Historic Structures

The Aurora Shops Chicago, Burlington and Quincy -CBQ- Railroad Roundhouse and Shops, Aurora Illinois

The completion of track west from Aurora in 1853 and the proposed merger of a number of lines in 1854 meant that the growing system would need to select sites for and build appropriate repair shops and terminal facilities at strategic points along the line. Temporary shops on leased land in Chicago were proving to be both expensive and inadequate for the system. Sometime in mid-1855, the company board resolved to obtain the necessary land, hopefully without cost, to build appropriate shop facilities on the east side of the river in Aurora. Reports of the proposed construction were first published in September, and by November land condemnation and compensation were being settled. In early December, construction had begun, but probably little more than the foundations of the "car factory" and "machine shops" were completed before activities were suspended for the winter.

Construction began anew in 1856, but by July the buildings were not much more than half completed. The wooden car shops were completed by early September, and in October the stone cutters and masons were finishing the walls of the roundhouse and machine shop. When the CB&Q issued its annual report to stockholders in June 1857, it could proudly note that the "expensive Machine & Repairing Shops at Aurora have been completed, upon a scale commensurate with the increasing stock of the Company..."

The new shops cost about $150,000 and included 7 buildings: "a Round House, 264 faet in diameter or 792 feet in circumference, and 18 feet high, above the grade; Machine Shop, 180 feet long by 50 feet wide, and 32 feet high; Blacksmith Shop, 154 by 50, and 14 feet high; Car Shop, 154 by 63 feet, and two stories in height; Paint Shop, 200 by 30 feet, two stories high; Carpenter Shop, 100 feet by 30, and an Engine Room, 38 by 24 feet... surmounted by a chimney 35 feet high, . ." By early 1857, a 90' by 40' section had been added to the car shops and several small warehouses and a lumber kiln resided on the property.

The best representation of the complex following this first phase of construction is a lithograph based on an ambrotype taken sometime in 1857 or 1858 (see photograph below). In this view of the complex looking northwest can be seen the roundhouse with the original set of 22 stalls. The 2-story stone machine shop with the single story engine house and chimney are just north of the roundhouse. Barely visible behind the machine shop is the 1-story blacksmith shop with forge chimneys arranged along the outside wall. Immediately behind the machine shop is the car shop, part single and part double storied. The building to the far right of the picture is probably the carpenter shop. The paint shop was located just out of this view, next to the carpenter shop and behind the blacksmith shop.

Chicago, Burlington and Quincy -CBQ- Railroad Roundhouse and Shops, Aurora Illinois Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy R.R car works 1857
Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy R.R car works 1857

Shortly after this set of shops was completed, a major bank failure in New York City produced a financial panic which placed the nation in a mild depression until the early stages of the Civil War. When the CB&Q issued its annual stockholder's report in June, 1858, the effect of the down-turned economy had barely been felt. The next 2 fiscal years, however, were a good deal more somber for both company officers and stockholders: no dividends were paid, and revenues were off by as much as 30%. Not until the end of the 1860-61 year was recovery apparent. During this period only minimal expenditures were made by the company, although in 1858-59 over $5,000 was spent to add 8 stalls to the Aurora roundhouse.

The Civil War strengthened the general economy of the North and railroads played a major role in the movement of troops and supplies. In addition to a general increase in business created by the war, 30 of the company's freight cars were taken over by the Union Army under the authorisation of General Grant. Replacing these cars and other equipment became a top priority. In the summer of 1863 orders went to outside firms for 15 additional locomotives and perhaps as many as 200 cars. Construction within the company's shops at Aurora and Galesburg was also stepped up during that same year, with approximately 200 grain and merchandise cars being built.

