If you have ever played the board game Monopoly (and who hasn’t?), you probably, at some time, spent $200 to buy the Short Line Railroad ... or had to pay $25 rent to the player who already owned that property.
Although the other railroads on the game board (Reading, B&O, and Pennsylvania) were actual companies, there was no “Short Line.” It was a railroader’s description of a small, local line that measured its trackage in tens of miles, rather than hundreds or thousands. In the late 1800s, the number of “short lines” in the United States was literally in the hundreds; most served as connecting links between larger railroad operations.
One such “short line” was the Kankakee & Seneca Railroad, which began operation in January 1882. The K & S was 42 miles in length, running westward from Kankakee to the LaSalle County town of Seneca on the Illinois River. It linked the tracks of the Cincinnati, Lafayette and Chicago Railroad (later the “Big Four”) at Kankakee with those of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway at Seneca.
The Kankakee & Seneca Railroad Company was chartered in early 1881 by a group of local businessmen led by Thomas P. Bonfield. One of the first settlers of the new community of Kankakee in 1853, Bonfield was a lawyer and served as the village’s first “mayor” (village board president).
Bonfield, who was active in the formation or operation of several railroad companies, was the president of the Kankakee & Seneca; his son, Thomas E. Bonfield, was the company’s secretary. Another prominent Kankakeean, Warren R. Hickox Sr., served as a director of the company.
To finance the building of the new railroad, the company issued $600,000 in bonds, which were purchased by the two railroads it would connect — in effect, the K & S would be jointly owned by the Cincinnati, Lafayette, and Chicago and by the Rock Island.
The first newspaper mention of the Kankakee & Seneca line came on April 13, 1881, when the Chicago Tribune reported, “The people of Kankakee, Ill., have voted in favor of transferring $30,000 of the Cincinnati, Lafayette, & Chicago Railroad stock owned by the town to Kankakee & Seneca Railroad for the proposed extension of the Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louise & Chicago into the vast coal-fields of Kankakee [County].”
The “coal-fields” referred were on the western edge of Kankakee County’s Essex Township, close to the proposed K & S line, which would run through the Village of Essex. When the Kankakee & Seneca began operating in 1882, it served the communities of Kankakee, Bonfield, Frielings, Union Hill and Essex in Kankakee County, and Coster, Gardner, Booth, Mazon, Wauponsee, Langham and Seneca in LaSalle County. (After the railroad went out of existence in the 1930s, several of those communities — Freilings, Coster, Booth, Wauponsee and Langham — gradually faded away.)
While the K & S railroad line primarily carried freight, there was passenger service of a sort: one train per day in each direction was listed as an “accommodation.” That term meant there was a lone passenger car attached to the otherwise all-freight train. The drawback to the accommodation train was highly-variable travel time: depending upon demand, the train might stop anywhere along the line to add or drop off freight cars.
In January, 1908, a group of 300 residents living along the Kankakee & Seneca sued to force the railroad to provide regular, scheduled passenger service. The Kankakee Evening Democrat reported on Jan. 25 that the State Board of Railroads and Warehouse Commissioners had ruled in favor of the residents. “The commission recommends that arrangements be made … to relieve mixed trains Nos. 216 and 215 from doing switching at intermediate stations, so that passengers going east in the morning and desiring to return in the afternoon, may have reasonable and fair accommodation on such trains.”
The Kankakee & Seneca Railroad died in 1933, at the age of 51. The Kankakee Daily Republican reported on Feb. 24 of that year that the Illinois Commerce Commission had granted the railroad permission “to discontinue all operations and dismantle its property. The road, established in 1882 and formerly one of the busiest small railroads in the country, has operated under a deficit for several years.”
Although the K & S is gone, it is not forgotten: the Kankakee Model Railroad Club has announced that it will offer for sale a commemorative HO-scale model of a wood-sided livestock car bearing the name of the Kankakee & Seneca. It is the latest of a dozen local businesses (including Radeke Brewery, Bear Brand Hosiery Co., and Schaefer Piano Co.) to be honored by the club with model train cars.
Proceeds from sales of the cars are used to support the Club’s Kankakee Railroad Museum in the former Illinois Central Railroad Station on East Avenue. The Kankakee & Seneca car is available at the Museum in kit form for $25, or fully assembled for $30. The Railroad Museum is open Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.