The line originated with the Chicago and Alton Railroad, then was part of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, which merged with Illinois Central. Lemont (1853) and Lockport (1863) are the oldest depots in the Metra system and were there when President Lincoln’s funeral train passed through. For many years there was only one weekday round trip on the line. The RTA added a second trip in each direction in 1979. When the Illinois Central Gulf sold the Metra Electric line to Metra in 1987, it also handed over commuter operations on the Chicago-Joliet route, although it still owned the tracks. Metra renamed the line the Heritage Corridor. Metra still operates the service (it added a third round-trip in 1999 and an extra outbound trip in 2016) but the tracks are now owned by CN and trains are dispatched from Homewood. Metra controls none of the five intersections with freight railroads on this line. Heritage schedules are “Alton Maroon” for a color used by the Alton Railroad.
In 1856, the Chicago, Alton and St. Louis Railroad still hadn’t achieved its goal of reaching Chicago. The railroad, built north from Alton and Springfield starting in 1851, had made it as far north as Joliet, where its trains either switched to the Rock Island tracks into Chicago or transferred their freight to boats heading up the Illinois & Michigan Canal.
That year, the Illinois Legislature issued a charter for the Joliet & Chicago Railroad, which would parallel the canal between the two cities. A prime backer of the J&C was the city of Lockport, whose town fathers feared they were overly dependent on the canal and sought a rail link to ensure future growth. Lacking the political power and railroad experience to do the job, they turned to Illinois Gov. Joel Matteson, who had risen to power from the Joliet area, for help. Matteson, believing that the J&C would not succeed unless it served as the CA&St.L’s extension into Chicago, hired the established railroad to survey and then build the new segment. It was understood that the J&C would be leased to the CA&St.L.
The timing was not good, however. The CA&St.L’s finances were in bad shape. The unusually severe winter of 1854-55 had left the railroad in need of expensive repairs, and fraudulent wheeling and dealing by railroad executives had drained resources. No work was done until June 1857, but by October the first five miles were completed to Lockport. A special train was commissioned to mark the occasion. Next to be completed was a seven-mile segment to Lemont, noted for its limestone quarries that were started after the construction of the canal. (The Lockport and Lemont stations were made of Lemont limestone.)
Work on the remaining segment to Chicago was completed in March 1858. On March 18, a nine-car CA&St.L train left Joliet, carrying two brass bands and a large number of invited guests for a ceremonial first trip. The train derailed twice en route, the roadbed having been eroded by wet weather, but eventually the train made it to the big city. It’s not clear where it stopped downtown, since at that point the J&C had no terminal in Chicago. (Eventually it started using a terminal opened by the Pittsburg, Ft. Wayne & Chicago at Madison and Canal.)
In 1864, the larger railroad, now known as the Chicago & Alton, signed a permanent lease for the J&C, making it part of the Chicago & Alton system.
On May 2, 1865, a nine-car train bearing the body of Abraham Lincoln left Chicago bound for his final resting place in Springfield. Thousands of crowds lined the route and met that train in Summit, Willow Springs, Lemont and Lockport, and 12,000 people waited in Joliet. The Lemont and Lockport stations that were passed by that train remain standing, the oldest stations in our system.
In 1871, the C&A’s losses in the Chicago Fire included its general offices at 53-55 Dearborn, its freight house between Van Buren and Congress just west of the river and 113 boxcars and flatcars.
In 1881, the C&A was one of several railroads to begin using the new Union Station at Canal and Adams. Likewise, in 1912, the Alton was one of three railroads to open the new Joliet Union Station. And in 1925, when the current Chicago Union Station opened, the C&A was an original tenant.
In 1931, the Chicago & Alton came under the control of the Baltimore and Ohio and started operating as the Alton Railroad. That lasted until 1947, when the Gulf Mobile & Ohio assumed ownership of the Alton Railroad. Then in August 1972, the Illinois Central absorbed the GM&O and formed the Illinois Central Gulf.
Throughout its history, the route between Joliet and Chicago primarily served freight trains and intercity passenger trains. For many years, there was only one weekday commuter train in the morning and another one returning in the evening, though it’s not clear when that service began. Under the GM&O, the service was operated by a former intercity engine and three coaches, and it was called the “Plug.”
The ICG tried to discontinue the service in 1974, but it was unsuccessful. In 1978, after the RTA was formed and began subsidizing commuter rail operations, the “Plug” was replaced by a more modern locomotive and bi-level coaches, and a second round-trip train was added in 1979.
In 1987, the ICG sold its electrified commuter line to the newly formed Metra, and Metra renamed that line the Metra Electric. As part of the deal, Metra began operating the commuter service on the ICG route between Joliet and Chicago, although the ICG retained ownership of the line itself. That line was named the Heritage Corridor to reflect its passage through the new I&M Canal National Heritage Corridor.
In 1998, the line was sold to CN, so our trackage rights agreement to operate Metra trains is now with that railroad. In April 1999, Metra added a third daily round-trip to the line. In 2016, Metra added a fourth afternoon outbound train.
Most information in this article is from The Chicago & Alton Railroad: The Only Way by Gene V. Glendinning.