MONMOUTH, Ill. — During the Golden Age of Railroading (roughly 1870–1910), train stations evolved from utilitarian wooden structures to increasingly elegant architectural gems of brick and stone. Since they were the first edifice that visitors were likely to encounter, they created an important first impression of a growing town and were among its greatest points of pride, along with the courthouse, post office and town square.
Monmouth’s depots were a good illustration of that progression. The city’s first passenger depot, a simple structure built in 1855 near South Third Street for the Peoria & Oquawka (later CB&Q) Railroad, was replaced in 1868 by a larger but no-less barnlike building, located across the tracks to the south. It was moved in 1880 to the site of the future CB&Q depot on South E Street, but burned two years later.
In 1870, the Rockford, Rock Island and St. Louis railroad constructed a depot for its new north-south line on West Clinton Avenue, but when the CB&Q acquired the line shortly thereafter, that depot was moved to the South E Street location, apparently to replace the depot that had recently burned.
When the Iowa Central debuted a new line in 1883, a passenger depot was built on East 7th Avenue, just east of South Main. For a short time, the Santa Fe also offered passenger service out of that depot.
By 1890, no fewer than 14 trains were stopping in Monmouth each day, prompting both the local press and businessmen to lobby the railroads for a modern station, but it would be more than 20 years before their efforts were rewarded.
In May 1909, the CB&Q announced it would build a new rail station at the intersection of its east-west and north-south lines, just west of its existing depot at the end of South E Street. The Chicago firm of T. S. Leake & Co., which would build several CB&Q depots, was awarded a contract for $35,000 and work began that August.
The new depot would be considerably larger than the old station, with dimensions of 142 x 32 feet. Specifications called for an exterior of French brick finished with white stone, a slate roof and an interior of oak woodwork.
The general waiting room on the west end was to be 43 feet long, with a women’s restroom and a men’s smoking room on the north side and a ticket office facing the tracks. There would also be small rooms for a janitor and a conductor. To the east were a baggage room, 30 x 30 feet, and an Adams Express Co. office, 26 x 30 feet. A steel canopy would be erected south of the double tracks to protect passengers going east.
It was announced that the lunch counter, which had been a feature in the existing depot, would be eliminated, in order to make the building more dignified.
Early on the morning of April 20, 1910, Halley’s comet became visible to the naked eye over Monmouth. Perhaps it was mere coincidence, but the comet ushered in a new era of Monmouth railroad history, as that was also the day of the grand opening of the new CB&Q depot. Within the following weeks, the old depot was removed to the west side of South Main, south of 4th Avenue, to be used as a freight station for the Rock Island Southern, and in its place was put a grassy park to complement new brick streets and concrete walks.
By 1916, 98 percent of all commercial travelers moved by rail and Americans traveled 42 billion passenger miles. Railroads began losing money for the first time during the Great Depression, as growing competition by motor coaches and automobiles caused passenger miles to drop to just 25 billion by 1940. Although World War II brought a temporary reprieve due to gas rationing and massive troop movement, the post-war car culture began spelling doom for U.S. passenger trains.
During the late 1960s, the National Association of Railroad Passengers began lobbying for government funding to ensure the continuation of passenger trains, and President Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act into law in 1970. That paved the way for the formation of Amtrak in 1971, which immediately pared 366 train routes down to 184.
By 1979, Monmouth’s passenger service had declined to only a morning train to Chicago and an afternoon train to San Francisco, and passenger ticket sales at the depot were abandoned, with patrons urged to book their trips with travel agents in town.
Concurrent with the decline of Amtrak service was a spiraling decline in freight traffic, due primarily to the growth of the trucking industry. A Monmouth industry such as Wells Pet Food no longer had to order a train car holding 30 tons of materials, as a semi could deliver half that amount, allowing them to hold down their inventories.
Soon, small railroad stations in western Illinois were closing right and left, and by the early ’80s Monmouth’s freight agent, Ed Howell, was the only remaining employee in the depot, handling just 60 or 70 freight cars a month. He would watch from his tiny cluttered office as the eastbound Zephyr let off passengers in early afternoon to the deserted waiting room with its dusty benches and plaster hanging from the ceiling.
Passengers arriving at night did not even have that luxury, as the building was locked after 5 p.m.
In July 1983, the Burlington-Northern petitioned the Illinois Commerce Commission for permission to close the Monmouth station. A year later, during the early morning hours of July 18, 1984, Burlington-Northern cranes arrived on the scene unannounced and began knocking down the once-proud depot. By the next day, all that remained was the passenger waiting shed across the tracks and a pile of brick rubble that would be used to shore up eroded areas under nearby tracks.
The modus operandi for the demolition was not unusual. In the wee hours of May 13, 1983, the B-N had surprised Galesburg by tearing down its massive 71-year-old depot, which had become increasingly expensive to maintain. Partially wanting to avoid drawn-out disputes with local preservation groups and partly to avoid liability, this strategy was employed numerous times, as abandoned stations along the B-N line fell victim to the wrecking ball.
While Monmouth citizens continue to lament their lost opportunity to preserve the local depot, the odds of its having been spared were actually quite slim. Had it been converted to a restaurant or museum, its proximity to active railroad tracks created a potential hazard and a liability that its owner, the Burlington-Northern, was unwilling to assume. Moreover, the cost of moving the structure to a new location would likely have been prohibitive for a preservation or entrepreneurial group.
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.