Major increase in the traffic carried by the road placed heavy demands on repair and construction facilities, and during the first 3 years of the War a number of additions were made to the Aurora complex. A machine shop was added to the car shop, a copper shop constructed, and an addition made to the drying kiln in 1860-61. During the next year a few minor improvements were made including an oil house and a snow plow house. More extensive improvements were made in 1363. The locomotive department added 2 fire-proof buildings, one between the roundhouse and stone machine shop, and the other between the machine shop and the wooden blacksmith shop, A shop for mending T-rail and storing iron for this department was also built. The car department also expanded, with construction of a shop for bending truck and other iron, a store-house, and a paint shop, as well as an extension to the car machine shop. Over $18,000 were spent during these 3 years on improvements at Aurora.

The war-time productivity of the shops was dealt a severe blow in mid-December 1863, when the stone machine shop was seriously damaged by a major fire. Both because of the snow and ice on the roofs of adjoining buildings and their stone and iron construction, the fire spread no further. The machine shop and its contents, however, accounted for losses of nearly $250,000, including damage to the building itself, major pieces of machinery, the stationary engine, a first-class locomotive, parts of several others under repair, and virtually all of the company's wooden construction patterns (which were stored in the second story of the building). Immediately following the blaze, company officials announced that the shop would be rebuilt as a 1-story building with some enlargement to its area. The shop was rebuilt using the original walls of the first story and the engine/boiler room wing was expanded slightly. No specific references have been found related to the reconstruction of the machine shop, but it is assumed that it was rebuilt the following year.

Other improvements during the last years of the War included a 701 foot artesian well to supply water for the locomotives and stationary engines, an engine house for the car department, a new coal house, a fence around the complex, a new brick kiln, and a frame storehouse for the purchasing department;. Sometime late in 1865 or early in 1866, the final 10 stalls were added to the roundhouse making it a complete circle.

The company's major interests at the end of the Civil War were directed towards railroads moving west across both Iowa and Missouri. In 1868, bridges over the Mississippi River were completed at both Burlington, Iowa, and Quincy, Illinois, thus linking the CB&Q with the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad in Missouri and the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad in Iowa. Although both of these companies and the Burlington and Missouri Railroad operating in Nebraska were separate organizations, the major stockholders and board members were intertwined to such an extent that the "Burlington system" was already much larger than it appeared on paper. In 1872, the CB&Q formally leased the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad providing it complete control of the route across southern Iowa. Three years later the 2 companies were consolidated into a new Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company. The CB&Q was the largest railroad operating in the state of Illinois in 1871, and was looking towards the day whan it would hold a similar position in other states.

The growth in the the number of trains operated by the system during "this period meant that repair and construction facilities had to be expanded to keep up with the demand. In 1858 the road operated 58 locomotives, 103 by 1864, 122 in 1868, and 165 by 1872. Since at least half of these were assigned to Aurora, the single roundhouse proved quite inadequate, Consequently, in 1867 the company decided to investigate the possibility of building a new shop complex either in Aurora or in Chicago. After some difficult negotiations with the City of Aurora, additional lands were obtained and a major improvement program was begun. A second roundhouse 270' in diameter with 15 stalls was constructed in late 1868 or early 1869. This also became inadequate quickly and the construction of 25 additional stalls was begun in the fall of 1871 and completed before June 1872.

An increase in the number of locomotives handled at Aurora dictated that enlarged facilities for fuel supplies would also be needed. In 1856 the company began experiments with coal as a replacement for wood. More experiments were conducted in 1858 and by 1865 there were few wood burners left in the system. Efficiencies in the handling of coal now became the chief concern and a Kerr Patented Coal Chute was installed in 1869 to facilitate both the delivery of coal by wagon and its transfer to locomotive tenders.

Locomotive construction was also taking place at Aurora by the late 1860's and such activity required new and improved foundry capabilities which were completed in late 1871. This building, 184' by 62' with a 97' by 62' el took the place of an earlier foundry that had been displaced by the new roundhouse. The arrangements for the operation of the new foundry were fairly unusual. The railroad owned the land, buildings, and fixtures of the foundry, but it was operated by a separate firm, Bouton and Co. No written agreement existed between the 2 companies, but the foundry furnished the CB&Q with all necessary car, locomotive, and tender truck wheels, as well as a variety of other castings needed for locomotive and car construction. The railroad paid set prices for these items, and in return the foundry bought old wheels and other castings from the CB&Q for a specific amount. Exactly how long this arrangement lasted is unclear.

