Pioneer History by Richard C. Schmal

The Chicago, Wabash Valley Railroad: Gifford's 'Onion Line'

(from the Nov. 28, 1995, Lowell Tribune, page 8)

Two stories about the Gifford Railroad have appeared in the 'Pioneer History' column: one in August of 1980, which was a story about the village of Dinwiddie; the other in September 1983, a story about an excursion on that rail line in 1901. Just lately the Old Timer has received additional information from Lowell resident Henry Voltmer, a railroad history buff.

Benjamin J. Gifford was born on a dirt farm in Kendall County, Ill., in the 1840's, squeezed his education in between growing seasons, and attended summer school until age 17. He entered college until the Civil War broke out, causing him to enlist in the Union Army.

After the war he settled in Rantoul, Ill., where he had a law practice. He became embroiled in an argument with the Illinois Central Railroad over freight rates, so he built the Havana, Rantoul, and Eastern Railroad, a narrow gauge line between Fisher, Ill., and a point near Attica, a place he named West Lebanon. He soon sold the line to Jay Gould, one of the nation's biggest railroad tycoons.

Gifford went on to buy the Cleveland and Marietta (Ohio) Railroad for a million dollars, and managed the line for a year, but then sold out, vowing that he had left the railroad business for good.

He soon learned of "greener pastures" in northern Jasper County, which also included the Pinkamink Marsh, and bought 34,000 acres in Jasper and southern Lake Counties at a bargain price of $4.50 per acre, most of it wetlands.

He soon built two dredge boats, which for two years worked night and day creating more than one hundred miles of major ditches in an effort to drain the area. It was a hard area to drain, for it contained a vast muck bed, probably one of the largest in the world.

But once the land was drained, Gifford brought in nearly 1,000 tenant farmers from Ohio for the purpose of cultivating the area for grain and truck gardens.

By the late 1890's the annual harvest in the area was nearly one million bushels of corn, oats, onions and potatoes, with the prospect of annual crops topping that.

Realizing that transportation would be important to sell produce, he changed his mind about the railroad business and formed the Chicago and Wabash Valley Railroad on Sept. 10, 1898. Kersey, two miles east of DeMotte, became his center of operation, where he built a depot, general store, granary, school and engine shed, and several homes for his employees. He started building his railway to the south, and crossed the now abandoned Chicago, Attica, and Southern Railway, creating stations at Laura, Gifford, Newland and Moody, where onions were raised in the fertile soil on the dried muckland.

In the 1890's one of the tenant farmers was digging a well, struck oil, and by 1900 more than 100 wells in the area were producing 400 barrels of oil daily at a town named Asphaltum. Gifford soon built a four-mile spur rail line from Gifford to Asphaltum, the site of "Gifford's oil fields."

By the early 1900's the Gifford line reached McCoysburg, where it connected with the old Monon railroad, and the line was also extended north of Kersey. The railway crossed the Kankakee River in the southeast corner of Lake County, where Gifford built a sawmill and an ice house at the Beech Ridge switch. Lumber was needed to build the line, and the saw dust was used in the ice house.

The tracks then proceeded northwest past the Fifield Elevator (still there) on Range Line and stopped at the village of Dinwiddie, where a station and elevator were built in the area on Interstate 65 and State Road 2. A part of the old railroad bed can still be seen about a block west of I-65, south of SR 2.

Many of the towns and villages along the rail route had weighing stations, where the tenant farmers could bring in their crops to help pay for the land.

Gifford's oil fields gave some business to the line until 1904, when the wells dried up, but agricultural and passenger traffic was always the main business of the "Onion Belt Line."

As time went by, small weighing stations and stores were replaced by stockyards and elevators. Gifford planned on extending his line south to Lafayette and the coal country, and north from Dinwiddie to the city of Gary.

But by 1912 the tracks ended four miles north of the pioneer community of Dinwiddie, while much of the land was graded and prepared to a point just 15 miles from Gary. All progress halted with the death of Benjamin J. Gifford in 1913. Experts believe that he would have made it all the way had he lived.

Gifford's will mandated that the railway be sold, and it was purchased by the Monon Line, which operated it separately from its tracks for two decades until declining traffic, because of the rise of the trucking industry, forced the line to be shut down forever.

In 1936 the Monon received permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission to have the Gifford Tracks removed. A Boston salvage firm began at Dinwiddie and worked its way south until all the rails were removed and sold for scrap. In 1974 the only surviving tracks were a part of a spur to service the Indiana Farm Bureau Cooperative grain elevator at Kersey.

The loss of the railroad caused great inconvenience to the area east of Lowell, with the eventual loss of the Lowell Grain and Hay elevator at Dinwiddie and the O.G. Fifield elevator on Range Line road. But Benjamin J. Gifford's dream of getting produce on his line to Chicago almost came true.

Last updated on November 21, 2001.

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