The Illinois Central Railroad (IC) was one of the earliest railroads in the United States. In 1850, US President Millard Fillmore signed a land grant for the construction of the railroad, making IC the first land grant railroad in the United States. Federal land grants totaled nearly 2.6 million acres, and the initial investment of $27 million mainly came from Dutch and British interests. IC was chartered by the Illinois General Assembly on February 10, 1851. Upon its completion in 1856 the IC was the longest railroad in the world, stretching from the southern tip of the state in Cairo, IL to Galena, in the northwest corner. A branch line was completed in 1857 that stretched from Centralia to Chicago, where its tracks were laid along the shore of Lake Michigan.
The IC kept on expanding, and in 1867 they expanded track into Iowa. During the 1870s and 1880s, the IC expanded south into Mississippi and New Orleans, east to Louisville, Kentucky, and north to Dodgeville, WI, Sioux Falls, SD, and Omaha, NE. During this expansion there were dozens of new towns in Illinois founded, attracting settlers from Europe and other parts of the United States.
Chicago proved to be the most important terminus for the IC, with extensive freight, passenger, and commuter facilities located there. At the turn of the century, the IC had 5,000 miles of track, 800 locomotives, 700 passengers cars, nearly 33,000 freight cars, and over 33,000 employees. Through the early 1900s, the IC kept expanding and remained a conservatively managed, reasonably modern, and consistently profitable railroad. In 1926 the railroad completed electrification of much of its freight and passenger service in the Chicago area. After World War 2, there was a major decline in passenger and freight business. IC kept competing, embracing piggyback service to boost the slow freight service. In 1962, Illinois Central created IC Industries which diversified into real-estate development, industrial goods, and consumer products.
In 1972, IC merged with the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad (GM&O) to form the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad (ICG). On October 30, 1972 the worst commuter rail crash in Chicago’s history involved the ICG. ICG #416 overshot the 27the Street Station and the engineer asked for and received permission to back the train to the platform. However, the move was made without the flag protection required by railroad rules. #416 had already cleared automatic block signals, signaling express train 720 to continue at full speed on the same track. 720 collided with the reversing 416 at full speed, and when the trains hit, the front car of the express train (720) telescoped the rear car of the bilevel train (416), killing 45 and injuring 332. After this accident, the ends of most commuter cars and locomotives in the Chicago area were painted with orange and white stripes for better visibility.
In the 1980s, ICG spun off most of its east-west lines and many redundant north-south lines, including much of the GM&O track. Then in 1988, IC Industries spun off its remaining rail assets and changed its name to the Whitman Corporation (Whitman Corporation then became PepsiAmericas in 2000, and was then acquired by PepsiCo in 2010). At the same time, ICG dropped the “Gulf” and became the Illinois Central Railroad again. Then in 1998, IC was purchased by Canadian National Railway (CN) and became integrated into its fleet, starting the next year.