Reflections: Kendall County’s Illinois Midland Railway topic of new book

One of Kendall County’s few claims to national fame was the answer to a trivia question: What was the shortest commercial standard gauge railroad in the country?

The answer was the Illinois Midland Railway that ran for just shy of 2 miles from Millington to Newark. Granted, there’s some question about whether the Midland really was the shortest rail line, but that’s what the trivia books said.

The story of how such a short railroad got built in the first place and then survived until the late 1960s hauling farmers’ grain from Newark down the grade to Millington, on to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Fox River Branch Line, and hauling lumber and other supplies back up the grade to Newark is the subject of a new book. “Illinois Midland Railway,” a brand-new title from Arcadia Publishing’s Images of Rail series, is written by Oswego resident Jeff Kehoe, a longtime historian of regional rail lines. It’s available from Arcadia and from, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers for $23.99.

The Illinois Midland Railway was late to the railroad game. It wasn’t built until 1912, well after most of the days of corrupt railroad building had passed.

Cover of Jeff Kehoe's new book on the Illinois Midland Railway. (Photo provided)

But why would anyone build a railroad less than 2 miles long? How did the Midland come to be?

The answer means going back to 1912, and a promoter named S.G. Durant, a fellow who could have been the model for “The Music Man’s” Professor Harold Hill. Durant’s stated plan was to build a railroad through Kendall County, linking Rockford with Kankakee. He traveled up and down the proposed right of way seeking $1,000 donations from landowners along the route. But he got a chilly reception from the farmers who owned land along his proposed right of way. A lot of them probably still remembered the financial goings-on that surrounded the old Ottawa, Oswego and Fox River Valley Rail Road, of which the company’s stock became worthless the day it opened for business. Townships and counties – that means their taxpayers – along the way who subscribed for stock lost thousands of dollars and the litigation continued for decades.

Donations not working, Durant decided to offer stock in his railroad, which he named the Illinois Midland Railway. Shares were sold for between $25 and $100 each. He promised to deposit the proceeds from the stock in the bank at Newark and promised he wouldn’t accept any money until “the first train rolled over the tracks,” at which point he’d take a percentage and step back.

A good salesman, Durant sold several thousand dollars worth of stock and then hired a sparse crew to level a roadbed between Millington on the Chicago Burlington & Quincy’s railroad and Newark, on which used ties and light, secondhand rails were laid.

Durant’s story was that work also would start in Kankakee and work north, and Rockford and work south, with all three sections eventually meeting to create the entire road. But in practice work went slowly, with Durant coming up with a variety of inventive excuses for the lack of progress, from bad weather to labor problems.

When the two miles of track between Millington and Newark were completed, Durant arranged a demonstration. On Feb. 14, 1914, a locomotive rented from the Chicago Minneapolis & St. Paul Rail Road chuffed up and down the line carrying passengers from the siding at Millington into downtown Newark. As the Kendall County Record’s correspondent put it: “Saturday, February 14, 1914, will be forever a memorable date in Newark, when the first train arrived in town over the new Illinois Midland Railway. It consisted of the engine, tender, and baggage and passenger coach ... We missed Mr. S.G. Durant, the promoter who made the new road possible. He was away attending to the recuperation of his health, which had been seriously affected no doubt by the unreasonable opposition he encountered, especially toward the last when the enterprise began to look like a success.”

An estimated 300 people met the train in Newark, and everyone got a ride to Millington and back.

For two days, the railroad ran, and then to everyone’s surprise, the Chicago Minneapolis & St. Paul reclaimed their locomotive and rolling stock, Durant already had taken out most of the Illinois Midland’s cash from the bank and headed south, and the railroad links to Kankakee and Rockford were never completed.

Durant explained that a train had indeed “rolled over the tracks” from Millington to Newark, and so he took his cut and decamped, leaving everyone else holding the bag.

The case went into litigation, but farmers figured they could really use the little railroad. So they formed a syndicate and raised money to secure the right of way, install more substantial trackage, build a grain elevator in Newark and buy rolling stock. The small, secondhand saddle tank steam locomotive they bought proved a winner, capable of pulling cars loaded with lumber and coal up the grade to Newark and returning to Millington loaded with grain.

In 1922, the Newark Farmers Grain Company bought the coal and lumber business for $10,000 and replaced the original old engine with a newer, although still secondhand locomotive. They bought out the balance of the railroad in 1943.

While it generally was efficiently run, there were some incidents, the most memorable of which happened when a freight car load with grain got away from the crew at Newark and rolled all the way down the line to Millington on its own. The depot agent at Millington was contacted and he opened the switch connecting the Midland to the CB&Q line. Reportedly, the load of corn rolled almost all the way to Sheridan before it stopped, later to be retrieved by the Midland’s engine.

In the fall of 1967, vandals burned two small bridges carrying the Midland across Clear Creek, and it was decided to close up shop at last, with the freight duties taken over by trucks.

Today, the Illinois Midland Railway is but a memory, if a fond one, for some of Kendall County’s old-timers and rail buffs, and the topic of Jeff Kehoe’s new book, which preserves so many of the little railroad’s historical tales.

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