Where Have All the Railroads Gone?

Several enduring recollections of my childhood involve railroads. Mendota has always been a crossroads, some of those roads paved, others laid with track. In that fashion, many of those memories simply involve having to sit and wait as the train goes by - the quiet groan as the lights come on at the crossing and the gate comes down, the brief hope that it's an Amtrak train which will quickly pass, its dozen or fewer cars flying by at high speed; this followed by the darkening realization that no, it's a freight train, with too many cars to count, and that this will be a long wait.

But other memories involve playing along those railroad lines. Yes, I realize that statement sounds like something a frustrated parent might off-handedly say to a troublesome child, but it's true. In my childhood the countryside here was cross-crossed with rail lines, many defunct or at least in such low use that one virtually never saw a train. These lines offered walkways through the countryside that were often very different from traveling on the roadways. While the roads were open, with long sight lines offering view of fields, fields, and more fields, the rail lines were typically lined with trees. Those trees were scrub growth - no one had planted them - but they offered a break from the former prairie, and opportunity to feel that one was out in the woods. A similar opportunity was offered by stream beds, but that held the problem of dealing with water and water-loving insects, while the railways were relatively bug free. Indeed, where there was water there was also a bridge to walk across, high above, butterflies in the stomach as one focused on making sure each footfall landed on a railroad tie rather than on the open space in-between. (As I've said before, it's a wonder we didn't die...)

Many of these are gone. If they seemed defunct in the 1970's they have simply vanished now. If you know where they were you can still see evidence of them - sometimes seeing the raised bed on either side of a roadway or the remainders of the trestle supports in a stream bed, cut down when the bridge was removed, but too much trouble to pull up.

It's an old joke that country folks provide directions with references to things that are gone - "you turn left where the old oak tree used to be, go down about a half mile, and take a right where they pulled up the railroad tracks..." Like many such things, it has its origins in a grain of truth. I think about these old rail lines often, typically as I drive past the places they used to be. There's enough evidence in the lay of the landscape to see what was there if one knows what one is looking for, and that is enough to trigger those memories.

I realize, as I think about such things that my memory of them is really quite limited. I have vivid memories of a few miles of these rail lines at best, and that in non-continuous sections. I know very little about where they went and what they were for. Fortunately, the internet has some things to offer in that regard: The Illinois State Library has scanned in a series of Illinois railroad maps going back to the late 1800's. These can be viewed on the site, which offers a viewer that allows you to zoom in, or downloaded in a size that allows you to zoom in on your own device (a better option for mobile devices).

What I see here is that the lines that I'm most familiar with - both of which are now gone - are designated as BN-L and MILW-G on the map from 1970. The BN-L line ran between Sterling and Paw Paw, right through West Brooklyn and Compton. My recollection of it was primarily of the tracks crossing 251 just at the south end of Compton. You can still see the remnants of it going east into Compton, including the grain elevator that was undoubtedly a cargo stop. The route is circled here:

BN-L thru Compton - 1970

This article from the American History and Geneology Project suggests that line was once called the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy line, and offers a little invective as to railroad decisions as well:

The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy is the only road running through Compton. For a time it was expected the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul would extend its north and south branch through Compton, but for reasons best known to railroads, it ran a mile to the east and established the Roxbury station and built an elevator.

It appears likely that the invective is actually directed at the other line I'm referring to, designated as MILW-G on the map, and circled here:

MILW-G Bypassing Compton - 1970

I've circled Compton and "Roxburg" in dark green. The "burg" in this instead of "bury", as in the article, appears to be an error on the map. Modern maps - inlcuding Apple and Google Maps - refer to this area as Roxbury. And, indeed, there is an old grain elevator at this spot as well (see the arrrow):


All of this a reminder that there was once a vibrant railroad network through this area, with old grain elevators and empty, flat grassways serving as the palimpsest of a former time. At times it feels like a loss, things gone to the vagaries of time. In many ways, though, I feel fortunate. I was born in an era of transition, giving me the opportunity to have seen, and still recall what was, and to see what it will all become. While not precisely the same window of opportunity as my grandparents - born in the nineteen-teens they would have viewed the rise of the automobile, the airplane, and the telephone - I've had the opportunity to walk the tracks laid in their childhood, to play in the barns they used and their parents and grandparents built, and yet to see what comes next.