There are two railroads passing through Menard County; these are the Jacksonville branch of the Chicago & Alton, and the Springfield & Northwestern. These roads cross each other at nearly right angles at Petersburg, which is near the center of the county, thus dividing the county in four almost equal parts. The Chicago & Alton Railroad enters the county within less than a half-mile of the southwest corner, and it leaves the county at the Salt Creek bridge, which is but a few miles from the northeast corner; thus it traverses the entire county diagonally from corner to corner. The Springfield & Northwestern road enters the county at the southeast corner, or as near as it can be found; it traverses the entire area, and the bridge on the Sangamon, where it enters Mason county, is precisely at the corner of Menard.
The question of the navigation of the Sangamon River had been agitated as early as 1832 or 1833, as the reader will see in another place, but this was soon given up entirely. Another project was then proposed, of opening a canal from Beardstown to Decatur, by way of the Illinois and Sangamon Rivers. In the Legislature of 1834-35, a charter was granted for this purpose. In the spring following, a careful survey was made of the route; then, after a vast deal of gas and calculation and suggestion, the matter was abandoned; but it did not die in the minds or energies of the people. Occasionally, the matter was agitated, but it was not till 1850, or 1851, that it was again warmly canvassed. So high did the fever run at this time, that the Legislature of 1852 granted a charter to the "Springfield and Northwestern Railroad Company" to construct a road from Springfield to Rock Island. This road was to pass through the county just as the Springfield & Northwestern Road has since done. So far was this enterprise pushed, that the county of Menard voted $50,000 to aid in its construction. The people were so full of enthusiasm over the enterprise that it was thought for a time that it could not fail. Even a small per cent of the amount voted was absolutely raised to defray the expenses of the survey. But it is true that "The best laid schemes o' mice an' men, Gang aft agley," and as Sangamon County refused to vote her share of the stock, and troubles anticipated concerning the favorable negotiation of the bonds if voted, as also some unexplained trouble among the Company, the enterprise finally "went up." The people of "Little Menard," by these constant failures, became thoroughly discouraged. For a few years they were despondent; but in the fall of 1856, a new enterprise was suggested. An intelligent citizen informed the writer, that when this was first proposed, the people heard it with a scowl; but later, hope began to revive.
The enterprise proposed was the construction of a line of railroad form Jacksonville to Tonica in La Salle County, to intersect the Hennepin & Streator. Tonica is a village on the last-named road, nine miles from the town of La Salle. A gentleman from La Salle County came along the proposed line of road, talking to the people and holding public meetings; and, having a corps of surveyors with him, he was making a preliminary survey at the same time. As the proposed line was to pass through Petersburg, and that being twenty-two miles from the nearest railroad or navigable river, the proposed road was a grand scheme to the citizens of this section of country. Menard, as a corporate body, voted $100,000 stock, and such was the zeal of the people that nearly $30,000 stock was subscribed by individuals. A charter was granted the Petersburg & Tonica Railroad. The subscriptions were legalized, and Hon. Richard Yates was made President of it, and Menard County had two representatives on the Board of Directors, viz. John Bennett and Hon. W.G. Greene. Work was soon commenced on both extremes of the line, and prosecuted with vigor, and a great amount of grading was soon done; but, unfortunately, notwithstanding the zeal of the people, the subscription ran short, and the work was compelled to stop. About this time, Mr. Yates resigned the Presidency, when Hon.W.G. Greene was called to fill the position, and Hon.W.T. Beckman was made a Director and Superintendent of the road. By almost superhuman efforts, means were raised to complete to road from Jacksonville to Petersburg, a distance of twenty-eight miles. During the fall of 1861, the locomotive whistled for the first time in Petersburg. This being just at the opening of the war, all hope of its immediate completion was abandoned. Mr. Milton Moore, recently deceased, was the first agent in the Petersburg depot, and Mr. William Bacon, the very prince of conductors, had charge of the first train. Many were the anecdotes told of the remarkable speed of this train. There being one train, and the time-table requiring him to make the round trip every twenty-four hours, of course he must run. Fifty-six miles in twenty-four hours! Think of it! They still tell of the train waiting for a farmer to shell a "grist" of corn to take to mill, and of the conductor's strictness in carrying out the time-table; so strict, indeed, that he helped shell the corn! Of the lady who had eleven eggs to send to market on the train, and of Mr. Bacon waiting for the hen to lay the other egg; but they do not say that he hurried the hen! One thing is sure; that is, Mr. Bacon was always a gentleman, and still is.
About the close of the war, a proposition was made by the Chicago & Alton Railroad Company, which was accepted, whereby the latter company completed the road, not to Tonica, however, but following the old road-bed to Delavan, in Tazewell County; there leaving the old Tonica line, it was run directly to Bloomington, there intersecting the line of the Chicago & Alton Railroad. Since that time, this has been an important line of road. Some years ago, the Chicago & Alton Company secured entire possession. Now it is finished to Kansas City. There are no finer trains run anywhere west of Ohio than the "Denver Express" and the "St. Louis Mail." The passenger and freight business of this road is simply immense; and the company spare no expense in keeping their road up with all others, by putting all new appliances that can add to the success of the road into use.
The reader will remember that, in 1852, a charter was granted by the Legislature to the "Springfield & Northwestern Railroad Company," to build a railroad from Springfield to Rock Island. After that old charter had lain dead for seventeen years, it was revived by the Legislature in 1869-to a new company, however, allowing them to construct a road on the line of the old survey. Menard County voted $100,000 stock in this road, and the town of Petersburg pays $15,000. There was a great amount of trouble over this matter of the "town bonds," as it was in the courts for quite a while; but as it is a matter that produced trouble and hard feelings, and as it has been settled in the courts, we think it part of prudence to let it be buried in the oblivion of forgetfulness. In the latter part of 1870, work was begun on this line at Havana, but it progressed but slowly. During the next year, 1871, it was completed across Mason County, and a few miles into Menard, In 1872, the cars began to run as far as from Havana to Petersburg. By late autumn in 1873, the road was finished all the way to Cantrall, a distance of no less than thirteen miles from Petersburg! Here another rest was taken; but after the needed rest and recuperation necessary after such an arduous summer's work, the road was completed at last, in 1874. Mr. William Ludwig was appointed agent at Petersburg depot, a position which he has held to the present time, to the entire satisfaction of all. The road is doing a good business, both in freights and travel, and both rapidly increasing.