As with most railroads of today, the prototype Missouri-Illinois Railroad (M-I) grew out of mergers from several shorter local lines that were often keen competitors. The principal north-south route began in 1887 as the Mississippi River & Bonne Terre Railway (MR&BT), a 3′ narrow gauge road hauling ore from southeast Missouri’s Lead Belt to a smelter in Herculaneum. Shortly after becoming operational, the MR&BT standardized its gauge to facilitate interchange.
The east-west Illinois Southern Railway (IS) had already traversed the Mississippi River with a transfer boat between Kellogg, IL, and Thomure, MO (2 miles north of Sainte Genevieve). The IS pushed westward to Bismarck to interchange with the Iron Mountain Railroad (later Missouri Pacific) to avoid congestion in the busy yards of St Louis. The IS and MR&BT crossed, and often clashed, at Derby, MO. A series of unfortunate circumstances doomed the IS, including prison for its owner, too few cars to generate revenue and no ready access to cash. Following two receiverships, the IS ceased operations in 1919 and several of its major shippers organized the Missouri-Illinois Railroad and bought the IS out of foreclosure.
Despite operating through southern Illinois’ rich farmland and Missouri’s Lead Belt, the M-I only began showing profits once oil was discovered along its right of way in Illinois. The Missouri Pacific Railroad (MoPac) acquired controlling interest in both the MR&BT and the M-I in 1929 and operated the two lines together. The MR&BT was officially dissolved in 1945 and all its assets transferred to the M-I. Although rolling stock carried M-I reporting marks, the road used its parent’s herald, the MoPac buzzsaw.
The map below shows the full extent of the M-I railroad in 1929.
By 1950, the M-I had a nicely balanced mix of carload traffic even though the line had less than 200 miles of track. It served several coal mines, grain elevators, Illinois’ oil fields and Missouri’s mineral deposits (limestone and lead ore). Although one would expect the M-I to have moved agriculture products from Missouri, soil in the Lead Belt was rocky, and not as fertile as that in Illinois’ Little Egypt. The M-I never won major grain contracts, as it was predominantly an east-west route, and the Illinois Central was the prime mover of this commodity southward to Gulf ports.
In contrast to its small size, the M-I at one point serviced not only the world’s richest deposits of lead, but also the world’s largest lead smelter (St Joe Lead at Herculaneum), the world’s largest float glass plant (PPG Works #9 in Crystal City) and the world’s largest lime plant (Mississippi Lime in Ste Gen). The M-I road name formally disappeared in 1978 along with six other MoPac subsidiaries, when they were all merged under the parent corporation. M-I customers always enjoyed the friendly short line attitudes of employees while benefitting from the strong management resources, equipment and safety practices of its much larger parent. The MoPac itself was acquired four years later by the Union Pacific, thus ending the era of the familiar red and white buzzsaw herald.
Many thanks to Charles Duckworth, a name familiar to many in the hobby, who wrote The Missouri – Illinois Railroad: Missouri Pacific’s Route Though the Lead Belt and Little Egypt. The Missouri Pacific Historical Society published this reference text in 2020 and it contains a wealth of information on this little known railroad.