Chicago & Alton Railroad freight house
Visible in this photograph is the intricate system of rollers and rails needed to move the massive Chicago & Alton Railroad freight house to its new location in the summer of 1926. (Photo courtesy McLean County Museum of History) Courtesy McLean County Museum of

By today’s standards, picking up and moving an immense, fortress-like stone building is impressive enough. While true, moving it with mule-power is another thing altogether!

Yet that’s exactly what happened in Bloomington during the summer of 1926 when the Chicago & Alton Railroad relocated its freight house, which was part of the company’s sprawling west side complex of repair shops.

At its height, the “Alton Shops” employed upwards of 3,000 skilled and semi-skilled men, ranging from machinists to boilermakers to carpenters. The city-within-a-city operation featured more than a dozen buildings and miles of track devoted to the maintenance of locomotives, as well as the upkeep and manufacture of rolling stock. Running the passenger and freight trains, and shuttling several thousand cars through the yards on any given day, also required the work of engineers, firemen, brakemen, switchmen, section gangs and others.

An ambitious rail yard expansion project to reduce congestion at the Bloomington bottleneck of the Chicago-to-St. Louis line necessitated the relocation of the 1888 freight house. Unlike most buildings that comprised the Alton Shops, this 1,500-ton (according to one source) building was always located east of the mainline tracks. In 1926, it was moved southward more than 200 feet to the corner of Allin and Chestnut streets.

The 225-by-40 foot freight house featured Joliet limestone walls 18 inches thick, and iron trusses supporting a gabled slate roof. It included a two-story office building at its south end, and a warehouse 192 feet long with side walls 22 feet high.

Throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th, buildings — even those as massive as the C&A freight house —were frequently moved, sometimes even miles. Back then, utilitarian commercial and industrial buildings were erected with meticulous care by armies of craftsmen, and thus were built to last, unlike the cookie-cutter, precast-concrete warehouses of today.

The 1926 move was said to be the most ambitious such undertaking in Bloomington’s history, and it’s doubtful any subsequent relocation ever matched its scale.

The all-important contract went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, mover E.W. LaPlant. According to The Pantagraph, the C&A paid LaPlant $15,500 for the job, or about $190,000 in today’s dollars, adjusted for inflation. Prep work, which included excavation underneath the building, began in late June.

On July 29, LaPlant’s men began to lift the freight house using 480 jacks. The building was placed on rollers, which in turn rested on steel rails. Using nothing more than a team of mules, the building was then moved 225 feet south. The mules pulled the multi-ton building forward inch by inch by winding a cable around a capstan. “It does not seem possible that the one team will be able to exert enough power to move the structure but experts say that [buildings] of similar weight and size have been handled in this manner,” The Pantagraph reassured its readers.

To make way for the freight house and yard expansion, several buildings along West Chestnut Street were themselves moved, while others were demolished. Even so, Chestnut remained a thriving commercial district. In 1928, for instance, the blocks straddling the shops were home to a church, restaurant, laundry, two billiard halls, barbershop, railroad hotel, bakery, two grocers, butcher, shoe repair shop and auto wrecker.

Although the backbreaking work of loading and unloading shipments in the building was suspended, freight agent George Conley and his clerical force were able to remain inside during part of the move.

It appears the freight house reached its new location in late September or early the following month. On Oct. 20, LaPlant, who had been on the job every day since early June, declared his work finished.

The C&A Shops and yard operation declined with the rise of diesel engines, over-the-road trucking and the interstate highway system. The Chicago & Alton Railroad became the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, which in turn became the Illinois Central Gulf. The C&A Shops are no more, and today a weedy, windswept field stands where the once-bustling rail center held sway over the west side.

The good news is that the freight house still stands, and since the late 1980s has served as home for Darnall Printing. As a matter of fact, the building is the last 19th century survivor of the shops. It has stood the test of time for 122 years, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be around for another century-plus.

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