephens, 1912. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Likewise, this 1850 map by Edward Mendel illustrates the principal lines of rail roads, canals, navigable streams and lakes across multiple states and their coastal connections. The map focuses on Chicago as a major hub used to connect the northwestern United States. Furthermore, it illustrates significant towns within the region and their distances from Chicago.

Black and white map showing the railroad connections across the midwest with Chicago as the hub.
Map Showing the Position of Chicago in Connection with the Northwest…Map by Ed Mendel, 185-. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Dating back to 1836, you can place Chicago in the early developmental stages of the railing system. Located in Cook County in the northern region of the state of Illinois, Chicago is perhaps one of the most important cities when it comes to keeping the railroad network in the United States relevant and operational. As the epicenter, more trains interchange in this city than any other city in the country making Middle America essential to job security and economic growth.

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Comments (2)

  1. Very precise in your description of train activity in East St Louis. I worked at a location in the southeast corridor of the city while living in the northeast section. I can share some getting caught by train stories. It was a busy city with multiple train tracks running north, south, east, and west. Those were the days!

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