The Aurora car department handled about 50% of the car-related business for the railroad. The shops produced the first sleepers for the line in 1858 when they remodelled 2 regular passenger coaches. They also built cars for Pullman, including one of his early "hotel" cars, City of New York, in 1866 and the first American diner, The Delmonico, in 1868. In 1871, the shops built 100 passenger cars, and did major overhauls to 146 passenger, mail, Pullman, and way cars. The following year, the car department built 2 parlor cars for the Pullman Company and 3 day cars with new heating and ventilating systems for the CB&Q. Several postal cars were constructed at the shops in 1873. Freight car activity was even more extensive: they built 395 of these cars in 1871 and performed minor repairs on 2,100 box cars and 800 flat cars.

Like the locomotive department, the car shops were also improved to handle the increasing traffic of the road. A new blacksmith shop for the car department measuring 90' by 200' was completed in 1870 at a total cost of over $48,000. A separate brick pattern shop, 85' by 40', was also constructed in the northwest corner of the complex in 1872 and a coach shed was added in 1871.

Fire was always a serious threat to any manufacturing firm in the nineteenth century and a railroad shop complex with numerous forges, furnaces, flammable materials, and operating locomotives was particularly susceptible to this danger. To guard against this potential problem, the shops acquired their own fire engine in 1872 to supplement the engines available in the City. Despite these precautions, a fire broke out in the paint shop on May 18, 1873, which destroyed that building and then spread to other wooden structures on the grounds. The car department lost almost everything, including the paint shop, coach shop, carpenter shop, store house, dry sheds, lumber office, dry kiln, freight car shop, machine shop, and tin shop. The locomotive department also suffered major losses including the complete destruction of the blacksmith shop and brass foundry. The locomotive machine shop and engine room which were attached to the blacksmith shop were not damaged because of their stone and iron construction. The company put the loss at $224,000, part of which was covered by insurance.

Company officials announced shortly after the fire that new shops would be built immediately using plans the company had been considering for several years. In late May and early June, James Walker, President of the CB&Q, was in Boston conferring with directors about the reconstruction. A. Walbaum, a local builder, was given the contract for the work which was to be completed in 60 days. Foundation and brick work was begun in July for the locomotive blacksmith shop. The roof of this building was completed in October and normal activities were resumed by the end of that month. Construction of the other buildings followed a similar schedule: brick work and the erection of roof trusses for car shops were in progress late in October. These buildings were finished in 1874 and included a wood working shop (300' by 80'), an attached engine room with 124' chimney, and a car shop and a coach shop (310' by 80' each). Two transfer tables were also placed between the car, coach, and wood working shops. The design of the car shops was similar to the car blacksmith shop constructed 2 years earlier, with walls 22 1/2' high surmounted by wooden roof trusses. The new blacksmith shop and car engine house had iron roof trusses, and all new buildings except the engine house had slate laid in mortar on boards as a roof covering.

It was extremely fortunate for the CB&Q that the shops were reconstructed as rapidly as they were, for in the fall of 1873 a financial panic initiated a nation-wide depression that lasted 4 years. The CB&Q made it through these difficult years, but not without major reductions in employment and wages, a strike, and greatly reduced expenditures for facilities.

Economic prospects for the railroads brightened in 1878, with increased traffic and renewed thoughts of westward expansion. In 1880, the Burlington and Missouri Railroad in Nebraska was formally consolidated into the CB&Q system allowing traffic to run from Chicago to western Nebraska completely on company-owned rails. That same year a decision was made to push on to Denver, and in the fall of 1881 the enormous building effort began. Denver was reached in May 1882; construction crews had covered the 247 miles in 229 days. Remarkable as this effort was, it coincided with massive efforts by other companies to expand their trackage. More new track was laid by American railroads in the years from 1880-1887 than in any other comparable period before or since.

