5 Railroads That Never Saw The Light of Day

In my last blog, I began to explore railways which were built, but ultimately could not be finished, due to lack of funds. Today's blog is on railroads which were planned, but ultimately never built. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there existed many more ideas for railroad lines than would be considered practical, and most importantly, profitable. Four of these lines come from North Central Illinois, although that is not to say that unbuilt railroads did not exist everywhere across the country.

5) The Cincinnati Subway System

Cincinnati was one of the fastest growing cities at the beginning of the 20th. Century. The city allocated $6 Million for construction of a subway system to help ease congestion and overcrowding of the inner city...except estimates to complete the project began at $12 Million and only escalated from there.

The project was halted during World War I, and after the war had ended, costs began to skyrocket, and the infrastructure around the tunnels was beginning to crack. The war effort had left commodities and materials in short supply. The original bonds paid for the construction of 7 Miles of underground tunnel, but no track whatsoever. Engineers could not find any other use for the tunnels other than their purpose for construction in the first place, and up until World War II, various proposals kept popping up for finally developing the system. 

Still derelict, a 2002 proposal for a light-rail system would have used the tunnels for part of its line, however, this would take 30 years and $2.6 Billion, not Million dollars, and as such, failed to gain traction.

Today the tunnels are an awesome sight for urban exploration, but not much else. Proposals had it being turned into a Hollywood set for the Batman Forever movie, a wine cellar, and a nightclub, none of which were successful.

The tunnels also aren't cheap. It costs about $2.6 million to maintain the tunnels on a yearly basis, and while this sounds outrageous, it would be more expensive to simply fill them with dirt. As such, they remain a unique part of Cincinnati's past and present. 

4) Decatur & State Line Railway

Out for a drive one day in the middle of nowhere (Kankakee, IL), I drove on a bridge over the Kankakee River and found bridge pillars for what appeared to be a railroad, although I had began tracing lines by then and hadn't found any other physical or satellite evidence of its existence. 

Three Happy Little Mysteries (Google Maps: 41.207954 -88.015821)

It actually took me awhile to find out what these were, as they didn't appear in topo maps either. The Wikipedia page for Kankakee State Park had a cryptic clue, "At the Chippewa Campground, hand-cut limestone pillars mark where a railway bridge was to have been built for the railroad before financiers ran out of money." The article has since been updated to include Decatur & State Line in there as well.

The same piers from Google Street View
Very little is known for sure about the route, other than it was planned to extend from Decatur to Frankfort, IL, where the only other physical remnant of the proposed railroad exists.

This scar appears to be the northern end of where the D&SL Railway would have run.

According to Bill Burmaster, the line was chartered in 1869, but lost its financial backing in 1871 with the Great Chicago Fire. We talk a little more about this road in our blog dedicated solely to this unbuilt line.

Thanks to Bill Dittus, who provided us with a map which showed the proposed right-of-way of both this line, and our next unbuilt railroad...
1873 Map of Illinois Railroads, with both the Decatur & State Line and Plymouth Kankakee & Pacific shown. Source: Library of Congress

3) Plymouth Kankakee & Pacific Railroad
That two proposed routes, neither of which were built, intersected, should show just how prevalent railroad proposals were in the 1870's, whether they could secure enough financial backing or not. In this case, the Plymouth Kankakee & Pacific Railroad was to bridge the still unconnected gap between Dwight, IL, where it would connect with the St. Louis Alton & Chicago Railroad, as well as continue westward to Streator, and Plymouth, IN, where it would connect with the Pennsylvania Railroad and points eastward. 

Its demise likely came with the Panic of 1873, in which the global economy went through a six year depression, partly caused by speculation and over investment in railroads, as the railroad industry, and the construction jobs it provided, were the second largest employer at the time, behind only the agricultural industry.

2) Great Lakes Basin Railroad

It might be tempting to believe that speculation and creation of railroads was a 19th and 20th century phenomenon only, and for the most part that is true, however, railroad proposals continue even until this day.

