The Oil Belt Railway

The Oil Belt Railway was a very obscure, and very short lived, short line railroad that ran from Oblong to Bridgeport, Illinois, beginning service in 1913. The track was slightly less than 25 miles long between the two towns in southeastern Illinois. A branch line to Lawrenceville was proposed from Bridgeport, but was never constructed. (Right of way)

It interchanged with the Illinois Central Railroad at Oblong and the B&O Southwestern Railroad in Bridgeport. Despite not running until 1913, construction actually began along this road four years prior in 1909. The fact that it took four years to get this line running should be a good indicator of the line's typical operations throughout its life. 

Right of way on the 1930 Crawford County Plat Map, over a decade post-abandonment. (Historic Map Works)

A narrow-gauge operation, one of the very few that were never converted to standard gauge in the state, the line hauled grain and hay to local farmers in the area, as well as oil field supplies. The line had no turntable, only one passenger car, and six freight cars, according to Lawrence Lore.

Image: Oil Belt Railroad 10 via IndustrialHistory

With maximum speeds of 20 mph, little if any infrastructure outside of the railroad track, and no funds for investment, this line ran poorly, to say the least. A design flaw in which the ties of the tracks were spaced too far apart led to frequent derailments. According to Ken Pryor, Jr., "the train became known as the "try-weekly" because it would arrive in Bridgeport and then try all week to get back to Oblong."

Washouts occurred frequently, and workers often waited months for pay. Despite its faults, however, the line still provided at least some economic development for Crawford County. According to Lawrence Lore, "the train increased the trade in Oblong, since the farmers in Martin and Southwest townships in Crawford County could ride the train to Oblong to do their shopping. The Company’s finances were depleted when the segment between Oblong and Hardinsville was completed. They arranged for the Mississippi Valley Trust Company to finance the railroad from Hardinsville to Bridgeport. [There were only] two depots selling tickets to ride on the train. Any other stops were supposed to be prepaid, although it was a common practice for anyone wanting to ride to jump on as it went past.". Surprisingly, the company also constructed Wolfe Park in an attempt to drum up passenger traffic along the route, a common practice along railroads at the time.

In fact, towards the end of the railroad's life, there were even talks of outside parties purchasing the right of way to upgrade and extend the line east from Bridgeport to Vincennes, IN to connect with other local mines in the area.

Article from The Indianapolis News, 28 January 1916 via Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another extension northward to Charleston or Mattoon was also proposed and chartered, but also never built: 

With only the route from Bridgeport to Oblong operational, the line had little in the way of traffic that could not be also handled by the much larger Illinois Central.

The railroad is almost a textbook example of why so many short lines failed - the companies that owned the lines failed to both construct them to reasonable standards, and maintain them after completion, in addition to the creation of the automobile and publicly improved highways, as well as much larger railroads. The numerous complications and dire financial straits would soon consume the small railroad, and by 1916, the railroad was abandoned.

Thanks as always for reading!


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