Economic recovery also resulted in the company being caught in short supply.of appropriate rolling stock. In 1879, they began a large rebuilding program that resulted in substantial output from the Aurora shops over the next year. Sight passenger and 448 freight cars were built, and nearly 500 additional cars were rebuilt. Another 2,200 cars of various types received minor repairs in the shops, In the locomotive department, at least 5 new locomotives were completed and tank frames were constructed for another 19 engines. Over 5,000 car and engine wheels were pressed off and nearly 18,000 were fitted on axles. In 1880, the Aurora shops fitted 50 passenger cars with an improved version of the Westinghouse air brake, and in 1884 150 cars received the newly introduced Janney coupler. Need for improved service in hauling fruit long distances resulted in the construction of special cars for this purpose that would run with passenger trains.

This substantial increase in rolling stock, coupled with increasing demands for rail service, necessitated additional and more powerful locomotives, and the company began building and ordering engines in large quantities. Between 1873 and 1893, the CB&Q built approximately 300 locomotives in their own shops and ordered at least that many from outside locomotive works. The Aurora shops built nearly half of these including American type 4-4-0's weighing up to 55 tons, 0-4-0's, and 0-6-0 switchers. The shops also designed and built the CB&Q's first Mogul 2-6-0 locomotives. The locomotive department at Aurora was involved in other types of heavy fabrication needed by the line as well: turntables were constructed here beginning in 1882, and some bridge girders may have been produced also.

A variety of improvements in the Aurora complex took place at the beginning of this period and planning was begun for a number of others. In 1878 a new coal shed was added to the back of the locomotive department's stationary engine room, improving the efficiency of that operation. That same year the furnace in the blacksmith shop was rebuilt, the stone floor of the locomotive machine shop was re-leveled and repaired, and an oil storage shed was erected for the car department. Major effort was put forth in 1878, also, in remodelling and modernizing the 2 roundhouses. The older roundhouse received a completely new roof including iron trusses and slate covering. Portions of the inside walls were rebuilt and the exterior stone walls were renovated by masons. A new boiler house with a 40' chimney was added to the newer roundhouse to provide heating for both buildings. Water and sewer systems were also improved with lines being run from the river so that water could be pumped directly for cleaning purposes. Enlarged drain lines were run to the river also.

The only other major improvements during the period were prompted by fires. On January 24, 1882, a car shed was damaged and a director's car, dining car, 6 passenger cars, several freight cars, and a large quantity of seasoned walnut lumber were burned as well. In December 1886, the wood machine shop of the car department was destroyed by fire, although the Corliss engine in the attached engine house was only slightly damaged. By January 1887, plans were announced for a modern brick replacement for the old machine shop. The new building was 130' by 77' with machinery on the first floor and a pattern shop, cabinet shop, and light wood working area on the second floor. Large windows to improve the lighting, a very low pitched roof, and indoor water-closets were believed by the company to be an indication of the modern design of the structure. A final fire, in March 1888, destroyed the paint shop of the car department. Although plans for its reconstruction were discussed in late 1889, the building apparently was not rebuilt until the summer of 1892. The new paint shop was 310' by 148' with a cement and gravel roof.

As part of the general upgrading of the roundhouses in 1878, plans were made to rearrange and remodel some of the machine shop and blacksmith areas of the locomotive department. These remodelling plans, developed in the fall of 1878, seem to reflect the company's interests in saving money during the final stages of the national economic depression. It was proposed that the blacksmith shop of the car department be moved to the boiler shop end of the locomotive blacksmith shop, thus consolidating steam hammers, forges, and all blacksraithing work in a single place. The vacated car blacksmith shop was slated to become a large storehouse, something that was apparently badly needed at the time. The boiler shop would be moved to a new, more convenient, area between the roundhouse and the original machine shop, and car machine shop activities would be located in a new, small, addition between the blacksmsith shop and the original stone machine shop. The remodelling work was budgeted at $15,000, but the company expected to save $500 per month in labor costs as a result of the changes.

