FreightWaves Classics/Fallen Flags: Wabash Railroad Served the Midwest, Its Industries, and Its People (Part 1)

Many people are interested in old transportation companies, whether trucking companies, railroads, airlines or shipping lines. These companies are called “fallen flags” and the term describes companies whose corporate names have been dissolved by merger, bankruptcy or liquidation.

Today’s FreightWaves Classics features another fallen flag in the railroad industry – the Wabash Railroad. Although many would say it was “just a Midwestern bridge line,” the Wabash Railroad had a very interesting heritage. Also, it achieved pop culture status due to the folk song “The Wabash Cannonball” as well as a legendary “Follow The Flag” logo and slogan.

The Wabash Railroad flag.  (Image: stthomaspubliclibrary.ca)
The Wabash Railroad flag.
(Image: stthomaspubliclibrary.ca)

Ancient history

The Illinois Legislature passed transportation legislation in 1837 that sought to connect the state with more than 1,300 miles of new railroads at a cost of $10 million.

One railroad that was started because of the legislation was the Northern Cross Railroad, which was to connect Quincy and the Indiana state line to Danville, via Springfield and Decatur. Like many early railroads, the plan did not come to fruition; however, railroad backers traveled 56 miles between Meredosia and Springfield in October 1841 before their money ran out.

Due to financial problems at the Northern Cross, the state decided to lease the property. While another group of investors took over the railroad in May 1842, their efforts also failed. The railroad charter was purchased on April 26, 1847, by Nicholas Ridgely, a prosperous Springfield speculator. Ridgeley injected the necessary capital into the railroad, then sold part of his stake to Thomas Mather of Springfield and James Dunlap of Jacksonville, who reorganized the railroad as Sangamon & Morgan Railroad. The men spent heavily to restore rail service and later sold their shares to New York investors for $100,000.

On July 22, 1849, trains resumed running on the line, and the railway’s western head end was extended from Meredosia to Naples. The new owners reorganized the railway again on February 13, 1853; the railway was renamed Great Western Railroad.

As the Great Western Railroad, significant expansion took place; by November 1856, rails had been laid at Danville and connections to the Illinois Central were made, creating new traffic opportunities for the Great Western. (At that time, the Illinois Central was the largest railroad in the nation. To read a two-part FreightWaves Classics article on the Illinois Central, follow this link, then this link).

Unfortunately, the Panic of 1857 caused financial damage to many businesses. The Great Western was again reorganized, becoming the Great Western Rail Road (GWRR). This railroad merged with the Toledo & Western Rail Road (T&W) in June 1865 to create the Toledo, Wabash & Western Railway (TW&W).

The T&W had been founded in October 1858. Once connected to the Great Western at the Illinois/Indiana border, the TW&W had a 522-mile network that stretched from Quincy and Keokuk, Iowa (accessible through GWRR’s lease from the Illinois & Southern Iowa Rail Road) in Toledo, Ohio.

Author H. Roger Grant points out in his book “Follow the Flag, A History of the Wabash Railroad Company”, that the TW&W succeeded because of the region’s agricultural products and rapidly expanding population. The TW&W had no debt and brought in over $4 million in 1868, which led to further growth.

The railroad began using steel rails rather than iron for its expansions. Then it acquired the Decatur & East St. Louis Rail Road in August 1870. The acquired railroad connected its namesake towns and provided TW&W access to the key St. Louis gateway.

A Wabash locomotive and a tender.  (Photo: southillinoisrailroads.com)
A Wabash locomotive and a tender. (Photo: southillinoisrailroads.com)

Controlled by the Goulds

Another financial panic occurred in the United States (and much of the rest of the world) in 1873. TW&W went bankrupt in February 1875 as a result of the Panic of 1873.

However, the TW&W was well positioned; in addition, it still carried revenue-generating passengers and cargo. Consequently, its reorganization was brief. On January 10, 1877, it emerged from bankruptcy as the Wabash Railway. Over the next 50 years, the railway had several names, but most were similar to this name.

The railroad is named after the Wabash River, a 475-mile long river that flows southwest from northwestern Ohio near Fort Recovery through northern Indiana into Illinois. , where it forms the southern part of the Illinois-Indiana border before emptying into the Ohio River. The name “Wabash” is an anglicization of the river’s French name, “Ouabache”. French traders named the river after the Miami native tribe’s word for the river.

Cornelius K. Garrison acquired the St. Louis, Kansas City & Northern Railroad (StLKC&N) in early 1877. The railroad connected St. Louis and Kansas City and also had a northern branch. In November 1878, Garrison also acquired the Wabash.

A worn magazine cover features the Wabash.  (photodecatur.blogspot.com)
A worn magazine cover features the Wabash. (photodecatur.blogspot.com)

During his brief period of ownership, Garrison improved both railroads. In 1879, financier Jay Gould (also known as one of the worst “robber barons” of the time) acquired a large block of Wabash stock. He convinced Garrison to sell his stock, while getting the StLKC&N.

