“We found a new pattern of life forming in the midlands of America, Illinois, and set out to find the best location, visiting the numerous towns in the search. Finally I came to Amboy, the Northern Division headquarters of the Illinois Central Railroad, about thirty miles north of LaSalle. It had been incorporated the year before (1854) with a population of 1,994 and seemed certain for prosperous growth,” wrote Samuel Carson, a Scotsman who had with another Scot as partner, John Pirie, set up a temporary stand at LaSalle for a dry goods store.
The two agreed to try the newly organized town but their was no building the correct size to accommodate them until, just ready to leave, someone told them that the Vigilantes had run a saloon out of town and they could probably rent those rooms. Receipts the first day were forty dollars which they considered a good amount after being in America only eight months. A short time later they had to find larger quarters so they bought a building for twenty-five hundred dollars, fifteen hundred dollars of which was in notes. The mortgage was paid off before due which made tongues around town waggle, for certain. Profit the first year was $2,500, a comfortable sum. The new railroad town of Amboy was the founding site of a well-known, long-time department store in Chicago to which they moved to reach more customers and taking on a third partner, Scott, to become known as Carson, Pirie, Scott & Co. They had been in Amboy since its beginning were there for ten years, till 1865.
That anecdote is but one example of the “boomtown” Amboy became following its initiatory in 1854 with the arrival of the I.C. Railroad. Another name to be reckoned with was its first newspaper editor, A.N. Dickens, brother to the world famous author, Charles Dickens. His personal life, however, turned out to be worrisome.
At Binghampton, a mile east of Amboy as Shelburn/Rocky Ford was west (last week) and preceding it by a couple decades, were two hotels, the “Binghampton House” and the “Reed Hotel,” the former founded by Asa Searles who was responsible for most of the settlements’ forward progress. It became a thriving place. Searles employed a mid-teen boy as “boy-of-all-work,” Robert Ingersoll who became the nationally noted social activist, orator and agnostic. You’ll have read about him in your Social Studies. Ingersoll’s father was the Congregational minister in Lee Center.
Settlers had come to the area in the mid-1830’s viewing it as a “heavenly place,” and apparently, naming it a complimentary title. One of three reasons for its title, Amboy, was from an Indian word for bowl or basin or between the hills. The third choice is too silly to put down. But some settlers were from Perth Amboy, New Jersey which suggest sanother idea.
Binghampton, however, was named for the town in New York where several of its settlers derived. Asa Searles put forth that suggestion. He was a classmate there while growing up, of Joseph Smith the prophet of the Church of Latter Day Saints and who often visited this neighborhood because of his wife’s relatives lived at Rocky Ford, the Hales and Watsons (last week). Quite a number of people in the area became Mormons because of Smith’s colorful sermons.
Binghampton (pronounced “Bimmington” by the older locals) had a relatively short term boom but rather wiped out Shelburn’s importance for all that. Binghampton had the two hotels because it had lured the stage line to its doors and all the requisite trades to satisfy its population of that era. Two separate plow factories were organized, the first making every attempt to perfect a scouring moldboard as Deere and Andruss would do just up the road at Grand de Tour but were not successful as was the second plow factory housed in a quaint stone building.
It’s tumbled foundation was later hauled to Amboy to live again as the foundation for the city bandstand at the junction of Main and East Avenue.
Despite the distractions to Amboy and Rocky Ford, Binghampton, Maytown and Temperance Hill, a village that tried to compete with Shelburn’s distillery by having an inn where NO liquor was allowed, Amboy’s first decades were, indeed, booming with the coming of the railroad.
Amboy’s Centennial history, “Biography of a Country Town, USA,” by Fr. Anthony Becker hints at many of the interesting chapters in the town’s past and gives a description of the most important part of the railroad’s past ... It’s shops that drew hundreds for employment and greatly added to the positive economic influence the railroad donated to the community for many years ... “The mechanical department consisted of nine divisions—machine, car repair, blacksmith, paint, boiler, locomotive, wood repair, tin and storehouse. A stationary engine of eight horsepower almost as noiseless as a clock, drove all the machinery in the mechanical department and the blacksmith shops. Steam was supplied from two tubular boilers. In the first shop all the machinery was on the ground floor while on the second story was the locomotive, wood repair and tin shop. The tracks extended into this building and connected with a turntable for convenience in the repair of the locomotive. The blacksmith shop was a one-story affair with a slanted roof, 70 ft. by 125 ft. There were a dozen or more forges with a large one in the middle with a trip hammer. The car repair shop was one-story high, 50 ft. by 150 ft. Two tracks went nearly its full length. On both sides were work benches. Repair work was done here though two complete engines were actually built there. The engine house was a circular brick building 216 ft. in diameter with an open spacious court in which there was a turntable with tracks radiating into twenty-seven engine departments. Large doors hung at the entrances in the inner walls. Here you could always see a noble “stud” of the iron horses, with “grooms” fitting them up for the road. The oil room and the sand house were 30 ft. by 50 ft., the stationary room was forty feet square. The store house, built in World War I, was a one story 30 ft. by 120 ft. long. The tank house 25 ft. by 65 ft., situated southeast of the engine house. The lower story was used for storage and the upper had two large tanks with water from Inlet Creek, a quarter mile away.
Mike Egan should not be forgotten because he was in charge of the masonry; building the shops. He also built the tall smokestack that had “1855,” the date of its construction in white brick. The shops are pictured here from Becker’s book.
Another excellent craftsman was Dan Clark who was in charge of the carpentry. They brought their families here to live.
While speaking of “living arrangements” it should be noted that a majority of the laborers and craftsmen on the entire I.C. project were the Irish, mostly immigrants straight from Ireland. They lived in the southwest quarter of town, south of Main Street, between it and the river. It was always called the “Patch” with its humble shanties at which each family had a cow and a pig to add character to the neighborhood. Those people gave Amboy a special, unique touch with their large families and joyful nature. It is estimated that as many as eight to ten thousand worked the entire length of the Illinois Central during its construction. And Amboy was an important station in its history.
The second depot pictured here in a wonderful sketch of the grand and impressive depot that replaced the original. It had burned in late 1875 when an engine pulling out of the station with the engineer “pulling the blower” to blast steam into the smokestack to increase the draft. It also sent a shower of sparks into the sky where a brisk wind carried them onto the roof of the depot. The city’s fire apparatus was inadequate to the job of obliterating the blaze. In three hours nothing remained. Not only the fifty beds that were the “Passenger House” hotel (plus cots) were gone, the ticket office was gone, the telegraph office was destroyed. Rumors immediately arose. The company wouldn’t replace the depot. Headquarters would be moved elsewhere. The shops would close and employment here end.
Anxiety, desperation filled most of the homes and businesses around town, the “Patch” and elsewhere. What occurred then?