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The Cortland Railroad, Dekalb County, Illinois

As told by Cortland Elementary School Students
Cortland, Illinois

Story Narrative:

A view of vintage railroad depot in Illinois shows people on the platform.

Coming Home: Stories from Main Street is a collaboration that combines the Rural Community Assistance Partnership's "Rural Homecoming" initiative with the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street program. Coming Home engages youth in exploring their town’s past and thinking about its future. This program is a remarkable experience for local participants. Rural youth often feel disconnected from local culture. They may feel that adults do not listen to them or that their town’s history does not matter. This project helps to overcome those barriers.

Students at Cortland Elementary in Dekalb County, Illinois, interviewed area residents about the history of the railroad in their town. The video was directed by Jack N. and Amilynn M.

Clint Cargile (00:04): Cortland actually had two railroads. The first railroad came in 1853. That was a railroad that ran from Chicago and eventually made it all the way to the Mississippi River. The Five-Mile Spur Line was the second railroad that came to Cortland. The story behind that is, just north of Cortland, about five miles away was the town of Sycamore, which was the county seat at the time. Sycamore really, really wanted a railroad, but they didn't get a railroad. They got bypassed by the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad, which is the one that went through DeKalb and Cortland. They were desperate to have a railroad. At this time in history, if you didn't have a railroad, your town could just dry up and disappear. Everybody wanted to live near the railroad, so Sycamore really, really needed a railroad, and they decided, "You know what? We're just going to build our own railroad."

Steve Farmer (01:01): The first station was erected about 1853. That's when the first trains traveled through the latter part of the 1853 in December, and it went as far as DeKalb at that particular time. And then what they did is they put up a temporary building along the line in these small little villages. Cortland was founded in 1853, and it was very small community, and the railroad came just about the time the village of Cortland was incorporated.

Clint Cargile (01:44): It was the railroad that basically created the towns. So there were no towns until the railroads came along, and then everything grew up around the railroads. People moved there because they wanted to be right by the railroads. They started businesses, they started factories, and the towns grew from that.

(02:05): So the railroad brought, the main thing is, I'd say it brought the outside world to the town. This is a time with no internet, no cell phones, no television. It just opened up the rest of the country to the people who lived there. It brought products from all over the country, it brought the latest fashions, it brought catalogs, it brought things they could never get before, technologies they couldn't get before. Bicycles were new at this time period and becoming quite popular, so you could get the latest bicycle that might normally take years to show up into a small town like Cortland, could be on the very next train.

Dean Coyle (02:44): Back then, the rail trains were a lot smaller, a lot shorter in length, and they carried multiple cars. They carried fresh fruit, frozen produce, they carried groceries, freight, animals, mail, as well as passengers.

Steve Farmer (02:59): They used a special mail car that had a hook on it and-

Dean Coyle (03:07): A mail train car.

Steve Farmer (03:08): Yes, a mail train car there is designated as a mail train car, and what it did is it delivered along the route and the baggage... Well, it wasn't a baggage person, it was a US Postal worker. He would kick the bag of mail out of the car, but there was what they call it is a mail crane. What it does is it's about, oh, yay tall, you'd have to climb up a little stairs, but the arms are about like this, spread out like this. The mail bag goes between that arm and this arm, and they were on springs. The postal worker inside the mail car, he had a hook. And what the hook did is he brought it up like this and it had a bend in it like this, so it could grab that bag in the middle and pull it off that mail crane, and then the arms would go just right back down.

Clint Cargile (04:02): Railroads were sometimes not very safe, so a lot of towns, they did not have the safety precautions that we have today. They did not have the clanging bells. They didn't have sensors. They didn't have the things coming down to block traffic. So people always had to be aware of when the train was coming. The railroad and the depot were the hub of any community, especially in a town like Cortland where the town grew around the railroad. It was the center of town, and basically every cool thing that happened in town, happened because of the railroad.

Asset ID: 2023.05.01
Themes: Railroads, trains, urbanization, industry, transportation, capitalism, technology, expansion, products, history, freight, US Postal Service, safety
Date recorded: September 2022-January 2023
Length of recording: 0:04:49
Related traveling exhibition/program: Coming Home Student Documentaries
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Cortland Elementary School in collaboration with Dekalb County History Center and WNIJ, Dekalb County, Illinois
More information or related assets: and

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