Map of the proposed right of way. (GreatLakesBasin.net)

It was a proposal all the way back from 2015, the largest proposal in over a hundred years.

The railroad and the company behind it, Great Lakes Basin Transportation, saw a problem with the freight industry. Namely, that Chicago's freight network is badly congested, which is completely true.

Their solution to the problem sounds great on paper; create a beltway around the Chicago area to be used by other railroad carriers which could avoid the Chicago bottleneck, unclogging the system and help move freight that much faster across the U.S. It would've been no different than a tollway, as the company wouldn't have any rolling stock of its own for freight. Instead, it would charge tolls to other railroads to use their system. 

Why did the line fail? The Great Lakes Basin Railroad is a good lesson that really anyone can propose anything, even if they have absolutely no clue what they're doing. GLBRR had $151 to their name when they submitted their application to the Surface Transportation Board for a railroad that would have cost $8 Billion to build. Detractors to the project noted that, among many other issues, the project seemed poised to eventually convert this railroad tollway to a highway tollway, or incorporating a highway into the right of way eventually.

Having no capital, no financing, and with significant public opposition (partly because the railroad requested a huge right-of-way much larger than would otherwise be necessary), the Great Lakes Basin Railroad was unanimously rejected by the STB, and its owners did not appeal the decision, as of this posting.

And yet, this isn't the craziest railroad proposal on this list. 

1) Chicago - New York Electric Air Line Railroad

Proposed railroad right of way of the Chicago New York Electric Air Line Railroad.

Chicago and New York are very well linked to each other via railroad, as one would expect two extremely large cities to be. This proposal would have added another line to compete with the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads, and would be 150 miles shorter than either of them. The line proposed was a nearly entirely straight railroad with no at-grade crossings, less than a 1% grade, and would reach either Chicago or New York in 10 hours. The speeds of the railroad would be over 100 mph, which is hard to believe even today, and this was in the early 20th Century. 

Interurban lines did not do very well financially in most cases, to put it mildly. All but a few were completely abandoned by World War II. This would have been far more costly, and far larger than any other built. Investors nonetheless flocked to the project, and construction actually began in Indiana. 

Yet, an untimely depression in 1907, increasing construction costs, and possible fraud and accounting irregularities doomed the project. The company would go out of business before any of its right-of-way would be ready for trains. That being said, the project would not be completely for naught. Indiana's construction would eventually lead to an interurban line in the Gary, IN area, which is more than can be said about any of the other proposals on this list.

Trestle under construction near Chesterton, IN. 1907. (Chesterton Tribune)

As I've said already, anyone can propose a railroad. That doesn't mean it's ever going to be built, and thus there exists plenty of plans for railroads which would only exists in the minds of a few investors.


  1. I understood that the Pennsylvania Turnpike utilized tunnels originally built for the Chicago/New York Electric Air Line. I believe the Turnpike opened just before WW II. Bob Schwartz, Chicago

  2. Bob, thanks for your comment, I did not know that the Pennsylvania Turnpike used tunnels originally from the Electric Air Line. The Turnpike itself is an interesting topic as well, as a 13 mile section of it was abandoned, and is now partially a biking trail.

    1. The Pennsylvania Turnpike used tunnels partially built for the Southern Pennsylvania Railroad, not the Air Line.

  3. Thanks for digging into the mystery of the three piers in the Kankakee River. I have wondered what their history was.

    1. Dennis,

      Thanks for the comment. Indeed they were a mystery for me as well, but the real thanks goes to Bill Burmaster for maintaining such a wealth of knowledge on his own website!

  4. If you enjoyed this page, you might enjoy http://russnelson.com/unfinished-railroads.html

    1. Russ,

      Thanks for the comment as well as your website into exploring some of the unfinished railroads in New York, you have done a magnificent job unearthing some of these.


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