After taking control of both railroads, Gould merged them into the new 1,400-mile Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific (WStL&P) in November 1879. Gould also initiated a key lease of the Hannibal & Naples Railroad, which reached Hannibal, Missouri on the west bank of the Mississippi River. From there points further west were accessible. In 1880 the Wabash reached Chicago after opening a 90-mile extension north of Strawn known as the Chicago & Strawn Railway.

Jay Gould.  (Photo: househistory.com)
Jay Gould. (Photo: househistory.com)

To reach downtown Chicago, Gould obtained track rights from the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad. This provided access to Dearborn Station (a shared facility with Santa Fe, Chesapeake & Ohio, Chicago & Eastern Illinois, Erie Railroad, Grand Trunk Western, and Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railway). The first WStL&P passenger train from Chicago to St. Louis ran on August 9, 1880.

As the WStL&P built eastward, Gould also looked west toward the Council Bluffs-Omaha Gateway. He sought interchange with the transcontinental Union Pacific (as did many Midwestern railroads). Gould completed the interchange in October 1879 by combining leases and new construction.

Meanwhile, an expansion in Detroit was also being completed. In 1879, the 93-mile Eel River Railroad, which ran from Logansport to Butler, Indiana, was leased. This was followed by the incorporation of Detroit, Butler & St. Louis for the remaining 114 miles into Detroit. The new corridor was opened on August 14, 1881.

The Wabash grew rapidly under Gould’s leadership. This was accomplished primarily by leasing smaller railroads rather than new construction. Among the railroads Gould leased was the Des Moines & St. Louis Railroad, which provided access to Des Moines, the capital of Iowa. By 1884 the Wabash controlled over 3,500 miles of track.

However, during Gould’s attempt to create a true coast-to-coast railroad system, his finances became overstretched. His various railways went bankrupt, including the WStL&P (May 28, 1884). Additionally, most of its leased railroads reverted to their original owners.

Gould, however, was able to retain his core network, which served Kansas City, Omaha, St. Louis, Chicago, Toledo and Detroit. On May 15, 1889, these railroad operations emerged from receivership as the Wabash Railroad. Gould managed to retain control of the railroad, and despite its many shortcomings, Gould created much of what has become the modern Wabash system.

The well-known Wabash logo originated in 1886 when the railroad began flying a flag and banner in red with the words “The Wabash Line” displayed in gold, surrounded by a smaller blue rectangle. Its slogan was “The Central States Banner Line”, which was later shortened to “The Banner Road” in the 1890s.

This map shows the major towns served by the Wabash Railroad.  (industrialscenery.blogspot.com)
This map shows the major towns served by the Wabash Railroad. (industrialscenery.blogspot.com)

The years 1890-1910

When Gould died in December 1892, his son George inherited his possessions. George Gould continued his father’s quest for a transcontinental railroad. By the turn of the 20th century, young Gould had nearly fulfilled his (and his father’s) dream. In addition to controlling the Wabash, Gould controlled the Missouri Pacific, Western Pacific, Denver & Rio Grande Western, Western Maryland, and Wheeling & Lake Erie.

After completing the Wheeling & Lake Erie rail line to Wheeling, West Virginia, it was later extended east to Pittsburgh as the Wabash-Pittsburgh Terminal Railway (which was completed in 1904) . All that remained to be built was a 50-mile segment from Pittsburgh to Connellsville (which was later built by the Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railroad).

George Gould.  (Photo: findagrave.com)
George Gould. (Photo: findagrave.com)

Ironically, young Gould repeated his father’s mistake and also overstretched his available capital. This caused Gould’s empire to crumble, much like his father’s a generation earlier. The Wabash went into receivership again on December 26, 1911. With George’s financial ruin, the Gould family’s involvement in the Wabash ended.

However, during George Gould’s tenure there were two notable accomplishments – an improved Chicago Corridor as well as access to Buffalo, New York. The first was started in 1891 as the Montpelier & Chicago Rail Road, which built a direct route between Detroit/Toledo and Chicago. The 150-mile connector separated from the main line from Detroit to Montpelier, Indiana, and opened on April 21, 1893. Gould was able to end his dependence on track rights on the Erie’s Railroad Chicago & Atlantic.

As for Buffalo, Gould has entered into an agreement with the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada. Rather than laying track, Gould leased track rights for 230 miles of the Grand Trunk Railroad through southern Ontario on January 24, 1898. The lease became a key part of the Wabash system.

Author’s Note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of American-Rails.com. Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating in North America – and which ones are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.

Additionally, those interested in learning more about the Wabash should visit the Wabash Railroad Historical Society (www.wabashrhs.org).

A Wabash Railroad advertising poster.  (Image: Monticello Railroad Museum/tripadvsor.com)
A Wabash Railroad advertising poster.
(Image: Monticello Railroad Museum/tripadvsor.com)

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