In August 1852, Daniel Harmon Brush, John Asgill Conner, and Dr. William Richart bought 360 acres of land along the right-of-way for the Illinois Central Railroad with the intention of founding a new town. The inspiration for the town's name came from Brush's plans to develop coal-mining operations in the region. The first train through the town on the main line north from Cairo (Ill.) on Independence Day, 1854.
By the end of the Civil War, Carbondale had become not only a regional center for business and transportation, but also an education center with the founding of Carbondale College, which became Southern Illinois College in 1869. Carbondale won the bid for the new teacher training school for the region, and Southern Illinois Normal University opened here in 1874. This gave the town a new industry, new citizens, and a model school to supplement the public schools. By 1947, the college had obtained full university status and the name was changed to Southern Illinois University.