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The History of The Illinois Central Railroad Depot

    By 1855, both The Terre Haute & Alton Railroad and the Illinois Central Railroad reached the crossing that would become Mattoon.  A three-story brick union depot/hotel called the Essex House was erected in 1859 on the southwest corner of the crossing.  The Essex House continued to serve in this function until early in the 20th Century. 

    As early as 1885, the Essex House was in poor shape.  This combined with the construction of a subway through Mattoon for the Illinois Central Railroad from 1913-4, ended the Essex House's usefulness as a railroad depot.  As a result, two depots were built, one by the successor of The Terre Haute & Alton Railroad, the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis Railway or "Big Four" for short.  And the second was built by the Illinois Central Railroad and is the subject of this web site.

    Railroad Architect Daniel F. McLaughlin designed Mattoon's three story Illinois Central Railroad Depot.  A retaining wall along the east side of the building needed to be in place before construction could start.  Gould & Company of Iowa was the contractor for the concrete wall that was started in late October 1916 and required considerable excavation.  The wall construction was complicated by collapsing walls in the buildings just to the east of the site which was caused by pile driving and by poor January weather.

    The last sections of the $14,000 retaining wall on its north end were going in when work, on the depot foundation began in December 1916.  A. W. Stoolman & Co. was the contractor for the depot.  The contract included the depot building, freight elevator, connecting stairway and the $7,000 heating plant to be built just north of the Big Four(Mx) Bridge in the subway.  Stoolman employee, C. W. Gwinn, was placed in charge as building superintendent and construction costs were now projected to $100,000.  Glen Huntington, IC Engineer for the project had his office under the west end of the Mx Bridge.

     Construction continued throughout early spring under the watchful eyes of Mattoon citizens who eagerly awaited the opening of the new Illinois Central Railroad Depot.  On February 14, 1917, three north panels of the Broadway Avenue Bridge on the east side were removed along with a light post to make way for the depot entrance.  The April 13, 1917, Daily Journal-Gazette reported that the street level floor girders had been moved into place.  An IC yard engine was called into service to elevate these heavy pieces of steel.

     On July 31, 1917, the Daily Journal-Gazette reported that the tile roof was being laid and the interior walls were going up.  Excavation work for the power plant was advancing and materials were in place to construct the walls.  The Power Plant was to supply heat for the IC and Big Four Depots and power for the freight elevator.  On August 1, 1917, the paper reported that the "depot may not be completed before the first of the November, notwithstanding the fact that great headway is being made in all sections."  

    The project superintendent and the building inspector moved their offices into the mezzanine level on December 12, 1917.  The new Illinois Central Railroad Depot was opened the morning of January 21, 1918 at a time when the nation was heavily immersed in World War I. On that date, the Daily Journal-Gazette contained a front page article with the headline, "New Depot In Service" located on the page just below the two main headlines stating, "U.S. War Aims Stir Austria" and "Ruling Effects Men Married Since May 18, 1917." The depot was well described in the two-column, 4,000-word article.  A stairway down from the south center of the Mx Bridge to the three-track IC platform below connected the two lines. The fireproof building reportedly cost $130,000 in the final analysis.

    Fourteen passenger trains per day traveled through Mattoon on the Illinois Central in 1918 and busy railroad activity continued for at least thirty-five years.  The railroad was the main mode of transportation at the time of the construction of the Illinois Central Depot.  The nation's road system was in its infancy and airplanes were just beginning to be used.  

    The IC depot was a dynamic place with families, business and professional people coming and going continuously.  Lovington resident, Janet Shuman Roney, fondly remembers the Mattoon IC Depot as the place where her father would return to the family from Chicago.  Charles B. Shuman (1907-1999) was the President of the American Farm Bureau Federation from 1954 until he retired in 1970.  The AFBF office was in the Chicago Merchandise Mart and Mr. Shuman traveled between his Moultrie County residence and his weekly workplace by way of the Panama Limited, a crack IC "stream liner" stopping in Mattoon going north bound at about six in the morning and returning in the evening.  Mattoon resident, Judge Jacob Berkowitz was also traveling weekly to his job with the court in Chicago on the Panama Limited at this time and the two men became friends.  The depot would be full of people with lines at both ticket windows.  A large chalkboard on the east wall of the waiting room listed the arrival and departure times so passengers could tell if their train was on time.  Mattoon residents remember about ten trains leaving the depot each day in the 1950's.  They included the north and south bound City of New Orleans and Panama Limited, a north and south bound Chicago daily train, the Seminole and the Illini.  Other trains running Creole, Louisanne and Southern periodically during the week included the City of Miami, Express.

     Mail was taken from the mail cars to the mailroom in the depot.  It was processed and then transferred to the local Post Offices.  Long distance mail was primarily transported by rail from the beginnings of railroad history into the 1950's.  

    Mattoon had a Railway Express Agency and its building is located just north-west of the IC depot adjacent to the Big Four-tracks.  This agency handled express items in Mattoon from 1918 to 1971 for both the IC and Big Four, transferring the baggage and goods by way of the freight elevator between the upper and lower levels.

     The United States Congress created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation or AMTRAK in 1971.  It was funded to operate passenger service nationwide and six AMTRAK trains per day stop at the Mattoon Illinois Central Depot.  The depot doors are open only at train arrival and departure times in the evening and early morning.  

     In June of 2001, a committee was formed to save and restore the Illinois Central Depot.  On March 1st, 2002, the depot listed on National Register of Historic Places.  By July of 2002, a new tile roof had been installed.

      The IC corridor has been targeted for a future high-speed rail line.  It is hoped that the IC depot will see greater use in the future.


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