Christopher Fennell, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, has spent awhile trying to figure out why the Pike County Railroad Company chose to divert a rail line around the town of New Philadelphia, IL. In 1857, the PCRC commissioned a survey for a proposed new line between Naples, IL. and Hannibal, MO. The surveyors proposed a sensible “straight line” approach that would have taken the rail line through the town of New Philadelphia.
The PCRC balked, and asked the surveyors to modify the route to take it north around the town. Fennell looked at several reasons why this might be done. He ruled out all the obvious answers: terrain, cost, and bribery. Rough terrain was not the reason for the proposed “bypass”. It turned out, in fact, that the bypass actually took the railroad over higher, rougher terrain than the straight path through the town. The section was so challenging, in fact, that the company ended up stationing a “helper locomotive” near the bypass to aid in pulling the train past the high point of the track. Cost was not a factor either. In fact, again he found that the cost of the “bypass” was actually higher than that of the proposed straight-through route. Finally, Fennell looked for evidence that rich donors asked for the bypass for one reason or another. He found this was not the case, either. In fact, again he found evidence that the PCRC had resisted pressure from county officials to divert the rail line in other areas, sticking to the straight-ahead path their surveyors originally mapped out.
In the end, the explanation for the odd bend in the track that seemed to fit the bill was good old fashioned racism. New Philadelphia was a town founded by former slave Frank McWorter in 1836. It was situatated on a busy wagon trail and soon attracted merchants and skilled tradesmen, who took up residence in the town of mostly black ex-slaves. Blacks and whites lived side-by-side in New Philadelphia for decades before the Civil War. Illinois was nominally a “free” state since its admission to the Union in 1818, but it was a hotbed of pro-slavery sentiment for years, and several attempts were made to ammend the state Constitution to legalize the practice. Having an example of harmonious co-existence of the races on equal footing was not something that appealed to the pro-slavery crowd.
Such crowd would appear to include the owners of the PCRC. Hannibal was a thriving slave-market town, and much of central and southern Illinois favored the introduction of slavery into the state. Having a railway depot bring even more prosperity to New Philadelphia would be against the ideological interests of the PCRC, it would seem, as there doesn’t seem to be any other reason to spend extra money, extra time, extra effort, and extra materials to bypass the town.
Unfortunately, their plan appears to have worked. The railway, complete with unecessary expensive bypass, was completed in 1870. Many of the goods previously transported along the wagon trail through New Philadelphia were soon being transported around the town on the new rail line. By the 1890s the town was essentially gone.
Way to go, assholes.