Time catches up with Proviso’s hump

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, July 9, 2019

C&NW's Proviso Yard was such an important facility to the national rail network that Office of War Information photographer Jack Delano saw fit to document it extensively in both color and black & white during World War II. Jack Delano, Library of Congress
You might not think closing another classification hump is newsworthy, given the spate of such decommissions in recent years, especially on CSX. The hegemony of Precision Scheduled Railroading has shaken up the whole practice of loose-car railroading. Humps, the gods have decided, are expendable.

Recently came news that another one has closed, its squealing retarders suddenly silent: the hump at Union Pacific’s huge Proviso Yard west of Chicago. 

Proviso isn’t just any hump yard — it’s a landmark of the Railroad Capital. Chicago & North Western opened the yard in 1929, when the suburb of Melrose Park was rural and the railroad boasted it was the largest such facility in the world. The yard enabled C&NW to get its most important switching out of congested Chicago to where the railroad had room to move. The sprawling facility boasted a full-circle roundhouse, long icing platforms for reefers, and a massive freight house. The retarder-equipped hump was the technological icing on the cake. 

The Proviso hump is one of the last such animals in Chicagoland. I conducted an informal survey among knowledgeable observers and it appears the only other surviving operational humps are at Belt Railway of Chicago’s Clearing Yard, Canadian National’s ex-EJ&E Kirk Yard in Gary, and Indiana Harbor Belt’s Blue Island yard — this in a metro area where you can’t drive for more than two or 3 miles before running into a freight yard. 

The Proviso hump was a fascinating relic of steam-era Class I railroading in that it wasn’t computer controlled, likely the only hump of its kind in North America. Both the master and two groups of secondary retarders were manually controlled, right up until the end. UP was using six-motor Railpower gensets and SD40-2s to make shoves on the hump. 

There’s another reason why the Proviso hump is noteworthy: its role in the landmark photography of the celebrated Jack Delano, who worked for the Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information during World War II and made some of the most important images of railroading on the home front.

Delano did some of his greatest work in the Chicago area, especially in and around Proviso, much of it in vivid color. In one of his most powerful panoramic photographs, viewed from near the hump, a 2-8-2 patrols the yard as 40-foot cars are scattered across the classification bowl.

Hump tower operator Robert W. Mayburry sorts the commerce of a nation at war from his perch in a Proviso hump tower. Jack Delano, Library of Congress
Other times Delano focused on the railroaders of Proviso: brakemen riding the cars, a boilermaker and engine wiper in the roundhouse, conductors in their cabooses, the hump operator in his glassy perch. Many of these images found their way into the exhibition Railroaders: Jack Delano’s Homefront Photography, originally staged at the Chicago History Museum by the Center for Railroad Photography & Art and featured in the Center’s accompanying book of the same name, by John Gruber. 

One person with very special memories of Proviso is Mike Iden, retired general director in UP’s Mechanical Department and before that a motive power exec at C&NW. He became acquainted with Proviso in the mid-1970s when he was working for EMD in LaGrange and living in the western suburbs. In those days, North Western was a magnet for diesel fans. 

“I often stopped by the shop after hours and remember the eclectic mix of C&NW power,” Mike recalls. “I saw relatively new SD40-2s mixed with non-dynamic SD45s and SD40s, pairs of new SD38-2s working the hump, and rented-and-then-purchased former N&W C628s and, for a short time, rented C630s. During the 1980s an influx of foreign power arrived, largely UP units from the west, a sign of the growing relationship between C&NW and Union Pacific, especially after C&NW upgraded the east-west mainline across Illinois and Iowa to cement the traffic-and-service partnership between the two railroads.”

Mike was struck by C&NW’s unusual practice of running its hump SD38-2s coupled nose to nose. “They were kept coupled that way to put both cabs ‘together’ to eliminate time in walking end-to-end while reversing direction in hump service,” Mike told me. “I often thought hump shoves at Proviso with pairs of SD38-2s were ‘over powered’ in that era before 286,000-lb. cars, so after I moved into the motive power department in 1984 I was able to convince HQ that a single SD38-2 would suffice.”

The presence of that hump also played a small role in a small drama in the 1980s when, as Mike tells it, C&NW briefly considered moving its corporate headquarters from downtown Chicago out to Proviso, where a large hotel was vacant, located between the yard and the Tri-State Tollway. Those were the days of Jim Zito, the North Western’s legendary vice president-operations. In the end, the railroad passed on buying the hotel.

Freight cars roll over the Proviso hump in the early 1940s. Such scenes are increasingly rare in today's railroad landscape. Jack Delano, Library of Congress
“Likely the biggest deterrent to C&NW modifying the hotel as a general office building would have been the cost of converting hundreds of rooms, each with a bathroom, into office space,” Mike says. “There were also ‘quiet concerns’ among some managers about having HQ situated within eyeball distance of the Proviso hump, particularly with Jim Zito likely in an office on the east side of the building. Having started his career at Proviso Yard, Zito was always following the hump’s daily progress, albeit from his office in the west Loop area of downtown Chicago.”

In fact, the use of the double SD38-2 sets on the hump just underscored how much emphasis Zito put on the importance of the “hump heartbeat” at Proviso, says Iden. “It made sense but practice showed it wasn’t necessary.”

Closing the hump doesn’t mean something drastic will happen to Proviso as a whole. The yard will continue to play a strategic role in Union Pacific’s Chicago-area operations. In fact, it’s expected the elimination of the hump will allow expansion of the Global 2 intermodal facility at Proviso, as well as eventually bring changes to the Global 1 yard near downtown Chicago and the Global 3 facility 71 miles to the west in Rochelle.

About all this, Mike Iden remains philosophical. “Changes in operations are, of course, all part of the passage of time. Nothing stays unchanged forever.” Isn’t that the truth?

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