Reflections – Sycamore’s Railroad History

Posted: December 14, 2022

Sycamore, as county seat and an agriculture and business center, quickly became a prosperous place, even before railroads.

The city had tried to get a railroad line as early as 1846, but it took 12 more years of effort to make that happen.

By Spring of 1853, DeKalb and Cortland had a freight railroad, the Dixon Air Line, with passenger car service beginning later that fall.

For several years, Sycamore continued flourishing even without a railroad. During the agricultural boom of 1854-1856, Sycamore farmers transported their crops to Cortland and travelers could access the railroad via the Sycamore and Cortland Express carriage.

But by 1858, even in the aftermath of the 1856 crash in grain prices, Sycamore had largely decided that “this railroad was a necessity which we could no longer live without.” Gathering at the courthouse for a meeting of the Sycamore & Cortland Railroad Company on July 30, 1858, the townspeople heard about a proposed 4.6 mile “spur-line” to connect Sycamore with the main line at Cortland. But they would need to build it themselves.

Five-Mile Spur Line: A Railroad History of Sycamore, Illinois by historian Clint Cargile tells the important story of the development of the railroad.

During the tough financial times, the Sycamore & Cortland Railroad required $25,000 to build the line that would come from stock sales almost exclusively in Sycamore. The Galena & Chicago Railroad encouraged the project by pledging rails, an engine, and railcars. The Sycamore & Cortland Railroad gathered the financing in about a month and began to enlist local contractors. The railroad broke ground September 29, 1858.

The project moved slowly. Delays resulted from poor weather in the fall, winter, and spring; the competing labor needs of farmers for spring planting; and the Galena & Chicago’s reconsidered decision to require the Sycamore & Cortland to buy the rails and rolling stock. The rails were paid for by seven of the S&C’s directors and the engine was financed by selling additional stock. In addition, a 20’ x 60’ two-story, wood framed depot was built.

The secondhand train engine arrived with great fanfare on October 8, 1859, just over a year after the railroad had broken ground. Freight service began within days. The new line had “two runs to Cortland, the first at 10:30 a.m. and the second at 7:00 p.m., returning at 12 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.” The trip to Chicago took about three-and-a-half hours.

The Sycamore & Cortland began servicing the Chicago & North Western Railroad in 1864, when it merged with the Galena & Chicago. Another depot was completed in December 1865, and, eventually, factories sprang up along the tracks. In 1880, the existing brick depot opened.

Service on the railroad slowly dwindled and the last passenger train—a troop train in the run up to World War II—departed the depot on March 19, 1941. The last freight shipment arrived at the station on August 30, 1963, and much of the rails were then removed until they were completely gone in 1972.

Information provided by the DeKalb County History Center. For more information visit