As close to 'real' as it gets

Posted by Hayley Enoch
on Wednesday, June 21, 2017

It should have been a grand celebration.Several decades have elapsed since a steam locomotive visited Joliet, Illinois  and Chicago's LaSalle Street Station. This weekend, though, the 765 is bringing that drought to a close. The exact moment at which that clock was reset comes in the early morning, a few hours in advance of the Joliet Rocket's first departure. The crew has the need to bring the train down to the station to practice lining the train up at the platform and making a final check that all of the passenger cars in the consist have proper clearance.


The original plan calls for making the test run at approximately eleven at night,  after the Metra rail departures have ceased running for the night, but the chores that always seem to multiply in number and complexity pushed the test run back by several hours.


It is well past midnight by the time the train does depart, close to two o'clock in the morning. At this time of night, there are no cars on the highway with which to compare the train's speed. Its Mars light dances off of darkened windows. The members of the public who waited at the edges of the yard to see the train's departure have given up the chase. We are deep enough into the thick of night that the entire city of Chicago seems to have fallen into repose.  


The train stomps out of the yard at a good clip, and pushes eastwards through the neighborhoods flanking the area. Some sort of industry must happen here--the aluminum-sided buildings and profundity of concrete evidence that--but if these businesses are staffed by night-shift employees, they aren't curious about about the train's passing to come outside.


On the final approach into downtown Chicago, the skyline buildings  split the heavens like electrified  geodes. The tracks runs past abandoned wood train stations, cuts through the ruins of old, pre-merger rail yards. Here, the stillness is more enduring than the nocturnal torpor fallen over the rest of the route. We are the closest thing to a manifested ghost that this division has ever seen.


Not a single soul has appeared to watch the train pull into LaSalle Street Station.  For all the whistles,  the sustained thunderclap of the pistons echoing off of the canyon of buildings hugging the tracks, the densely populated apartments around the station, our approach transpires entirely in isolation. There comes the squeal of brakes and then one single whistle, a few measures longer and more guttural than it rightly needs to be, announces that the 765 has come to a halt.. For a few seconds, train's stasis completes a stillness that has fallen over the entire world.


Then some silent cue is given and the crew leaps down onto the platform. They throw out high-fives, give out quilling shouts of joy, put their hands on their hips and lean back to drink in the magnitude of what they have just accomplished. There is no pressure to put on a good performance here, no tasks and conversations interrupted to act as ambassadors to the public. There is nothing but pure, unmitigated elation.


We do not linger at the station long--the first departure is scheduled for little more than six hours from now, after all--and soon began to shove back to the yard. We leave knowing, though, that this will endure as one of the high points in the rest of the excursion. We all agree that it was one of those moments that will never be replicated again, that will be reminiscent upon for decades to come.


Putting our collective finger down on why exactly that moment took on an almost spiritual intensity, takes a bit more speculation to establish. We cast about various ideas from within the tool car and in between handing off sticks of alemite.


There is ready agreement that the intensity wasn't just because the sight of the 765, lit up like a comet from the reflection of the Sears Tower and other buildings,  made a satisfying payoff for the enormous amount of physical and mental labor put into bringing the train here. Nor was it that there were so few of us to share the experience, though the intimacy of the occurrence certainly made it more special.


Eventually, we begin to pull our individual and fragmented perspectives of the experience together into a consensus. Most of participating on that crew had been involved in steam excursions for half a decade or more--a few for close to forty years. We had all had our hands on the throttle and firing valves or so deep in repairs that we spend our daily lives with grease tattooing our fingertips.


No one among us, though, can recall any other occasion where a steam locomotive had operated in public--let alone a place as filled with people as downtown Chicago--without it drawing a thick crowd  of onlookers.  Every other trip we have undertaken, even short jaunts across the yard, have drawn out at least dozens of people eager to see something out of the ordinary in the 21st century.


That trip to LaSalle Street station, in other words, is as close as any of us will ever come to operating a train trip back in the days of steam. Back then the technology was revered but  ordinary, so intrinsic to its surroundings that it was taken for granted. No one else in our group has experienced a moment where they are relieved of their ambassadorial duties and are free to let the engine go.


Realizing this, and reaching a further agreement that the odds of things coming together for another under-the-radar move like this are almost impossible, is humbling. We were lucky enough to be here at the exact place and the exact time to see something that will likely never happen again, something that cannot fully be described to people that were not there. Many of us got involved with the organization because of an interest in steam, or a family history of railroading, but it is indelible moments like these that keep us coming back year after year. 


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