The Illinois Central Railroad spurred the establishment of the city of Champaign. In 1855, the ICRR decided on a route two miles west of downtown Urbana. A railroad at this location made two towns possible, and so "West Urbana" was born. The town was renamed "Champaign" in 1860. Some local stories claim that the railroad was built west of Urbana, rather than through the center, because of disputes with major Urbana landholders. This, however, remains unverified.
The Illinois Central Railroad was the first railroad to obtain a federal land grant. This was made possible after President Millard Fillmore signed the Railroad Land Grant Act in 1850, which encouraged expansion to the South and the West. The ICRR received its grant that same year. The railroad was initially set to run from the city of Cairo, in the South of the State, to Galena, in the Northwest. The railroad would also connect to Chicago.
Notably, Abraham Lincoln was the lobbyist and attorney for the railroad from 1853 to 1860, and handled many important cases in its defense. Two of these were Illinois Central Railroad Company v. the County of McLean and George Parke, Sheriff and Collector and State v. Illinois Central R.R. He defended the railroad primarily in issues of taxation, and these cases proved important to his legal career.
During the Civil War, the ICRR was used to move troops and supplies through Cairo.
For information on Abraham Lincoln's involvement with the railroad, visit http://www.lib.niu.edu/1995/ihy950247.html
For more on the history of American railroads, see the timeline at PBS: Streamliners of America