May I submit the attached illustration of Amboy’s railroad station as an example of the state’s, the nation’s most impressive depot, though no longer in use?
With the still wonderful ivory-colored stone in contrast to the red brick giving it a poly chromatic effect, it captures, would you say, the Romanesque style?
This replica of a ballot for state election in 1856 for the Republican ticket, Zenas Aplington for State Senator, 1858. Before the later system of voting by the “Australian Ballot” was used. The original was but 3”x4½” with no “markers” to pen in.
It was built in 1876, nineteen interior rooms originally, it now serves as a museum. Well over a hundred thirty years old it is still eye catching and eye appealing.
Certainly the building must have drawn crowds to see it. A train ride to say Mendota or Dixon would have been a treat but just seeing the depot would too. It’s still worth a look.
The story of the difficulties encountered by the citizens of Illinois in the 1830’s to build a railroad the length of Illinois has been told before. The economy wouldn’t allow it. Plans were put on hold for twelve-to-thirteen years.
Construction was taken up after the seven hundred mile survey was completed in 1851. Laying of track with prior grading and other details was accomplished at points all along the route with the line completed between Springfield and Bloomington in 1853, Mendota and Amboy in ‘54. The first engine reached Amboy November 27 that year.
The railroad company, the Illinois Central, committed a clever piece of subterfuge on nearing Amboy. They bought a farm about a mile north of the present day town, had gravel hauled there and some digging was begun. Adjoining land, of course, went up in price so as to be near the modern marvel that was changing the nation. The site was even given a name—Kepatau. If that odd title was some sort of secretive acronym that only insiders could snicker over, history doesn’t reveal.
It was all merely a feint as the company bought up land at the present city site, the place they actually desired to put the complex of buildings that would become the headquarters of the Northern Division.
The summer of 1853 saw construction of “temporary” passenger and freight houses. They were brick and the first named served as a hotel and ticket agency. It was called the “Passenger House,” a commodious 40 ft. x 140 in.
With no paved roads, long distances were traveled with stops along the way to the destination so hotels, inns, a rented room was necessary in which to stay. Amboy developed into a popular stop-over. The commercial district grew to answer the needs of the travelers and the people moving in to start a business and to seek employment. Only a year or two following its initiation, Amboy is thought to have had over two thousand population. Of course, the place was a “railroad town.” And even though operating out of what was said to be “temporary” buildings, they were “large and comfortable and could turn out any kind of work from construction and repair of rolling stock,” reference states.
The 1881 Lee County history gives many details and names of those who initiated the foundations of the city-to-be. Its rapid growth was “in the nervous fashion of the western town,” is quoted in Anthony Becker’s book of 1954, a Centennial edition of the town’s anniversary, one hundred years.
Oh, the area had settlers before that—farms scattered across the countryside, draining the Winnebago Swamp, tilling the rich fertile prairies. A few were well-to-do to begin with and became even more so as investors in the railroad slicing northward. And there was a settlement already notable at the very west edge of what would be the platted town of Amboy—Shelburn or as it was also known and still identified as Rocky Ford. Where the road west out of present day Amboy crosses the Green River was the ford used “since time immemorial,” reference states. It was a main “highway” for generations of native Americans from Council Bluff to Chicago, before either were a twinkle in anyone’s eye. Major Stillman’s command used it during the Black Hawk War to “gather laurels at Stillman’s Run,” history cynically gives.
It was a safe, usable fording through the wetlands around Green River and the Swamp. By the 1840’s settlement had begun with Timothy Perkins probably being the first. He built a sawmill at the ford. The Peru to Galena road passed nearby and was also making a route for the stage line to follow. If the railroad hadn’t come through, Shelburn might well have grown to become a city. Fate took a hand, however. It was likely that no one realized the drastic changes to occur with the coming of the rails. In 1848 Fredrick Dutcher purchased the sawmill and platted the town of Shelburn, the stream running through its center. By 1856 Dutcher had built a stone gristmill three-four stories high, 60 ft. x 60 ft. with also a distillery, stone, 40 ft. x 40 ft.; two and a half stories in height. Between the two local grain was taken care of. The highly traveled trails brought in traffic and trade from distances around. What with a masonry dam, the property was said to be worth $65,000, an enormous sum.
With the coming of the Illinois Central passing just a half mile away to the east business might be affected. It could after all, haul cars full of grain, wheat and brew, perhaps, cheaper than the locally produced. Few visualized that however. But then in 1859 an immense explosion occurred at the mill, so large it threw a heavy metal boiler more than fourteen rods from the creek and causing general damage.
Ten years later a fire destroyed what had survived of the complex, the “Shelburn Manufacturing Company.”
Shelburn had the plum pioneer settlements desired—a post office, but in the rivalries of that era, “Binghampton” on the east edge of Amboy, wrested it away from its western competitor. Postmasters won their position through political pull so Shelburn was shorn of its important service PLUS its stagecoach stop was hired away. “Too mortifying to be endured, as soon as possible the office was renewed under the name of “Ecuador,” source said. With removal of those businesses, fire and flood, “Shelburn nearly disappeared.” Although today you would never imagine that there was once a bustling village there at the ford, even more dramatic events took place at the site. If activity had taken another turn, history would certainly be different.
The Mormon Joseph Smith’s wife, Emma Hale, had several relation at the west edge of Amboy (or Rocky Ford) whom she visited regularly, the Hales and the Wassons.
Smith also stopped by often on his business and the circuit riding he did to preach the word of the Latter Day Saints. Because he came along at intervals, the charismatic preacher “gathered up a substantial number and a band was formed which grew to considerable proportions in a short time.”
Joseph Smith normally preached in a little log cabin there along the Sublette Road where other denominations met also. Large crowds assembled to hear his “vehement oratory,” raising passions among the audience. This chapter in Rocky Ford history includes, Smith’s arrest there with jailing in Dixon on a controversial warrant issued by the governor of Missouri. We’ll relate in future.
That Rocky Ford/Shelburn was a hotbed of commerce and religious fervor goes without saying. As Fr. Becker states in his book, history emphasizes the interest then at Amboy with the railroad’s dominance.
There is a legend though that has persisted for many decades out at the Rocky Ford and it is that the Mormons during high points of their time in Lee County, decided to build a Temple at the old ford. A foundation had been prepared but other plans took precedence and the stones were hauled away except for a large rock that had been chosen for a cornerstone is said to be still in the general area of the ford ... Either in the creek or as a doorstop for a nearby home. Some study has been made of that and is included in a program of slides and pictures by a local gent. The Temple, of course, was built in Nauvoo, Illinois, a replica of which dominates the hillside there.
A Mormon cemetery existed south of the ford until fairly recent times, perhaps until twenty or twenty-five years ago. It was along a barbed wire fence but has been plowed under or disappeared. One of the many relics of historical interest and influence that are not honored in their time—or later.
There are many stories, exciting and of interest in Northern Illinois. We just don’t emphasize them enough. The growth of Amboy from its railroad heyday is just one. You know how important it must have been with a station like the one pictured here. Next week.