MONMOUTH, Ill. — Beginning in 1906, the interurban electric railway allowed Monmouth residents to travel conveniently and inexpensively between nearby cities. Even after automobiles became more numerous during the 1910s, the interurban remained popular because paved roads remained scarce.
That would change by the 1920s, when the Good Roads Movement gained traction and communities competed to become part of a network of reliable highways. Monmouth was one of the cities that earned a spot on the Cannon Ball Trail, which connected Burlington to Chicago on a concrete highway. The completion of the hard road network paved the way for a brand new business — the motor coach industry.
In the spring of 1924, several new bus companies applied for permits with the Illinois Commerce Commission, one of them based in Monmouth and named for the Cannon Ball Trail. The Cannon Ball Transportation Co. was organized by men who had been involved in the interurban rail industry, including William W. McCullough, T. K. McCullough and, as president, H. Wylie Stewart.
Stewart had served as auditor and traffic manager for the Rock Island Southern Railroad from 1910–1912 before organizing a coal mining business called the Silver Creek Colliery Co. It was a far cry from his original training. Born in Indiana in 1882, he was the son of a noted musician and attended Monmouth College. For four years, he served as an instructor in the Monmouth College Conservatory of Music before going abroad to study music in Europe.
After serving as an Army captain in World War I, Stewart returned to Monmouth, where in addition to running the coal company, he served as director of music for First Presbyterian Church and gave concerts throughout the nation.
Stewart had married a fellow Monmouth College music student, Bess Butler, in 1910. She was the daughter of a prominent lumber and coal merchant in Morning Sun, Iowa. The couple, who lived in a Dutch Colonial home at 1005 East Broadway, had two daughters — Margaret, born in 1913; and Ruth, born in 1919.
The Cannon Ball bus line initially operated between Monmouth and Galesburg, using Pierce Arrow buses holding 26 passengers. Costing $10,000 each, the 109-horsepower vehicles were lighted and heated by electricity. In late 1924, the line expanded its route to Burlington, with buses leaving Hotel Burlington every two hours between 7:30 a.m. and 11:20 p.m.
In 1925, the Cannon Ball line added Galva to its route, and added two International buses, one of which was a parlor car bus, which could be chartered for long trips.
It was during this period that a Monmouth College student named Alice Tinkham began taking the bus from her home in Kirkwood to campus. Recently, Alice’s scrapbook, containing a photo of the Cannon Ball bus and a ticket book was donated the college by her nephew, Ron Tinkham of Kirkwood.
The Cannon Ball extended its route again in 1926, operating a round-trip schedule from Davenport to Monmouth by way of Rock Island and Aledo, with connections made at Monmouth for Burlington, Galesburg, Galva, Kewanee and Macomb.
The bus industry effectively ended the interurban railway and was soon cutting into the profits of passenger railroads like the Burlington Route, as well. Consequently, in 1929, the Burlington Transportation Co. — a subsidiary of Burlington Railroad — purchased Cannon Ball Motor Transportation Co. between Burlington, Monmouth, Galesburg, Galva and Peoria. Schedules were revised to coordinate with train service. Wylie Stewart retained a management position with Burlington Transportation.
Stewart would eventually relocate to Glendale, California, where he worked as assistant manager for Tanner Motor Coach, a company that operated bus tours of the stars’ homes in Hollywood. He died in 1960 and Bess died in 1967. They are buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 40 years.