Return to Alvin

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, September 24, 2020

Tiny Alvin, Ill., a crossroads on the double-track Chicago & Eastern Illinois main line and an Illinois Central branch, boasted an interlocking tower and joint depot in the 1920s. C&EI Historical Society collection
Most people who read this blog probably have a central, indelible memory of trains from childhood. It’s part of our DNA.

For me, that memory traces back to about 1961, when my parents Woody and Marie Keefe would take us kids on a semi-annual car trip from Michigan down to the little farm town of Alvin, Ill., milepost 111.2 on the Chicago & Eastern Illinois Railroad, midway between Hoopeston and Danville. 

There, in a neat little white Victorian house on Railroad Avenue, we’d visit my Great Aunt Bessie and Uncle John. They lived as if it were 1895. No running water in the house, just a pump by the front porch. The heat was a big coal stove in the living room. The only “facility” was an outhouse out back. It was strange — and wonderful.

One night, we actually stayed in the house. I remember they put my brother and me up in a little second-floor bedroom facing the southwest. It was a cold night and we had to pile on the quilts to keep from freezing. But that didn’t stop me from sitting bolt upright in bed when I heard diesel horns coming from the town of Bismarck, 3½ miles south of Alvin. 

I ran to the window. Our there in the gloom, I could see a Mars light scraping the dark prairie sky in its lazy “8” pattern as a train raced toward Alvin. Suddenly the gates came down a half-block away, moments later split loudly by, what, the Dixie Flyer? Geeps on a time freight? It was a blurred, mesmerizing vision. 

My great-grandfather Peter Keefe worked for C&EI as an operator at the Alvin tower until he retired in 1929. Visits with my family to the town decades after his death made a lasting impression on me. Kevin P. Keefe collection
That memory is always near the surface. Such is the power of something that happens to you when you’re 8 or 10 years old. You never want it to fade away.

One thing I never imagined I’d do again is curl up in a cozy bedroom in Alvin and wake up in the middle of the night to watch headlights approach from Bismarck. But that’s just what happened this week, thanks in part to my obsession with my great-grandfather, Peter N. Keefe, C&EI railroader, and to a wonderful travel tool called Airbnb.

About my great-grandfather: the man occupies a sort of mythic status in the Keefe family, at least for me. Some of that is because I’m partly his namesake. One of the million reasons I wish my parents were still around is so I could ask them why they chose his first name for my middle name.

Peter Keefe was a colorful character, as I discovered three years ago when Trains Editor Jim Wrinn went for my idea of turning a genealogical search into a magazine story for his April 2017 “Railroad Roots” issue. The assignment sent me running down to east-central Illinois to consult the records of the C&EI Historical Society and hunt for family landmarks.

The search put some flesh on the bones of old family stories about Peter — of how he hired out on C&EI as a 14-year-old water boy (true); or how later, as a brakeman, he lost a leg in a switching accident (true); or how he managed to salvage his railroad career when the company offered to train him to be a tower leverman (true); or how he retired in 1929 as the oldest employee on the railroad (also apparently true). 

Not only that, I discovered in clippings from the Danville Commercial-News that when he died on October 9, 1938, he was in the midst of his third term as Alvin’s mayor. They found him in his town hall office, dead of a stroke. “Ex-Alvin Mayor Dead” said a top-of-the-column headline.

A century after Peter Keefe's time, trains still thunder through Alvin on the old C&EI. This southbound coal train with UP run-through power is passing the site of the depot and tower. Kevin P. Keefe
That wasn’t the end of the line for the C&EI and the Keefes. Peter’s son Edgar, my grandfather, followed his dad into the towerman’s trade, working as a telegrapher in Hoopeston and, later, the company’s operating HQ in Danville. Peter’s daughter Bessie served for many years as the matron of Alvin’s union station, which served both the C&EI and Illinois Central’s branch between Leroy, Ill., and West Lebanon, Ind., abandoned in 1943. On top of that, Bessie’s husband, Uncle John Alison, was a lifelong section man on the railroad. He was a sweet-tempered, wiry little guy, with an uncommonly strong grip; you had to be careful when you shook his hand. 

I went back to Alvin several years ago with my wife Alison and our two grown kids, only to make the heartbreaking discovery that Aunt Bessie’s house on Railroad Avenue was gone. It’s just an empty lot now. I would have loved to get back in that house just once more and look out that southwest bedroom window for a glimpse of the tracks. 

Then the next-best thing happened. One day a few months ago, I was tooling around on Google Earth, checking out satellite imagery of C&EI country, and suddenly a little pink icon marked “Has Bin Guest House” popped up on the screen.

What!!? 

My recent Alvin homecoming was made possible by a bed-and-breakfast inn called the Has Bin, located in a converted grain bin adjacent to the former C&EI line. Kevin P. Keefe
Some quick research revealed a tantalizing opportunity. There, on the south edge of Alvin, a farm family built a most unusual bed-and-breakfast, a converted corrugated steel corn bin with a small living room on the main floor and a cozy bedroom loft built overhead. Out in front was a lovely, flower-bedecked front porch, and in the back, on the second level, a spacious deck. Right below was the coup de grace: CSX Transportation’s Southeast Corridor, better known to me as the C&EI.

The Has Bin is part of the Airbnb online marketplace (www.airbnb.com), so arranging to stay there is easy. The owners, Stan and Mary Seaman, are charming and gracious and serve a hearty breakfast each morning. And if the country comforts don’t win you over, CSX’s trains will.  

This week, I went home again. Alison and I made the four-hour drive down to Alvin from Milwaukee and spent a couple of days revisiting the old family territory. I walked across the site of the old Alvin station and Peter’s interlocking tower; there was absolutely no evidence of either. We made a customary pilgrimage out to ancient (1857) Mann’s Chapel northwest of town, to see the graves of Peter, Bessie, and John. I showed Alison around Danville, where my dad grew up, played high school football, and at some point, decided to go to the University of Illinois. Summer jobs working on a C&EI track gang apparently convinced him to forego a railroad career. 

Encountering all these places again on a warm, sunny September day was wonderful. But the best part of the trip came late at night, when, once again, I could look out an open bedroom window, listen for the whistling at Bismarck, then watch a stack train roar past just 50 feet away. CSX runs a lot of intermodal traffic through here, mostly at night. Oddly restful, the thunder kept repeating all night long.

Maybe what I heard wasn’t the Dixie Flyer, but that didn’t matter. It felt like 1961 all over again.

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