Take a ride on The Rebel Route
The GM&O Heritage Trail is constructed on the original railroad right-of-way built by the Cairo and St. Louis Railroad through Columbia in 1876. This was a narrow gauge (three foot wide) line that ran from Cairo, IL to East St. Louis, IL. Shortly after the line was finished it experienced financial problems and was reorganized and renamed the St. Louis and Cairo Railroad. It too developed financial problems and was purchased by the Mobile, AL based Mobile and Ohio (M&O) Railroad in 1886. The M&O immediately updated the entire line to standard gauge track. The M&O merged with the Gulf, Mobile & Northern (GM&N) Railroad in 1940. The new railroad was renamed the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio (GM&O). In 1972 the GM&O “merged” with its main competitor, the Illinois Central (IC) Railroad and became known as the Illinois Central Gulf (ICG). This last move in effect was the beginning of the end for the former GM&O properties as its lines ran in many of the same places as the IC. The ICG started selling off and abandoning former GM&O lines including the tracks through Columbia.
Both passenger and freight trains once plied the rails through Columbia. As the M&O, the lines motto was “The Rebel Route” which had nothing to do with its southern roots and the Confederacy, but rather its unique “rebellious” way of doing business. One could board the “The Rebel” passenger train at the Columbia depot that once stood at South Locust and travel south to New Orleans, LA or north to St. Louis. Passenger train service in Columbia ended in October, 1958 with service north and south replaced by the GM&O owned Gulf Transport bus service. Freight trains continued on the line until 1985 and the tracks were abandoned and pulled up in 1986 ending a 100 plus year run.
While the GM&O rails through southern Illinois are mostly gone, there are a few landmarks standing. The depot in Tamms is still intact and is used as the village hall. The city of Jonesboro restored their depot and is using it as the local library. The Murphysboro depot is currently under restoration. Sparta restored their depot and converted it into the Roscoe Misselhorn Art Museum. The Sparta depot is especially noteworthy in that it was featured in the 1968 Academy Award nominated movie “In the Heat of the Night” starring Sidney Pointier and Rod Steiger. Millstadt uses its tiny station as a food pantry and finally, the Waterloo depot still exists and is currently a resale shop.
After the ICG received approval to abandon the tracks through Columbia, city leaders acted quickly to acquire the right-of-way for future use rather than to let it be sold off piece by piece to adjoining property owners. Their foresight 30 years ago enabled the trail to become a reality today. Had they not taken this step, Columbia’s railroad heritage would be lost forever.
Stops Along the Way
South to north, the GM&O connected the following towns in southern Illinois:
- Alto Pass
- Campbell Hill
- Red Bud
- East Carondelet
- East St. Louis