Railway expansion, primarily attached in the Midwest to the growth of Chicago and its hinterlands, as well as western expansionism, compelled engineers to construct bridges across the Mississippi and later the Missouri (necessary for the famous Trans-Continental Railroad). Development of those bridges helped numerous other Midwestern towns connect to major railway branches and, in essence, the Western U.S. (and beyond). As such, bridge building during the 1850s provided a significant economic boost to Peoria, which not only took advantage of its Illinois River location but as an increasingly thriving railway hub.
The Peoria & Bureau Valley was the first railroad to arrive when track was completed and service began on November 7, 1854. By 1880, ten railroads traveled through Peoria. However, the rapid rise in railway lines led to a disorganized web of tracks and, as a consequence, notable congestion. As a result, the Peoria & Pekin Union (P&PU) Railway, which emerged from an 1880 merger of four of the city’s six railroads, decided to construct a modernized train yard; the Peoria Union Station opened in 1882.
With a new yard and modern facilities, the railway industry growth accelerated so that by 1900 railway congestion yet again grew problematic. By the turn of the century, a dozen railroads operated in Peoria (including some sizable operations that had formed as mergers of smaller rail companies). The congestion grew partly because Chicago also suffered from overcrowding of railroads and Peoria was viewed as an alternative hub, including passengers moving east and west throughout the country.
This depot was erected in 1900 by the Peoria & Rock Island Lines Railroad (P & RI) to serve as the third Rock Island passenger depot. Three years later (1903), the much larger Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific railway, a multi-state railroad, acquired P & RI and thus the P & RI transitioned into a branch line of the much larger railroad line.
For many years, the now-historic depot functioned as a major hub, with as many as 21 ticket agents working 24 hours a day, handling 32 daily arrivals and departures. Though passengers routinely used the P & RI, the railway specialized in freight transportation to and from the Great Plains. Much of that freight involved rye and barley from the Great Plains used in Peoria's flourishing distillation industry. During the early 20th century, Peoria's distilleries produced a significant share of the country's blended whiskey, much of it shipped to various points in the Midwest and in western towns throughout the Plains.
Prohibition and the Great Depression had a profound, negative effect on Peoria's economy and subsequent railway traffic. And, similar to any story of railways in the U.S., the depot and trains grew less significant as auto and air travel evolved. Also, sharing the story of many historic train depots, the Rock Island Depot and Freight House has transitioned into a facility that mainly supports the restaurants and bars.