The Subject of Kendall County’s New Illinois Midland Railway Book – Shaw Local

One of Kendall County’s few claims to national fame was the answer to a trivial question: What was the shortest standard gauge commercial railroad in the country?

The answer was the Illinois Midland Railway which ran just under 2 miles from Millington to Newark. Admittedly, one wonders if the Midland was really the shortest rail line, but that’s what the trivia books say.

The story of how such a short railroad was built in the first place, then survived until the late 1960s, carrying grain from farmers in Newark to Millington, to Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Fox River Branch Line, and carrying lumber and other backup grade supplies to Newark is the subject of a new book. “Illinois Midland Railway,” an all-new title in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of Rail series, is written by longtime regional railroad historian, Oswego resident Jeff Kehoe. It is available from Arcadia and from Amazon.co.ukBarnes & Noble and other booksellers for $23.99.

The Illinois Midland Railway was behind the railroad game. It wasn’t built until 1912, long after most of the days of corrupt railroad construction had passed.

But why would anyone build a railroad less than 2 miles long? How was Midland born?

The answer means going back to 1912, and a promoter named SG Durant, a guy who could have been the model for Professor Harold Hill from “The Music Man.” Durant’s stated plan was to build a railroad through Kendall County, connecting Rockford to Kankakee. He traveled along the proposed right-of-way seeking donations of $1,000 from landowners along the road. But it received a chilling reception from farmers who owned land along its proposed right-of-way. Many of them probably still remember the financial events that surrounded the former Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Railroad, whose shares of the company became worthless on the day of its opening. The townships and counties — that is, their ratepayers — who subscribed to the actions lost thousands of dollars, and the litigation continued for decades.

Donations didn’t work, Durant decided to donate shares in his railroad, which he named the Illinois Midland Railway. The shares were sold for between $25 and $100 each. He promised to deposit the proceeds of the action in the Newark bank and promised that he would not accept money until “the first train is rolling on the tracks”, in which case he would take a percentage and back down.

A good salesman, Durant sold several thousand dollars worth of stock, then hired a sparse crew to level a roadbed between Millington on the Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad and Newark, on which used ties and light rails used have been placed.

Durant’s story was that work would also begin in Kankakee and work north, and Rockford and work south, with the three sections eventually coming together to create the entire road. But in practice, work progressed slowly, Durant coming up with a variety of inventive excuses for the lack of progress, from bad weather to labor issues.

When the two miles of track between Millington and Newark was completed, Durant held a demonstration. On February 14, 1914, a locomotive leased from the Chicago Minneapolis & St. Paul Rail Road ran the line, carrying passengers from the Millington Siding to downtown Newark. As the Kendall County Record correspondent put it, “Saturday, February 14, 1914, will forever be remembered in Newark, when the first train rolled into town on the new Illinois Midland Railroad. It consisted of the engine, the tender and the baggage and passenger car… We missed Mr. SG Durant, the promoter who made the new route possible. He had gone to busy himself with healing his health, which had no doubt been seriously affected by the unreasonable opposition he had encountered, especially towards the end when the enterprise was beginning to look like a success.

About 300 people met the train in Newark, and everyone was driven to Millington and back.

For two days the railroad ran, and then to everyone’s surprise the Chicago Minneapolis & St. Paul got their locomotive and rolling stock back, Durant had already withdrawn most of the Illinois Midland money from the bank and headed south, and rail links to Kankakee and Rockford were never completed.

Durant explained that a train had indeed “rolled over the tracks” from Millington to Newark, and so he took his cut and scampered off, leaving everyone to hold the bag.

The matter was litigated, but the farmers thought they could really use the little railroad. So they formed a union and raised money to secure the right of way, install bigger tracks, build a grain elevator in Newark, and buy rolling stock. The small, second-hand saddle-tank steam locomotive they bought proved a winner, able to pull wagons loaded with lumber and coal to Newark and back to Millington loaded with grain.

In 1922, the Newark Farmers Grain Company purchased the coal and lumber business for $10,000 and replaced the old original engine with a newer, albeit still used, locomotive. They bought out the rest of the railroad in 1943.

Although generally handled efficiently, there have been a few incidents, the most memorable of which occurred when a freight car loaded with grain ran away from the crew in Newark and rolled on its own on the line to Millington. The Millington depot agent was contacted and he opened the switch connecting the Midland to the CB&Q line. Apparently the corn load rolled almost to Sheridan before coming to a halt, to be picked up later by the Midland’s engine.

In the fall of 1967, vandals burned two small bridges carrying the Midland across Clear Creek, and it was decided to finally close shop, with the freight duties taken over by the trucks.

Today, the Illinois Midland Railway is but a fond, if cherished, memory for some of Kendall County’s alumni and railroad enthusiasts, and the subject of Jeff Kehoe’s new book, that preserves so many historical stories of the little railroad.

• Looking for more local history? To visit http://historyonthefox.wordpress.com.

Jessica C. Bell