The drawbridge to practically nowhere

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Saturday, November 20, 2010

Railroad drawbridges are rare enough to attract my attention. But what about one that takes an industrial spur over the heavily navigated Illinois River west of Chicago? That’s a lot of maintenance and operating expense. What’s the “back story”?

My tale begins a few weeks ago aboard an Iowa Interstate freight train slogging its way from Blue Island to Rock Island, Ill., using trackage rights over CSX. The tracks, until 1980 part of the Rock Island Lines main line from Chicago, parallel the Illinois River. For dozens of miles, it seems we’re never out of sight on this night of lit-up factories and refineries that create a bonanza of traffic for CSX. “I’ve even heard,” says one of the Iowa Interstate crew members as we wait in Seneca, Ill., for opposing trains, “that there’s an industrial spur over the Illinois near here that has its own drawbridge.”

The other day I decided to see if he was right. Sure enough, Google Earth shows a spur wying from the main track, heading south and crossing the Illinois River on a three-span, vertical-life drawbridge. The spur ends several miles further south, at a huge factory.

Off I go to the CSX Chicago Division timetable. The New Rock Subdivision special instructions says this about the bridge on the “ETI lead” at Seneca: “The trainman will visually scan the river, both upstream and downstream, for approaching towboats. The trainman will then announce on the VHF-FM radio Channels 14 and 16 the following message: ‘The Chessie Railroad bridge at miles 254.1 Illinois River will close to navigation in five minutes.’ This message will be broadcast and repeated every minute, counting down the time remaining until closure. If a towboat responds back to the trainman that they are approaching the draw span, the trainman will hold the bridge open for navigation until the towboat passes. If no response from navigation is received, the trainman will proceed with lowering the draw span. After the train crosses the drawbridge, the trainman will then raise the draw span back to the open to navigation position.”

ETI turns out to be a manufacturer of industrial explosives. The 2006 image on Google Maps clearly shows more than 50 freight cars on the property, so ETI must be making enough boom-booms to justify the cost of keeping this spur open.

Further research reveals that this track was originally the north end of the Kankakee & Seneca Railroad, extending 49 miles between its namesake cities and built circa 1881 to avoid Chicago while moving freight traffic between its owners, subsidaries of the Rock Island and New York Central systems. Rock Island became sole owner in 1933, and by the end of World War II the line appears to have been abandoned, except for that spur to today’s boom-boom plant.

Railfan John A. Weeks III has two photos of this bridge on his web site, johnweeks.com. See the top photo above. All the approaches to the structure are on private property, so a clear view of this big bridge is hard to find. John points out that about a dozen miles closer to Chicago is another unusual vertical-lift drawbridge taking Canadian National’s Illinois River Subdivision over the waterway; see the bottom photo. What’s unusual about this is that it was struck by river traffic 170 times just between 1992 and 2001, the result of a very narrow clearance. According to the CN Chicago Division timetable, this bridge (unlike the one at Seneca) appears to have a bridgetender on site.

If you know of other industrial spurs that use active drawbridges, let’s hear from you. And email me at ffrailey@gmail.com if you have a photograph clearly showing that unusual bridge at Seneca.—Fred W. Frailey

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