The History of Joliet – Chapter 6

By John Whiteside of The Herald News (used with permission)

Submitted by Nancy Vargo

Despite the risks, residents clamored for fast transportation

“As railroads expanded across the country, people in Joliet desired the faster method of travel. There were public hearings on the need, and newspapers called for a railroad to link Joliet to the rest of the country.”

By John WHITESIDE of The Herald News

Nothing was more important to the growth of the young city of Joliet than the coming of the railroads. But the rails of steel brought along disaster, too.

In the early days, a round trip to Chicago by stagecoach could take three days. The 40-mile stage rides were hot and dusty in the summer and cold in the winter. Filled with all kinds of delays along the trip, the rides were uncomfortable no matter what was blowing in the air.

When the I&M Canal was completed, picket boats cut that trip to Chicago in half the time of a stagecoach. The boats were safe but still slow.

As railroads expanded across the country, people in Joliet desired the faster method of travel. There were public hearings on the need, and newspapers called for a railroad to link Joliet to the rest of the country.

In 1852, the Chicago and Rock Island opened a rail line between Joliet and Chicago. A man could ride to Chicago, conduct business and return on the same day.

But on Nov. 1, 1854, residents learned that sudden death rode the rails. It was a Wednesday night, and a horse on the tracks created an accident.

The engine hit the horse and was thrown off the tracks while pulling off two passenger cars. The engine’s steam pipes were severed, which poured the deadly steam into the passenger cars. More than 60 people were scalded, some cooked alive.

A dozen of the passengers, including a family of five, were immediately killed. The next morning the train was pulled into Joliet. The injured people were hauled to a stone house on Scott Street, which was turned into a hospital.

Housewives worked as volunteer nurses with local doctors to take care of the injured passengers. Four more victims died. The patients lingered there for weeks. Several who remained were injured for life with the loss of eyes and hearing.

Meanwhile, more railroads were connecting lines to Joliet. They included the Joliet and Northern Indiana Railroad and the Chicago, Alton and St. Louis Railroad. The latter rail line passed through Wilmington and Lockport as well as Joliet.

During the winter of 1854-55, the Chicago, Alton and St. Louis passenger train passed through Joliet with 350 passengers, 22 of them state legislators. There was a tremendous snowstorm blowing through the area that Jan. 25 day.

The engine froze up near Dwight, and the train halted. Because of the deep snow, passengers remained on the train for six days and nights. Without food, they burned the seats while attempting to keep warm.

But relief was eventually brought to them from nearby farms by sleighs. On the seventh day, the engine was started and limped back to Joliet with the cold and hungry passengers.

On Aug. 16, 1873, a passenger train collided with a coal train in the fog near Joliet. Both trains were traveling at full speed. The dead were counted at 17 with another 40 seriously injured.

But the railroads were there to stay. The rails, which offered quick transportation for freight and passengers alike, had brought great wealth to men like Joel MATTESON and Nelson ELWOOD, each of whom was one of the early settlers here. They were both leading citizens of Joliet. MATTESON had become the governor of Illinois in 1852.

ELWOOD, an accountant and surveyor, became a lawyer and was elected Joliet mayor in 1855. He was one of the original directors of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad.

But while the railroad traffic boomed in the 1850s, the plank roads died. In 1849, the Legislature had approved plank roads. The need was obvious because dirt roads became wet and muddy in bad weather.

The first plank road here linked Joliet and Plainfield along what became U.S. 30. It was considered an innovative concept when the plank road opened on Dec. 1, 1851.

The plank road with long wooden rails 6 feet apart had 8-foot planks that were 3 inches thick. For a small fee, a horse and wagon could move smoothly through nasty weather.

But the plank road was expensive to repair. In good weather people avoided the plank road and rode beside it. In bad weather, they sometimes just ran through the toll gates without paying.

Although several plans were made for more plank roads in Joliet, the business proved to be unsuccessful. As the railroads took on important transportation roles with the beginning of the Civil War, the plank roads disappeared.

Published May 5, 2001