Our First Woman Passenger

Written By: William T. Shine

Accountant, Valuation Department


A Little barefoot girl in a soiled gingham apron, with her hair in a single braid down her back, and a face not overly clean, stood earnestly watching a gathering of railway officials at the south end of the Chicago terminus of the Rock Island Railway at Twenty second street, early in October 1852.

The construction work on the new railroad was a familiar sight as she played by the new trucks or carried lunches down to her brother, who was foreman of the construction gang. But this was an occasion of special note. The road had been completed as far as Joliet, and today a crowd of workmen was gathered to watch the special train that stood waiting to take the officials on the inspection trip.

The crowd opened as President Farnam stepped through, swing on the car and turned to give the signal. Just then his eye fell on the little girl in gingham. "Wait a minute." he said as his eyes twinkled, "the only lady present! Let her have the honor of being the first woman to ride on the Rock Island Railway."

Her brother, foreman of construction was on the train and made frantic attempts to render his sister more presentable, with doubtful success. The changing panorama was intensely interesting to the little girl. Accustomed to the flat sameness of the outlook about her home,, her eyes feasted on the woods, rich with autumn coloring, the stretches of swaps near the tracks, and the open sweep of prairie beyond, and more marvelous still, the bands of dazed and awestruck Indians that watched the great monster invading their dominions.

Several stops were made, where their arrival was received with rejoicing. The jubilant officials were more than pleased; their promise that the first portion of the Rock Island Railway would be completed by Christmas, had been kept to the letter.

When the reached their destination, a great banquet was spread and a place was reserved for the little girl right next to Mr. Farnam and beside her brother. Looking down the long table, she saw the platters heaped high with meats and salads, great bowls of luscious fruits and cakes and goodies of more kinds than she ever dreamed there were in the world. Breathless she gazed, momentarily expecting to awaken from her dream. While all was a memorable day for her (and she recalls to this day every detail of it) still no part of it was quite so near fairyland as that wonderful banquet.

Today, that little girl is a great-grandmother, and the small railway she rode over has grown into a great system, linking together fourteen states. The distinction of being the "Rock Island's First Woman Passenger" belongs to Mrs. Mary Quaid Emery, 81 years of age, who resides with her grand daughter at 5916 South LaSalle Street, Chicago.

The Rock Island and LaSalle Railroad Company was incorporated February 27, 1817, be a special Act of the Illinois Legislature to construct and operate a railroad from Rock Island to the Illinois and Michigan canal near LaSalle. On February 27, 18xx, the name was changed to the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad Company with authorization to continue the projected railroad to Chicago via Ottawa and Joliet. It was not until August 1866, that the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad Company of Illinois and the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway Company of Iowa were consolidated and formed the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway Company of today, commonly referred to as the consolidation of 1866.

On September 6, 1851, a contract was let to Sheffield and Farnum to construct the entire line from Chicago to Rock Island. Work was commenced on April 10, 1852, and on October 10th of that year, the first passenger train was operated between Chicago and Joliet. The Joliet Genesco line was opened on December 19, 1853, and the Genesco-Rock Island and LaSalle Railroad Company and the Chicago, Rock Island Railroad Company before this time. One of the first foremen engaged, who later became superintendent and finally sub-contractor, was Jerry Quaid, Mrs. Emery's oldest brother.

Although the snows of eighty-one winters have whitened her hair, Mrs. Emery has retained remarkable control of her faculties, possessing an unusual memory; vividly recalling names, dates and facts with unquestionable accuracy. She comes from a long lived family. A sister died recently at the age of ninety-one and a brother at eighty-nine.

Mrs. Emery was born near Kenosha, Wisconsin in 1840, the youngest of a family of seven; three brothers, Jerry, Dennis and Andrew Quaid, were in the employ of the Rock Island at various times. Jerry was one of the first; Dennis, a yard master, was killed on duty at Harrison street in 1885 after twenty-three years of service. Mrs. Emery has three children, who, with her husband and great grandchildren, all reside in Chicago. Mr. Emery, who is eighty-six, was a city fireman during the Chicago fire.

In 1847, Mrs. Emery's father, reputed to be wealthy, drawn by the Chicago "boom" then at its height, disposed of his property near Kenosha and moved to Chicago, locating at Fourteenth and Clark streets. He built eight two-story frame houses, which he later rented to the new Rock Island employees. Little Mary Quaid, as she was then called, was almost daily at the construction camp at Twenty-second street, near by, to visit her brother Jerry.

"My mother died before we moved to Chicago," said Mrs. Emery. "My brother Jerry lived with his family near Clark and Twenty-second streets. I was very fond of him and spent most of my time there. Mr. Farnam was a big, kindly-hearted man with a heavy beard. He and I were the best of friends. He was in active charge of the field work, and with his horse and buggy, he would cover the progress of construction daily. Often, I was invited to accompany him, and I seldom refused. He was very kind to me, and sometimes jocularly, threatened Jerry that he was going to kidnap me.

"Chicago at that time was a big, struggling town rather than a city. The 'Main Street', where all the stores were located, had not yet moved from Lake to State Street. South and North, the residences were scattered irregularly, with stretches of open prairie between. The gold rush of 1849 had not subsided and there were many strangers. The prime interest in those days was to get a job, and wages were secondary. People had to work and luxuries were few".

Mrs. Emery's four score years have seen many profound changes, and she holds decided opinions on the tendencies of modern life. "People of today", she says, "are pleasure mad, because they have found life too easy. They live too fast, eat too much , and go too much, so they have not time for recreation or to make friends. The lesson they must learn, is Moderation-Moderation is everything!"

This Article was in the Rock Island Magazine, June 1921

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