The economic recovery that began in early 1879 may have caused company officials to reconsider the shop consolidation plan, as many of the proposed additions to the locomotive shops were not carried out for a number of years. These plans do, however, provide important clues into the operation of both the shops and the railroad, and perhaps most importantly give us an accurate description of the complex at a single point in time. The correspondence outlining the proposed changes and savings are accompanied by a large site plan of the yards measuring approximately 8' by 2' (see images below).

Chicago, Burlington and Quincy -CBQ- Railroad Roundhouse and Shops, Aurora Illinois

Chicago, Burlington and Quincy -CBQ- Railroad Roundhouse and Shops, Aurora Illinois

Chicago, Burlington and Quincy -CBQ- Railroad Roundhouse and Shops, Aurora Illinois

The boom period that had begun in 1879 ended abruptly in 1893 with another major nationwide financial panic and depression. Track construction, locomotive building, and improvements in shop facilities slowed for about 4 years. Prospects brightened in 1897, the company started locomotive building again, and plans were developed to absorb a number of small and medium-sized lines that had been associated with the CB&Q system, but never owned outright. These acquisition plans went forward in 1899 and were finalized in 1900. At the same time, James J. Hill, who already had major interests in the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroads decided that direct control of one of the major lines into Chicago was essential for the overall prosperity of his railroad empire. He was not the only one to be interested in the CB&Q, but after several major stock-buying attempts, Hill emerged on top and formally took over the line in May 1901.

Hill's expansive nature influenced the actions of the CB&Q over the next 15 years and more trackage was laid and additional railroads were acquired. In 1908, the CB&Q purchased the 1,900 mile-long Colorado and Southern line giving the company control of the main route from Denver to Houston. Several years later track was laid in Montana and Wyoming, providing a direct link between Great Northern and Northern Pacific lines in the northwest, and CB&Q and Colorado and Southern lines in the Great Basin and Southwest. In 1916, the CB&Q reached its peak mileage with over 9,300 miles of track under its direct control.

The CB&Q increased its rolling stock tremendously during this time period, both by ordering equipment from outside manufacturers and by building cars and locomotives in its own shops. Company shops, however, simply could not produce the numbers of locomotives needed by the CB&Q and other manufacturers had Co be relied upon to produce the majority of the new equipment. The Baldwin and the Brooks locomotive works supplied the CB&Q with over 400 Prairie-type locomotives between 1900 and 1907, and Baldwin built another 281 engines for the line between 1910 and 1917. Between 1395 and 1920, company shops built about 380 locomotives, of which 142 were constructed at Aurora. In June, 1916, the company had 1,753 steam locomotives in operation. Passenger and freight cars continued to be built at company shops, although in 1908, for example, the CB&Q received 1,000 50-ton drop-bottom gondola cars from the Bettendorf Axle Co.

Information on activities at the Aurora shops during the first 2 decades of the twentieth century is sketchy. In addition to the construction of a number of locomotives, an experimental steam motor car was built for the Great Northern in 1906, and the shops tested both passenger train speedometers and track block signalling devices. The car department developed an oxy-acetylene welding procedure to build up the worn parts of car truck, pedestals. The cost of the process was reported to be quite small, and amounted to substantial savings over the price of new pedestals. This department also devised a process for reworking old metal roof sheets into a new and improved box car roof design. At this time, the first section of the wheel bay in the locomotive department was enclosed and an addition to the boiler room was completed. A large fire in 1915 destroyed the main storehouse, its contents, and 9 freight cars.

