Southern where I least expected it

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, May 11, 2021

On the Southern Railway's oft-overlooked line across southern Indiana and Illinois, Ps-2 No. 1234 leads Danville, Ky.–East St. Louis train 23 west of Princeton, Ind., in the early 1950s. R. E. Tobey
Sometimes railroads show up in the darndest places. Or at least that’s what I was thinking as my friends and I drove into the small Indiana town of Huntingburg on a hot day in June 1980. We were there for a steam excursion, but it wasn’t one I normally would have expected, not deep in Hoosier land.

What sticks in my mind isn’t so much that day’s steam locomotive — it was Canadian Pacific Royal Hudson 2839 — but rather the railroad. That’s because we would be riding the Southern, a road I’d encountered many a time in Tennessee and Virginia and Alabama. But never in the Midwest. Coming into town and seeing long-hood-forward SR diesels congregating in the yard was, well, counterintuitive.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. A lot of far-flung railroads pushed well past their core territory, especially east of the Mississippi. I’m reminded of photos I’ve seen over the years showing New York Central 2-8-2s near Charleston, W.Va., or Pennsylvania E units in the northwoods around Petoskey, Mich., or Illinois Central Geeps in Madison, Wis. In public timetables these odd extensions appeared as long, lonely tendrils off stylized system maps. 

Once I did a bit of homework, though, I discovered there was nothing odd about Southern’s St. Louis Division. In retrospect, its history makes perfect sense.

Sometime before it powered the final run of train 24 into Princeton, Ind., on June 14, 1953, Southern 1231 meets a freight at Centralia, Ill. R. J. Foster 
For the details, you have to go back to the late 19th century, where all these stories seem to start. The Southern we came to know was formed in 1894 from a collection of insolvent roads in the wake of the Panic of 1893. Financed by the House of Morgan, the Southern added various routes and carriers over the years and, in 1900, extended west by picking up the recently insolvent Louisville, Evansville & St. Louis, which linked New Albany, Ind., with East St. Louis, Ill. That left a gap at Louisville, across the Ohio River from New Albany. 

Southern managed to bridge that gap by operating through Louisville via the Kentucky & Indiana Terminal, which connected with the LE&StL to St. Louis. From 1900 until 1981, K&IT was owned equally by Southern, B&O, and the Monon; SR bought the whole thing in 1981 as B&O and Monon moved into the CSX camp. 

So that’s basically how Southern came to negotiate the hill-and-dale territory of southern Indiana and Illinois. To get a sense of what the St. Louis line meant to SR, I checked in with my friend Bill Schafer, a Southern historian of the first rank and also a retired Norfolk Southern strategic planning executive. 

“The St. Louis–Louisville line was always an important feeder to the Southern system, and as far as I can tell, its physical separation from the rest of Southern Railway was never a significant handicap,” says Bill. “Serving the St. Louis area was important because of connections, including the Mobile & Ohio, which Southern owned or controlled from 1901 to 1940. After World War II, however, my sense is that the St. Louis–Louisville line was just as important (if not more so) for the development of on-line traffic as it was for its St. Louis traffic.”

The light bridges on the St. Louis line made it an early candidate for freight-train dieselization. In August 1957, four years after the whole system went all-diesel, Southern F units pass a Burlington 2-8-2 at Centralia, Ill. Jim Shaughnessy
For much of its life the St. Louis line wasn’t a particularly robust piece of railroad, not important enough to upgrade to standards used elsewhere on the Southern system. Until dieselization, the largest locomotive that could operate the entire distance from Louisville to East St. Louis was a Ks-class 2-8-0, similar to later fantrip favorites 630 and 722. Doubleheading was common but some bridges were so frail that, leaving East St. Louis, the two locomotives would be separated by a number of freight cars.

While grain was always an essential component of traffic on the St. Louis line — some of the first movements of “Big John” 97-ton-capacity covered hoppers of 1960 were from locations on the line — the real tonnage-producer in the postwar years was something perhaps more familiar to Southern: coal, from the Illinois Basin. 

The St. Louis Division was quick to adopt diesel freight locomotives in the postwar years, largely because of its light bridges. Ironically, almost the last-regular service steam operation on the entire Southern Railway was on passenger trains 23/24 between Princeton, Ind., and Louisville. Southern had been trying to discontinue the train for years and had succeeded in cutting it back from East St. Louis to Princeton. In early 1953, the ICC finally gave permission to kill the rest of it.

To commemorate that last run of steam, Bill sent this note to J. David Ingles when the latter was editor of Trains

The rugged topography of southern Indiana necessitated the construction of Duncan Tunnel 6 miles west of New Albany. An SD40 leads an eastbound freight out of the bore in December 1975. Gary Dolzall 
“On the final day [June 14, 1953], Princeton Shop prepared green-and-gold Ps-2 Pacific No. 1317 for its last run east on 23, departing Princeton at 1:20 p.m. As soon as 1317 left the shop area, work forces began demolishing the coal dock and other steam servicing facilities. Westbound train 24, running over an hour late, met 23 on the long siding east of Princeton. Upon 24’s arrival at Princeton, its engine, Ps-2 No. 1231, was taken to the shop and her fire dumped. She was immediately placed in the scrap line.”

Southern’s St. Louis line had at least one other notable feature: Duncan Tunnel, a surprisingly long (4,295 feet) bore that pierces what is known as the Knobstone Escarpment, a formation of limestone spread out across southern Indiana. Located just six miles west of New Albany near Edwardsville, the tunnel is fairly well hidden, barely visible to motorists passing right over it on Interstate 64.

The tunnel was built in fits and starts from the Civil War onward, by several predecessor railroads, until its completion in 1881. Viewed from the floor of the Middle Creek Valley, it’s still an impressive bit of engineering, as I discovered when I ran across this photo by Gary Dolzall, showing Southern SD40 3197 popping out of the east portal in December 1975. 

The scene looks for all the world like the much more famous Natural Tunnel in Virginia. But it’s not. It’s Indiana. Which prompts me to wonder if Southern’s famous slogan should have been modified to say “Southern Serves the South — Oh, and the Midwest, Too!”

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