Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railroad Station - Big Four Depot, Mattoon Illinois
The Big Four Railroad Station and the Illinois Central Railroad Station were the last two remaining foremost buildings in Mattoon which recall the era when railroads played a major role in the development and economics of this thriving city. The Big Four Railroad Station was located at the hub of local commercial development and thus was an important local landmark and a valuable resource to the people of Mattoon.
The earliest settlements in western Coles County were several miles south of present day Mattoon. When rail traffic began in June of 1855 on the east/west Big Four line, which intersected on the east central edge of Section 13, Mattoon Township, with the north/south Illinois Central line, land prices in the area skyrocketed from $.69 per acre to $25.00 in one year's time. The City of Mattoon, platted in 1855, developed around the point of the crossing of these major rail lines and by 1870 the population had grown to 5,000 people. At this time, the Big Four moved its railroad repair shops and round-house from Litchfield to Mattoon, as Mattoon was located near the center of the line running between Indianapolis and St. Louis. The population continued to increase to 10,000 people by the turn of the century.
The Big Four and the Illinois Central shared depot facilities in a hotel near the MX (colloquial) rail crossing called the Essex House, but as congestion and population increased, the Mattoon city council continued to request the Illinois Central to lower its tracks. The Essex House was demolished and the Illinois Central subway was completed in 1914. The railroad bridge for the Big Four tracks across the subway was under construction by the end of that year. Each rail line built its own self-contained depot shortly after, but made sure that goods and passengers traveling the east/west Big Four and the north/south Illinois Central connecting Chicago and New Orleans could easily transfer.
As well as accommodating passengers, the Big Four Station served as a company office building. Along with the ticket office and waiting room on the first floor were the offices of the supervisor, train master, track supervisor, and bridge and building supervisor. On the second floor were the offices of the Division Engineer Superintendent, train timekeeper, train dispatcher, railroad telephone office and clerk's office.
In 1870 the city of Mattoon encouraged the Big Four to move its shops to town by donating 30 acres of land for their location. The economics of Mattoon revolved around the railroads for more than 80 years. A high mark of prosperity was reached in 1913 with 782 people employed by the Big Four; 435 of these being shop men. Major improvements were made in 1910 with the construction of a new roundhouse, terminal facilities and coal dock. Coal shipments were considerable in the years to follow and the Mattoon shops repaired the coal cars as well as performing repair and maintenance on other railroad cars and steam engines. A former shop employee reports that 80 engines;were worked on in the Mattoon roundhouse during a 24 hour period during World War II.
Activity on the Big Four continued to be good from 1910 to 1950. The passage of troop trains through Mattoon was a common sight during the World War I and World War II years. During World War II, some local excitement was generated when a Kansas bound train carrying German prisoners of war went through. On September 23, 1935, eleven additional trains passed westward through Mattoon carrying members of the American Legion and their wives to the 17th annual convention in St. Louis. From six to eight thousand people gathered in the area around the Big Four Station on October 30, 1948 to hear President Harry S. Truman make his final campaign speech from the rear platform of a Missouri bound 16 car train. A former depot employee has estimated that at least 12 to 15 passenger trains stopped at the depot a day. These are just a few of the many activities that occurred in the shadow of the Big Four Station which affected the lives of Mattoon's residents and the city's economic atmosphere.
The diesel engine began to gradually appear on the railroad in the 1930's. This engineering marvel seemed to signal the beginning of railroad decline and in 1953 the Big Four moved 25 percent of its steam power maintenance work out of town due to dieselization. The last of the buildings comprising the Big Four shops have been removed and this 30 acre site presently stands vacant. A few other railroad-related structures remain standing and include a small Railway Express Agency building and a renovated freight building.
The station was demolished in March 2004 after significant deterioration.