26. Charter for the Illinois Central Railroad (1851)

Background: Beginning in the 1830s, railroad construction developed rapidly throughout the nation. An attempt by the state to fund railroad construction in Illinois was included in the 1837 Internal Improvements Act but a severe depression hit the nation shortly after the act was passed and a proposed railroad stretching from Cairo to the northern part of Illinois was scrapped. In the late 1840s, Illinois Senators Sidney Breese and Stephen Douglas worked to have the federal government grant land in Illinois for use for a railroad. In 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed legislation that provided land grants from the federal government to the state, which in turn was to transfer the land to a railroad company. The company then used the land for both a rail route and for income produced by land sales. In all, the federal government provided more than 2.5 million acres of land for the building and financing of the railroad.

The Document: On February 10, 1851, Governor Augustus French signed into law legislation to charter the Illinois Central Railroad. The charter granted federal land as well as state land for construction of a railroad to span the entire length of the state. The act established a board of directors and named the governor of Illinois as a director ex officio. The state was to receive some of the profits from the railroad, which became an important source of revenue for Illinois. The charter specified that the company would build a rail line from the city of Cairo to the southern terminus of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, with a branch running to Galena and another branch running to Chicago. However, the corporation was also given the authority to decide the exact route of the railroad line and the spur to Chicago actually began in Centralia. More than 10,000 men came to Illinois to help construct the railroad. Construction of the main line was finished in 1856. At more than 700 miles long, the Illinois Central was twice as long as any other railroad in the world at the time of its completion.

Note: The rail line later expanded south to New Orleans; west into Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska; and north into Wisconsin. Illinois Central was purchased by Canadian National Railway in 1998. The charter for the Illinois Central Railroad is available at the Illinois State Archives as part of Secretary of State Record Series 103.030, "Enrolled Acts of the General Assembly."