Today’s Jane Addams Trail spans nearly 15 miles, following the former Illinois Central’s (IC) branch to the state capital of Wisconsin at Madison. Coincidentally, this line and one other would constitute the railroad’s only reach into the Badger State. The route’s history can be traced back to the 1880s, when the IC was rapidly expanding throughout the Midwest to reach new markets and connect other parts of its system. It remained within the railroad’s network for nearly a century. During the early 1970s, the IC merged with a rival, which turned out to be less than successful. In an effort to improve the road’s fortunes, hundreds of miles of excess trackage was either sold or removed during the 1980s, including the Madison line. For some years, it was operated by a short line, until declining traffic resulted in its abandonment during the late 1990s.

Before Canadian National acquired the Illinois Central in 1998, it was the oldest independently operated Class I railroad still in service, with a chartering dating back to 1851. Via land grants, the IC’s “charter line” stipulated that the road build north to south across the state. By late 1856, it had opened this route between Cairo and Dunleith (453 miles), as well as another route to Chicago via Centralia; the lines roughly resembled a “Y”). In all, the IC boasted a system covering more than 700 miles, at the time the largest in the country. During the Civil War, further growth was halted, although the railroad proved vital in the movement of soldiers and materials. Following the conflict, expansion continued in efforts to stretch the system southward to the Gulf Coast. To accomplish this, IC relied on new construction, along with acquiring or leasing smaller railroads, such as the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley and the Chesapeake & Ohio Southwestern.

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By the early 20th century, the IC snaked across western Tennessee, served Memphis, and operated a plethora of trackage throughout Mississippi, its lines terminating at the strategic port of New Orleans. The road also stretched into other parts of Louisiana, reached Birmingham, Louisville (Kentucky), and Indianapolis. The IC was unique in operating a north–south system (only the later Gulf, Mobile & Ohio was similar in this respect), whereby most trunk lines served a more traditional east–west routing. The northerly part of the IC system took shape during the 1880s. In 1886, it incorporated the Chicago, Madison & Northern to connect Chicago with Freeport, which lay along its western route to Dunleith. This new section connecting the two lines was opened in 1891 and included a 62-mile route to Wisconsin’s capital (known as the Madison Branch), which makes up today’s Jane Addams Trail. There were several small towns located along this corridor, including Buena Vista, Orangeville, Clarno, Monroe, Monticello, Belleville, Basco, and Summit.

By the turn of the 20th century, the IC sprawled across Iowa, reaching Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, and Fort Dodge, as well as Albert Lee (Minnesota), Sioux Falls (South Dakota), and Omaha, Nebraska. Additionally, it was also able to open service into St. Louis by the 1ate 1890s. According to Mike Schafer’s book “Classic American Railroads,” the Illinois Central entered the new century as one of the most respected railroads in the country, with multiple routes slicing throughout the heart of the Midwest. Its freight base was highly diversified, moving everything from coal to bananas. In the coming years, it boasted several famous streamliners: “City of Miami,” “City of New Orleans,” “Panama Limited,” and “Green Diamond.” Throughout much of the 20th century, except the Depression years, the IC was a well-managed and profitable system.

The Illinois Central’s primary terminal in Freeport was Wallace Yard, which became a major division point on the railroad because it sat at the convergence of five different lines running east to Chicago, west to Iowa, north to Madison and Dodgeville (the latter branch was abandoned in 1942), and south to Centralia. According to Jim Boyd’s book “The American Freight Train,” in its later years, the Madison Branch was operated by a daily local freight that ran every day except Sundays and served mostly agriculture-based customers, cheese factories, and the University of Wisconsin’s power plant. In 1972, IC merged with long-time rival Gulf, Mobile & Ohio to form Illinois Central Gulf (ICG). Because both systems served many of the same areas, the success of the union was not particularly fruitful. As a result, ICG’s balance sheets bled, and parent Illinois Central Industries attempted to sell the floundering railroad to no avail.

In 1980, deregulation came to the industry, giving railroads more freedom to set freight rates and abandon or sell excess and/or unprofitable trackage. This move, coupled with new management, saw ICG spin off hundreds of miles from its network. At this time, the Madison line was sold to a new startup short line known as the Chicago, Madison & Northern, which operated it for a few years before turning it over to the Central Wisconsin Railroad and later the Wisconsin & Calumet. In 1992, Wisconsin & Southern Railroad (still in operation) acquired the latter and embargoed the Madison Branch a year later. From then on, the line predominantly sat dormant until the tracks were eventually removed, making way for today’s Jane Addams Trail.

Illinois has several museums and excursion trains, including the Amboy Depot Museum in Amboy; Chicago Great Western Railway Depot Museum in Elizabeth; the Depot Railroad Museum in Rossville; the Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin; the Galesburg Railroad Museum in Galesburg; the Historic Greenup Depot in Greenup; the Illinois Railway Museum in Union (one of the largest in the country); the Kankakee Railroad Museum in Kankakee; the Monticello Railway Museum in Monticello; the Silver Creek & Stephenson Railroad in Freeport; and the Union Depot Railroad Museum in Mendota.