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Vandalia crucial to Illinois railroad history

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Fayette County History

By Linda Hanabarger

Editor Thomas Lakin of The Vandalia Union newspaper once wrote, “Vandalia is the cradle in which the infant Illinois was rocked.”


To be sure, with the center of Illinois’ government at Vandalia from 1819 to 1839, all that went into the formation of early Illinois happened here.
One important facet of the growth of the infant state was railroads. In 1836, the Illinois legislature began debating plans for a railroad to be built through the center of the state.
These debates resulted in the Internal Improvements Act of 1837. Two lines were proposed – one to run through the state north to south and the second an east-west line.  Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas were both supporters of the act, whereby railroads and canals would be built.
From the beginning, the name of the east-west line was to be "The Vandalia Line," in honor of the capitol town. As far as the railroads were concerned, the Internal Improvements Act was a failure. One section, from Springfield to the Illinois River, was completed.
Congress gave the Illinois Central Railroad every other section of land through the center of the state, and a railroad linking Cairo to Chicago was begun around 1850.  Not only was the railroad expected to speed transportation of goods, it was anticipated that increased settlement on the prairie lands of Central Illinois would result.
In December 1854, the rail line from Cairo to Vandalia was completed. A year earlier, a story-and-a-half frame depot was built, and this building served Vandalia for 70 years before being replaced by a brick depot building.
Not long after the railroad was complete,  the Illinois Central began to offer free and half-price fares to view the 1 million acres of land the railroad had for sale in the center of the state.
One of the major migrations into Fayette County occurred around the time of the Civil War, when a group of German immigrants, living in Wisconsin, took the railroad up on their offer and came to Central Illinois.
The Sasse, Oertwig, Malchow, Fellwock, Maske and Wasmuth families were included in this group. Several members of these families became founding members of St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church at St. Paul.
On Feb. 10, 1865, William Riley McKeen chartered the East St. Louis, Vandalia and Terre Haute Railroad Co. Three years later, on Dec. 7, 1868, the first train made the run from East St. Louis to Vandalia. There being but one way here, once the train reached Vandalia, it had to back all the way up to East St. Louis.
Also called The Vandalia Railroad or,  even more commonly, The Van, controlling interest in the railroad was obtained by the Pennsylvania Railroad system in 1917. Soon after, all of the locomotive numbers were changed to Pennsy numbers.
In 1965, The Pennsylvania and New York Central merged to form Penn-Central. Three years later, they declared bankruptcy. In 1976, Conrail was formed by the federal government from several failed eastern railroads, Penn-Central included. 
Regular passenger trains operated through Vandalia until the 1940s. Special stops were made during World War II to pick up men headed for service. Even in the 1950s, a special stop was made so Santa Claus could visit Vandalia children.
Several wrecks have occurred within our city limits. In December 1937, the “American” crashed into the rock retaining wall opposite the Old Statehouse building when a wheel on the fourth coach broke in two. The train was traveling at 70 miles per hour. The engineer was able to stop the train before it reached the trestle crossing the Kaskaskia River.
In 1962, a wreck took out the "camel hump" bridge linking the Madison Street community with Gallatin Street, with several homes being damaged. In this incident, the engine and at least one car ended up in the Kaskaskia River.
When the Illinois Central closed its north-south line through Vandalia in 1981, the city bought the three and one-half miles of track.  Almost ever since that time a “Vandalia Railroad” switch engine has shuttled freight cars from Vandalia’s manufacturing concerns to the Conrail main line.
The building of railroads in Illinois was important to the formation of the state, and it all started here in Vandalia, with the approval of the Internal Improvements Act.