The 1920's saw the American railroad system reach its peak. Major rail expansion did not take place, but it was a period of improvements in track and facilities. Heavier rails were laid along main lines and many bridges were replaced with more substantial spans to accommodate heavier locomotives and cars. Additions were made Co almost every roundhouse on the line; at Aurora, a new roundhouse replaced the second old roundhouse. One of the largest projects at Aurora was the elevation of the main tracks through the city. Discussed as early as 1905, approved in 1914, the massive project was started in 1915 and not completed until 1923. The elevation, promoted by the city and finally accepted by the railroad, did away with 13 street crossings and allowed express-trains a faster passage through the city. A large interlocking tower to control the extensive Aurora yards was erected in 1924, a new coaling station was built in 1921, and a new electric power house was begun in 1922. The most important development during the twenties, however, was a major shift in the activities of the shops.

Expansion of the CB&Q system in Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, and other portions of the West brought with it the need for major shop complexes other than Aurora and West Burlington. Shops at Havelock, Nebraska had assumed major responsibility for western repair and construction in the 1890's, but a major shift in facilities occurred in 1924 with the completion of the huge complex at Denver. In addition, the size and weight of many of the newer locomotives exceeded the capacities of older facilities like the original Aurora roundhouse. As a result of these developments, the old locomotive shops at Aurora were converted into a new Manufacturing Department. The last of the engine pits in the old roundhouse were closed in 1925, and the turntable was removed at about this point in time. Most of the roundhouse had been and would continue to be used as a forge shop for producing a wide variety of parts needed in the construction and repair of both locomotives and freight cars. The "manufacturing" nature of the shops is evident in the organization and operation of a rod and valve motion production shop established in 1925. Although the car department produced substantial numbers of freight cars in 1924 and 1925, very few were constructed after 1927. Other CB&Q shops took up the freight car activities and Aurora assumed major responsibility for the construction and repair of passenger cars.

Accompanying these shop rearrangements was a desire by the company to centralize and provide greater control over the enormous quantity of parts that were needed to keep a major railroad running. In 1925 and 1926, the CB&Q built at Aurora what was thought to be the largest railroad storehouse in the United States at a cost of over $400,000. Floors of the building were connected by ramps, not elevators, and a huge outside overhead crane connected the storehouse with a multiple-track siding.

The depression of Che 1930's forced additional reorganization of the shop complexes: the Plattsmouth car shop closed completely and locomotive work at Havelock was transferred to Denver and West Burlington. Aurora does not seem to have "lost" any activities at this time and may have gained in some of the consolidation moves. Air brake repairs were centralized here and in Havelock in 1932, and Aurora assumed responsibility for all air compressor work on the system that same year. Following development of the streamlined Zephyrs in the early 1930's, all wheel and axle work for these units was done at Aurora. Despite these activities, the lean years can best be demonstrated by noting that in 1932 only 5 cars were constructed for the CB&Q - all at Aurora. Passenger car building and rebuilding did go on at the Aurora shops during this period. Air-conditioning was added to cars, and a variety of suburban coaches, smoking cars, baggage and dining cars were built. The only major alteration to the shops was the replacement of the coach shop, which was destroyed by fire in September 1931.

By 1940, the economy had improved and construction of cars and locomotives was again occurring in company shops. The war economy provided an additional boost to railroad prosperity, but when the war ended the railroads had to adjust to rising labor costs, stiff competition from other forms of transportation, and automation in many of the shop and running trades. The Aurora shops continued to concentrate their efforts in manufacturing parts for the entire system and in the building and repairing of passenger train equipment. The major decline in railroad service, particularly in the passenger areas forced the company to close the Aurora complex in 1974. Demolition permits were issued in 1975 and 1976, and all buildings except the original roundhouse and back shops were taken down.

Chicago, Burlington and Quincy -CBQ- Railroad Roundhouse and Shops, Aurora Illinois Aerial photograph of the south half of the C.B & Q. R.R shops, 1955, showing the first roundhouse and backshops in their final configuration
Aerial photograph of the south half of the C.B & Q. R.R shops, 1955, showing the first roundhouse and backshops in their final configuration