By Leigh Morris
For the Star-Gazette
A steam locomotive decorated with willow boughs pulled three flatcars fitted with chairs for dignitaries across the new Illinois River bridge on March 1, 1870. The first official train had arrived in Beardstown on the Rockford, Rock Island & St. Louis Railroad.
Six years later, the line was acquired by the St. Louis, Rock Island & Chicago Railroad. Later, the line came under control of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, which absorbed it on June 1, 1899.
Initially, the line through Beardstown ran south to East Alton and then to East St. Louis through trackage rights on another railroad. In 1903, the CB&Q built a 9.9-mile line from Concord to Jacksonville to connect with subsidiary Jacksonville & St. Louis. Through other purchases and construction projects, the CB&Q was able to extend its rails to Centralia, Herrin and Paducah.
Meanwhile, the CB&Q expanded its presence in Beardstown. Two roundhouses, numerous shop buildings and yards were built in Beardstown, providing employment for thousands. The first significant loss of Beardstown jobs came in the wake of the 1922 nationwide railroad strike when the CB&Q moved shops to Galesburg.
The onset of the Great Depression took a further toll on the railroad, those who worked there and those who depended on it. Still, the CB&Q continued as a major though diminished source of local employment until the railroad rapidly replaced steam with diesel-electric locomotives following the end of World War II. By the mid-1950s, steam was dead.
Passenger service through Beardstown ended in 1961. Meanwhile, the line to Centralia and Paducah continued to be an important freight route. However, the line south from Concord to East St. Louis was experiencing a steady loss of traffic.
Following the March 2, 1970 merger that created the Burlington Northern, new management embarked on a program of so-called route rationalization. As a result, the BN abandoned the East Alton-White Hall segment in 1980, giving up trackage rights between East Alton and St. Louis at the same time. In 1983, the Concord-White Hall segment was abandoned.
On Sept. 22, 1995, the BN merged with the Santa Fe. Initially named the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, the name later was shortened to BNSF. It is now a subsidiary of investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Corp.
Over the past 15 years, freight traffic through Beardstown has been steadily increasing. In addition to coal trains, the line hosts both oil and iron ore trains as well as grain and general merchandise freights.