The Railroad Comes To Whiting

By John Hmurovic

Excerpts from One Minute After Sunrise: The Story of the Standard Oil Refinery Fire of 1955 (available for purchase through the Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Society)

Whiting owes its creation to four things: Lake Michigan, Chicago, railroads, and its oil refinery. Take any one of those ingredients away, and Whiting would be very different from what is today.

Lake Michigan and Chicago were already in place at the start of the 1850s, but the railroads had not yet reached this far west. After the first trains came, Chicago experienced a population explosion. Those first trains also resulted in the arrival of Whiting’s first non-native settlers: a group of railroad workers hired to work this section of track.

The tracks, which still run across the northern part of Whiting and Robertsdale, played an important role in the growth of the United States, because they were part of the first rail link between Chicago and the eastern part of the United States. Even in 1852, people knew this was a significant event and the arrival of the first train from the east was a time of excitement.

On that day, thousands lined the streets of Chicago. A reporter for the Chicago Democrat said it looked like the entire city was there. William B. Ogden, Chicago’s first mayor, was ready to give a speech; music played; a cannon was in position to fire a salute.


What made this day important to the 38-thousand-plus residents of Chicago was the knowledge that their city was about to change. It was about to experience a population explosion. There was no guarantee of course, but everyone felt it coming. It was coming as certainly as the train scheduled to arrive at 11 a.m. that day, February 20, 1852. It was coming, because that train, operated by the Michigan Southern Railroad, would be the first to enter the city from the east. Once connected to the eastern United States the population of Chicago would grow,and prosperity would follow. “Those who witnessed the first train would never forget it,” wrote railroad historians Dave McLellan and Bill Warrick. “It marked the end of slow, water-borne transportation and the beginning of what was then an incredible speed for moving people and goods.”

Railroad operators and East Coast businessmen caught the excitement long before most Chicago residents. They knew they could make money by connecting the nation’s midland to its eastern coast. They knew that Chicago could become the queen of the prairies, the gateway to the West. So, a race began. Both the Michigan Central and the Michigan Southern railroads wanted to reach Chicago first. It was a bitter battle. Both companies looked for an edge. They fought it out in courtrooms and state legislatures. They cut corners. 

The home stretch of their race ran across northern Indiana. The Michigan Central hired workers to lay track between Detroit and Chicago to complete the company’s route from the east. The rival crews from the Michigan Southern laid track between Toledo and Chicago.

Laying track across Indiana was a challenge, especially near Lake Michigan in the state’s northwest corner. About 145 million to 250 million years earlier, dinosaurs roamed what is now northwest Indiana. Mastodons lived there in more recent times…just 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. But the most important event in prehistoric northwestIndiana took place two million to 12,000 years ago. That is when a series of glaciers covered the area. As those glaciers melted, and the ice sheet receded to the north, they left behind a sandy and marshy landscape. “The country falls off into pond[s] and marshes that can never admit of settlement nor never will be of much service to our State." That was the opinion of future U.S. Senator John Tipton in 1821 when he served as a commissioner to establish the boundary between Indiana and Illinois. 

Just east of the Illinois state line, northwest Indiana was an outdoorsman’s paradise in the 1800s. Lakes, sloughs,and swamps attracted flocks of ducks, deer, and wild turkeys. Strawberries and raspberries were abundant, and cranberries and huckleberries were plentiful. But as Tipton predicted, early 19th-century pioneers bypassed the state’s northwest corner. Indiana became a state in 1816, but thirty-six years later its northwest corner had few people. Historian Powell Moore called it Indiana’s Last Frontier. Now, in the brutal winter of 1851-1852, railroad workers struggled to lay track over this no man’s land.

Temperatures dipped to fifteen-below zero. A winter storm hit the Chicago area. One newspaper described it as “the wildest and most inhospitable we have ever witnessed in this city.” Through it all, the railroad crews kept working, laying track over the sand and swamps.

At a few minutes before noon on February 20, 1852, the anxious crowd gathered in Chicago spotted smoke, which “gracefully curled up behind the trees in the distance.” The site of it created a stir “as animated as a beehive,” according to a reporter for the Chicago Daily Journal. Young men climbed onto fences and rooftops to get a better view of the incoming train. Perhaps it was an omen for generations of passengers to come, but the train was an hour late.

Soon the crowd began to cheer and the cannons boomed. The train was in sight. The race was over. The Michigan Southern won. The Monroe, “a neat little engine,” as a reporter for the Western Citizen described it, led the way. Attached were a few freight cars loaded with some of the men who built the track. Behind it was another engine, The Bronson, “large and beautifully decorated.” It pulled two passenger cars filled with people who had gone out to meet the train, jumped on board, and rode part of the way into the city. When the train came to a stop, the speeches began. Mayor Ogden talked about the prosperity that would follow, and he proposed three cheers for the Michigan Southern.

As festive as the occasion was, the Michigan Southern only won the race because it changed the rules. The train that arrived in Chicago that day had not traveled from the east coast, or even from Toledo. It started its journey in Michigan City, Indiana. 

The swampy, sandy land of northwest Indiana presented numerous problems for the men laying the track. They finished the section between Michigan City and Chicago, and the road from La Porte to the east was complete. But they did not yet finish an eleven-mile stretch between Michigan City and La Porte. To beat the Michigan Central to Chicago, the Michigan Southern needed a different plan. 

That plan involved a plank road that connected Michigan City and La Porte. The Michigan Southern put the Monroe, a small construction engine, on a sled. They then dragged it along that plank road to Michigan City. They most likely got the Bronson to Michigan City on a ship via Lake Michigan. They placed both engines on the track at Michigan City, and from there they rode into Chicago. Michigan City was not the east coast, but that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd. They knew the connection would soon be complete.

That happened three months later. On May 21, the first train carrying passengers from the east arrived. It was a Michigan Central with 500 first-class passengers and 300 immigrants on board. Two days later, a labor force of 200 men and sixty teams of horses finished the Michigan Southern’s link to Chicago.

Passenger service to and from Chicago was ready to begin in earnest. Still, it was not a complete rail link all the way to the east coast. Passengers could go as far as Monroe, Michigan, and then board a boat that would take them across Lake Erie. It took almost another year, January 24, 1853, before a passenger could travel just by train from Chicago to Buffalo. Until then, the Michigan Southern bragged, a trip of forty-five hours between New York and Chicago was the “quickest time yet.” One of its trains clocked that time in mid-1852.

On board that train was a thirty-one-year-old conductor. His name was Herbert Lloyd Whiting. Before his long career in the railroad industry ended, a city in Indiana would carry his name. But when he died, his obituary did not mention the city of Whiting. What made him most proud, it said, was being the conductor in charge of the Michigan Southern's first through train out of Chicago. (related article: How Whiting Got Its Name)


Excerpts from One Minute After Sunrise: The Story of the Standard Oil Refinery Fire of 1955
Copyright © 2017 John Hmurovic