On January 10, 1877 the “Amboy Journal” printed the floor plans of the new depot that was replacing the original which had burned in November 1857. It would be much different in style than the old one, wooden with a dome on the roof. The Illinois Central would build it to reflect the fact that Amboy was headquarters of the Northern Division with its shops there, too, impressively large.
An engine leaving the station had “pulled the blower” to increase the draft in the smokestack but a shower of sparks blown by a strong wind had carried them onto the roof of the depot and they caught fire. Amboy’s “fire apparatus” was not equal to stopping the conflagration. Within three hours the entire structure was gone.
Rumors immediately began to circulate that headquarters might relocate. After all, the rolling mill had been closed three years before. Employees, businessmen and residents alike were struck by fear and anguish about its economic situation in the future.
A second view of the Shops is pictured here from Anthony Becker’s book showing future shops so you can see how many it might have employed, the major industry in town.
Train arrivals, the ticking of the telegraph were the pulse of the community. Trains and the telegraph connected rural America with the WORLD. And having headquarters on site gave a town prestige and financial security. (The telegraph lines had come into Amboy from LaSalle in 1855. Viewers of Western movies of the past know that railroads and telegraphs came together in the communication world.)
It was estimated that while the Illinois Central was being constructed the length of Illinois there were from eight to ten thousand employed. Camps of laborers were situated along the entire route in its construction. There were probably four to five hundred at Amboy alone. Many of them were Irish, immigrants mostly, who had come to America in hope of finding streets of gold or at least laying the shiny rails. The “camp” at Amboy in the southwest quarter of town, south of the Main street to the river and west of the Shops was called the “Patch” and remained that well into the twentieth century. The shacks and shanties were humble and held large families each. Nearly every family had a cow and pig that roamed at will throughout. Despite their humble circumstances, there was little depression or glum mood ... The furniture of the house would regularly be moved outside, a fiddle player sought and dance music filled the air. The Irish potato famine that had sent many to America was forgotten for awhile. And gardens here were productive.
Before the railroad arrived in 1854, the well-to-do farmers such as Joseph Farwell and John Appleton knew that with dedicated promotion the railroad could come through this section of the county. Several residents got together as early as 1850, April, to ready themselves by having a town meeting, though there was no town.
Farwell was the chairman as he usually was, Appleton, the Clerk. The minutes of the meeting show that there were seventeen actions with votes taken on each.
Of the seventeen, six had to do with the Activities of Sheep and Swine roaming on the “commons,” as they did in most communities then (at large or a pasture set aside). Number ten in the minutes said that Sheep and Swine would not run at will. Number eleven reminded citizens that this would be in effect within thirty days from passage. A penalty of twelve and a half cents would fine the owners of the “roamers.” This was rejected. The next motion was to reconsider the previous.
Number fifteen refined the fine by station that only Sheep and Swine who did damage would be penalized the 12½ cents, if the “roamers” did no damage, nothing would be charged. You see how the important things have changed over the years. Yesterday it was livestock at large, today sewer lines and heavy equipment! Appointed, however, were the important officers who would get things done: the Constable, Poor Commissioner, Assessor, Collector, Road Commissioner, Justice of the Peace and Pound master, the last of whom must have been kept busy with those sheep and swine at large. As population grew these offices were passed on to county, township level as well.
During the early eighteen fifties, the Villages of Shelburn (Rocky Ford) and Binghampton were growing slowly and steadily with the necessary trades. The land between the two was being looked to for investment in case the railroad would pass there. It was fairly much a sure thing. Sellers and buyers competed. But the complexities of building more than seven hundred miles of railroad over the varying landscape of Illinois was, indeed, a plan to reckon with. You remember that back then ALL work was done by manpower or horse and mule power assisting.
Tons of earth were moved by man or beast, no mechanical or motorization ... Smoothing, scraping, shoveling was accomplished by muscle. But the knowledge and ability of those civil engineers and laborers can be seen in the sturdy railroad stone bridges, the culverts and tunnels all pointed the right way. The grades piled up to carry the thousands of freight cars still passing over them, is all to be given tribute.
The first depot, the “Passenger House,” (in capitals) was the first and last genuine hotel Amboy would ever have. Its fifty beds (with extra cots) would not be found in the second station. It had been 40 ft. by 100 ft, two and a half stories and was much admired by locals and travelers but it was reduced to ashes a cold November night in 1875.
The worry and anxiety that had filled many a person’s head was reduced to nought the spring of 1876 when, this time, rumor flew house to house, business to business, that the depot would be constructed on approximately the old site but in a modern design.
Company architect, James Noequet, certainly outdid himself with that plan.
The second depot, that which stands today, was divided into ten rooms; separate waiting rooms for women and men, a trains man’s room baggage, conductors’ space and a room for a fireproof vault and one for the batteries that powered the telegraph.
A fine curved stairway led to the upper level. Walnut rail and spindles lent a bit of style. There were no beds or cots as the original’s had (no restaurant either). There were rooms for trains men, superintendent of headquarters, Northern Division. Another vault room, storage and a telegraph room. It was spacious and had nice woodwork for a public building. There were fifty large windows to be envied, they let in light in the days before electricity. The bustle of the train traffic and the large employment at the Shops gave the town’s economy healthy stimulation, but like all things, times and methods changed.
Northern Division headquarters was removed elsewhere in 1894, forty years after its dominating presence. In 1904 and again during WWI the yards were expanded.
By August of 1920, however, railroad traffic reached its peak ... Three passenger trains a day each way, thirty-five cent trains a day Amboy to Clinton, eighteen from Amboy to Freeport and three switch engines in the yards. But by 1925 traffic was beginning to wane. Some of the passengers were taken off. In 1931 the terminal was closed and in 1937 passenger trains ceased altogether. The year before, ‘36, bus routes had already been laid out, a route to replace the trains. They, too, eventually quit in favor of the individual auto. During WWII there was a flurry of activity with vast amounts of military freight from the Green River Ordinance just west of Amboy. Following the War, that output ended, too, and the Illinois Central abandoned its service altogether.
In 1967 the depot, too, was closed. The railroad chapter of Amboy’s history had ended after more than a hundred years of its creating the town and giving it its reputation as a humming center of enterprise.
Shortly after the railroad’s closure, Amboy’s mayor, Clemens Schuette, contacted the Illinois Central requesting the possibility the depot could be used as a museum. The I.C. replied that if a sponsor could be found to guide it, they would be agreeable. Despite strong efforts on Amboy’s part, no sponsor could be discovered and the idea was dropped until the Bicentennial approached. A committee was organized for it. That committee met with the president of the Illinois Central in December of 1973, a grant of $2,500 was applied for and a matching amount was pledged by locals. Fund raising of every sort took place, all amounts were accepted so that in spring of 1974 volunteers began cleaning, painting, restoring. In June of ‘74, the Museum was opened with five room rehabilitated. Since then work has continued, some changes in focus made in the venerable, but elegant 19th century building open to the public to provide a glimpse of the past into the industry that so changed and expanded America. See it. Amboy celebrates “Depot Days” in August annually.