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  • Writer's pictureTJ Blakeman

Illinois Central Roundhouse and Freight Yard

Updated: Dec 14, 2018

The Illinois Central Roundhouse was first constructed in the heart of Downtown Champaign and served as the center for IC operations in the newly platted City. The roundhouse or "Engine House" was built of wood and brick and allow locomotives to turn around using a large turntable capable of turning the largest steam trains.

The roundhouse first appears on the original 1855 plat of West Urbana (now Champaign) and was located just north of Main Street between the IC Main line to the east and Walnut Street to the south. 1st North Street was never constructed and eventually be consumed by the IC railroad operations.

The 1856 Alexander Bowman map shows the roundhouse in much more detail.

The 1869 Birdseye continues to show more detail as accessory structures are constructed. Also taking shape is the commercial row of buildings now facing Main Street including Jos. Kuhn's first store, the Star Store.

By 1887, Main Street is clearly built out with brick structure (red = brick and yellow = wood construction).

By 1897, Alexander Lumber began to grow and occupied a lay down area with its own railroad spur on the east of Walnut Street next to the roundhouse.

Very few photographs of the original roundhouse exist. This image was taken standing east of the railroad tracks (today in the Police Parking lot area) looking west. You can see the rear of the Main Street buildings on the far left.

One of the few known photos of the roundhouse interior is seen below. The workers took time out of their day to pose on the massive turntable. The roof line of the Main Street buildings can be seen looming above the structure.

Another image of ICRR Engine 936 loaded onto the turntable.

By 1902, Alexander Lumber has continued to expand north on the west side of Walnut Street and their lumber yard continued to expand on the east side of the street.

Here you can see the Alexander Lumber yard with the side spurs and boxcars. The Alexander sign is clearly viable on the building to the left fronting Walnut Street. Today, that are is the City Parking lot behind the News-Gazette.

Perhaps one of Champaign's earliest automobiles owners posing with his new car on north Walnut Street. This image is looking north toward Washington Street from Main Street.

By 1909 a new structure appears, the Illinois Central Green Houses. These gardens provided fresh produce to the IC dining cars and were located at the southeast corner of Walnut Street and Washington Street.

The Illinois Central Railroad Greenhouses are seen here along Washington Street.

"Champaign is to have a new Illinois Central round house, machine shop and turntable.  A letter was received by General Foreman Donley of the round house from the master mechanic in Chicago, the letter stating that the appropriation of $65,685 which has been pending for a long time has been passed upon and O.K.'d by the proper authorities."

It appears the round house became quite a nuisance for a growing Downtown.  In an November 21, 1911 Urbana Courier article,

"It is reported that Isaac Kuhn is contemplating the erection of a modern hotel at the Market and Main Streets in Champaign, opposite the Kuhn store, and that his recent trips to Chicago had this in view.  Formally the smoke nuisance from the round house provided an intolerable nuisance to Main street stores in that vicinity, but the early removal to the new round house will render the site more desirable for hotel purposes than at any time since the city was originally laid out.

By 1915, the Downtown roundhouse was no more. Illinois Central Constructed a new roundhouse several miles north of Champaign, well out of town and away from the commercial center of town.

The new roundhouse can be seen below near the top of the image.

This larger Illinois Central roudnhouse lasted for 40 years.

Meanwhile, back in Downtown this image from 1915 or 1916 shows the railroad land cleared of the roundhouse and ready for new uses.

By 1921, the Illinois Central constructed a new Freight Terminal (angled structure fronting on Walnut Street) where the roundhouse once stood. Illinois Central was also in the planning for a major design change to the entire railroad area including the raising of the railroad tracks through much of Champaign.

The new design included raising the main lines, adding new subways for traffic, moving the original 1899 depot north and constructing a new grand passenger terminal.

The 1924 Sandborn Fire Insurance map further illustrates the new track arrangement.

You can clearly see the progress being made on the new passenger station in the foreground and the new passenger platform.

Here you can see the angled Illinois Central Freight Station. The building was built between two sidings allowing box cars to offload freight from both the north and south platforms along the building face. Also visible is the water tower. The base remains today.

Below is a view of the Freight Station looking northeast toward the Washington Street viaduct. The large ice house seen in the photo was located at the northeast corner of Washington and Market Street. The Illinois Central Greenhouses are seen just north of the box car.

By the 1940's much of the area begins to look as it does today.

On September 23, 1955 a major fire consumed the final Alexander Lumber Building at the southeast corner of Washington Street and Walnut Street. A warehouse, today housing Roger's Supply is now located on the site of that fire.

A 1971 view of the buildings on the east side of Walnut Street.

The Freight building remains largely untouched today. The rail spur on the south has been removed and the north spur is no longer in operation.

The platforms and loading docks are still present along the north side of the building.

The original water town base remains standing.

The small steam plant still exists but it's concrete tower was removed.

Many of the outbuildings have been repainted to the brown and orange shades of Illinois Central's colors.

Today, these structures are all located in a City of Champaign Local Landmark District and is owned by Dr. William Youngerman, great-grandson of Jos. Kuhn. His family continues to oversee the entire railroad property and buildings along with many of the Main Street commercial structures.

Photo Credits: Champaign County Historical Archives at the Urbana Free Library, Champaign County History Museum, Illinois Central, T.J. Blakeman, Sandborn Fire Insurance Company, and Ben Halpen

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