Pekin’s Railway History
“There’s something about the sound of a train that’s very romantic and nostalgic and hopeful.”
A Complicated Journey
Pekin’s railroad history is a series of stops and starts, big plans, mismanaged mergers and failures. In February of 1853 the Illinois River Rail Road Company was chartered. By September of 1856 the line was organized and on the 4th of July 1859, the first rail was laid in Pekin. A grand celebration was held in honor of the occasion. According to an 1861 city directory, the line was completed as far as Virginia, IL, 62 miles from Pekin, and a rail fair of $2.25, passing through Hainesville, Manito, Forest City, Topeka, Havana, Bath, Saidora and Chandlerville.
On June 11th, 1863, the Illinois Railroad Company was taken over by the Pekin, Peoria and Jacksonville Railroad (PP&J) thus, taking the line into Jacksonville. Two years later the PP&J merged with the Peoria and Springfield, extending service to those points. About 1892, control of the line was placed in the hands of the Chicago, Peoria and Saint Louis (CP&STL). In general terms, the CP&STL controlled the railroad until 1926, when the later day Chicago and Illinois Midland (C&IM)purchased the line. The C&IM ran from Peoria to Springfield via Havana, using the same right of way as the original Illinois River Railroad Company. When the C&IM took over the property of the CP&STL, it gained possession of the old depot on Broadway and 3rd streets which had been built by the PP&J. The structure, erected in 1873, is still standing, making it one of the older buildings in the city.
Two other railroads of local importance were the Peoria and Pekin Union Railway (P&PU), which was organized in 1880. The railroad has served basically as a switching line for other main line roads operating between Peoria and Pekin two years after its founding. The P&PU operated a total of 51 miles of track, over 60% of which was yards and sidings. Still the P&PU was one of the smaller railroads in the country in terms of total equipment and trackage; however, it was also one of the most successful financially.
2004 – Present
In 2004, the P&PU was leased to the Tazewell and Peoria Railroad. It still occupies a unique posture among terminal railroad properties coordinating as it does the activities of various trunk lines entering the cities of Pekin and Peoria. It also eliminates a vast amount of switching services at industries which would otherwise have to be performed by the individual railroads.
The second railroad of local importance is the Peoria and Pekin Terminal Company later known as the Peoria Terminal Company or the PT. Organized in the late 1890s, this road was also unique among railways in that it combined under one management a street railway, an inter-urban electric railway and a steam railroad, all using the same tracks. It now provides only freight service, using diesel power.
One bygone aspect of railroads and Pekin is the old passenger service. Both the aforementioned P&PU and the PT operated such a service between here and Peoria, but the coming of the automobile made the service less and less needed, and it was discontinued in the late 1920s. Perhaps the most famous passenger train running through Pekin was the “Red Express,” operated jointly by the AT&SF and J.S.E. Lines. This train was equipped with the “latest” pattern Pullman Palace Sleeping Cars as well as reclining-chair cars.
There was also a train called the “Fast Mail” which left Chicago at 7:35 AM passed through Pekin at 1:45 PM and arrived in Saint Louis at 8:00 PM. Its counterpart left Saint Louis at 7:45 AM passed through Pekin at 1:55 PM and arrived in Chicago at 8:00 PM. The day train offered reclining-chair cars and a buffet luncheon served enroute. The AT&SF operated the train from Chicago to Eureka the J.S.E. Line took over the operation of the train at Eureka, operating over the TP&W rails from there to Peoria, and then over their own rails to Saint Louis, stopping at Havana and Jacksonville enroute. Both trains were advertised as the “Travelers Delight”.
Today, there are only freight trains passing through Pekin. But it is still a busy crossing point for Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Canadian National, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific and others.