Friday, July 6, 2012

Oil Belt Railroad Part Two and Map

The Lawrence County Genealogical Society published a newsletter in the 1990's.  An article about the Oil Belt Railroad  appeared in the October 1995 edition.  Below is the conclusion of the two part series reprinted on this blog.   Part One appeared on April 23.

"To draw the interest of the people in the area, and give the “Oil Belt” more significance, the company decided to build a park along the tracks. A site was finally settled upon. It was on this side of the Embarras River, north of Cranston. Mrs. Stanton Paddick donated the land and they named it Wolfe Park as her maiden name was Wolfe. This was in a low area in the River bottoms, and  a sand point was driven for water.  (Editor’s note: There may be a line left out of the original copy, possibly the line may have talked about a sand point in the river being used for swimming and  a well drilled for water.)  As an added attraction for the park, it was also near the site of an Indian Mound. They constructed a merry-go-round, speakers’ platform (also used as a bandstand), one Tennis Court, two croquet courts and a baseball diamond. Every Sunday they had a large crowd, with some people coming by the train while others came by carriage and horseback. They had a barbecue, and a popcorn stand went into business. The park was soon forgotten when the train ceased to run and is now overgrown with brush and timber.
By 1915 the company finances were in really bad condition, with some of the workers having to wait as long as six months for their pay. Due to the poor construction, the bridges were frequently washed out, causing added delays and expense. The Oil Belt railroad had visions of added lines when it first started, with some grading work being done for a line between Oblong and Casey, but the company collapsed before work could be completed. The construction crews were made up mostly of Italian immigrants who were paid $1.75 per day but when management cut their salary to $1.50 per day they went on strike.

William E Finley, of Bridgeport, was one of the financial backers of the Oil Belt, and at a hearing before the Illinois Commerce Commission in Springfield on July 15, 1916, testified that he was president of the company and that it had outstanding stock of $125,000 and owed  $175,000 in mortgage to the Mississippi Valley Trust Co. Mr. Finley told the commission that creditors were about to foreclose on the railroad, one bridge was washed out, and mudslides had the track covered in two places.
Finally, the Oil Belt Traction Company ended operations on October 31, 1916. Creditors showed up at the depot one night, repossessed the locomotive and put the railroad out of business. The train crew came to work the next morning and discovered they didn't have a job. The rails were removed in 1918 to be used to scrap iron for WWI. The farmers in the area blew up the trestle on the Embarras River to keep it from collecting debris and impeding the flow of water during flooding. William E Finley, mortgaged all of his real estate, and oil royalty to the Mississippi Valley Trust Company and had to pay off all of the indebtedness by December 23, 1917 to keep from losing everything that he had. The oil wells kept producing during this time and he was able to meet the deadline.

Nearly everyone that knew anything about the operations of the Oil Belt railroad said that it was poor management, and not the bad idea, that brought failure to the railroad. The farmers and oil people in the area along the route were all very supportive, as this was a much faster, and easier, means of moving supplies and men from place to place that the mule and oxen teams being used at that time. The old grade or cuts for the Oil Belt railroad can still be found at this writing (1995) if you know where to look. A lot of the grade has been leveled for farming over the years, with little left for evidence that the train ever existed. There is still a trace of the cut about 1/4 mile West of the Judy Avenue /Rte250 intersection at Bridgeport as well as one half mile West of Fairview Church north of Route 50. The cut east of Cranston is being filled with brush and other stuff at this time.”