MONMOUTH, Ill. — In 1887, Santa Fe railroad officials planning their new right-of-way through western Illinois faced the task of naming the dozens of stations along the line to Fort Madison, Iowa. Although there were a few exceptions (Ormonde was named for a champion racehorse of the time and Stronghurst was named for the president of the railroad), they generally turned to history and literature for inspiration.
Two of the names were borrowed from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Song of Hiawatha — Dahinda (a bullfrog) and Ponemah (the home of departed souls). While Dahinda today remains a sleepy but scenic town, Ponemah could perhaps be best described as a departed soul. Although it once boasted a depot, a post office, a stockyard, a grain elevator, a store, a barber shop and a nearby church and school, all that remains today of the unincorporated Tompkins Township village are the hulking skeletons of what appear to be deserted warehouses.
The story behind those buildings — and the rise and fall of the village — encompasses the history of the railroad, the automobile and American agriculture.
Stations were established along the Santa Fe about every four or five miles. This frequency was for the benefit of farmers, who would have had difficulty transporting grain or livestock any greater distance. That meant that in the short stretch between Galesburg and the Mississippi River, there were 14 separate stations, including Ponemah.
During the 1890s, the railroad industry experienced a boom, as it partnered with Standard Oil to transport crude oil via tank cars from oil fields to refineries. Standard Oil’s near monopoly in the kerosene business brought huge profits to both industries. It also brought new competition in the form of oil pipelines, attempting to fight the monopoly.
In 1895, when Kansas was just beginning to be a producer of crude oil, Standard Oil built a small refinery there to supply oil products to the south-central part of the country. Soon, it began a rapid expansion, building more refineries, tank farms and its own pipeline systems — hurting independent oil producers in the region. When Congress passed a bill in 1894 allowing pipelines to be built from the Indian Territory to Standard Oil’s Kansas refineries, local producers were incensed.
In an effort to placate the Kansas producers, Standard Oil devised a massive pipeline project that would give Kansas producers a brand new outlet for their oil, which included six million barrels then in storage. The 500-mile pipeline would deliver oil from the Sugar Creek refinery near Kansas City, Missouri, to the nation’s largest refining plant in Whiting, Indiana, 17 miles east of Chicago.
The Whiting plant produced 36,000 barrels of oil per day — which amounted to 20 percent of the refined oil market — and the new pipeline would increase its capacity to 75,000 barrels per day. It would also connect with a second pipeline stretching all the way to New Jersey.
The logical route of the new pipeline was the Santa Fe railroad, which provided a ready-made right-of-way between Kansas City and Chicago. In September 1904, construction of the $16 million pipeline by Prairie Oil & Gas Co. — a Standard Oil subsidiary — began, and by the following February, the section between Fort Madison, Iowa, and Galesburg was ready to be built. More than 200 laborers — mostly immigrants from southern Europe — made their base in a tent city at Stronghurst. The Santa Fe delivered to them pipe sections made of steel, eight inches in diameter and 18 feet long.
In March 1905, the Warren County Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution calling the pipeline illegal and authorizing the state’s attorney to institute suits to stop it. Within a few weeks, however, an agreement was reached, in which the pipeline company paid the county $750 for the right to build and cross highways. (In future years, the county would also enjoy considerable revenue from property tax on the pipeline.)
In April, the pipeline was laid across the Mississippi between Fort Madison, Iowa and Niota, Illinois. Pipes were assembled on barges and dropped into the river, then buried in the river bed using streams of water from a fire hose.
The entire pipeline was completed in May, with a pumping station constructed at Fort Madison and the next one about 70 miles east at Dahinda in Knox County.
No sooner had the first pipeline been completed, however, than work began on a second pipeline. The rapidly growing automobile industry was putting demands on Standard Oil to produce more gasoline. The new line would be 12 inches in diameter and requiring a pumping station every 40 miles. The closest location east of Fort Madison matching that requirement was the railroad stop at Ponemah.
In late December 1905, 235 men gathered at Ponemah to assemble and bury the new pipeline, while a construction company from Chicago was building massive concrete buildings south of the tracks for a pumping station that would carry oil from both pipelines to the next station at Dahinda. A pump house that would house two triple-compound engines weighing 20 tons each was flanked by a boiler house containing three coal-powered boilers. Behind the boiler house a 110-foot concrete smoke stack was rising.
Work had also begun on digging a reservoir capable of holding 75,000 barrels of water to supply the steam-driven pumps.
A story in the Republican-Atlas noted: “The magnitude of the work in progress is not readily comprehended unless seen. Ponemah is soon to be transformed into a fine little town by the addition of from twenty to thirty-five families of those who will be employed in running the great pumping station which is to be erected at that point.”
The immigrant pipeline crew was housed in 18 large tents that were moved each day as the pipeline moved east. The more skilled artisans and supervisors sought accommodations with farmers or in Kirkwood, as Ponemah had no hotel and only four houses.
By 1913, the plant contained 10 buildings and three crude oil storage tanks of 35,000 barrels capacity. Ten oil-powered boilers replaced the original coal-fired boilers. Two shifts of seven men each kept the pumps running continuously while a lighting plant provided electricity to their living quarters. A telegraph operator kept in touch with other stations to detect leakage. In 1916, the plant was upgraded with an extension on the pumping house and the installation of three new 500-horsepower distillate-powered engines.
In 1953, Sinclair Oil, which then owned the pipeline, installed more powerful pumps — capable of carrying oil longer distances, making smaller stations like Ponemah obsolete. The property was sold in 1954 to Dannen Grain & Milling of St. Joseph, Missouri, which converted the oil storage tanks to grain bins. Dannen, which was an agent for the Commodity Credit Corporation, stored over half a million bushels of government-owned wheat from Illinois, Iowa and Kansas in each of the four tanks.
In 1962, the federal government decided to get out of the grain storage business and Dannen was eager to unload its property. It found a ready buyer in the Twomey Company, which was looking for additional facilities in which to store its local grain. The purchase was especially attractive, because it included Dannen’s stored grain.
Over the next several years, the Twomey Company made improvements to the property, including using the former reservoir to pile grain 90 feet high and developing special conveyors to move the grain. By the 1980s, however, using the plant for storage had become too labor intensive, and a large elevator erected in 1965 at nearby Larchland was more accessible and efficent. The storage tanks were sold for scrap metal and the land was planted with crops.
All that remains of the pipeline plant today are the former pump house, boiler house, smokestack and one smaller building. Although hidden from view, two pipelines, now owned by BP, still parallel the old Santa Fe track, carrying oil east toward Chicago.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.