Return to Rochelle

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Visitors to the Rochelle Railroad Park enjoy a fine June 2014 day as a westbound Union Pacific train passes. Brian Schmidt
One of America’s best places to watch trains — maybe I should say “most relaxing” — is only 118 miles from my house in Milwaukee. So why did it take me more than 10 years to get back there?

That’s what I was wondering last weekend as Alison and I turned onto N. 9th Street, crossed the Union Pacific tracks, and pulled into the parking lot of the Rochelle Railroad Park, crossroads of UP and BNSF Railway in northern Illinois. The place felt familiar and comfortable, just has it seemed more than 20 years ago when I first laid eyes on the place.

We were on our way to visit friends in Iowa, but the chance to delay our arrival and spend a leisurely hour in the company of friendly railfans and a steady stream of trains banging over those acutely angled diamonds was too good to pass up. The temperature was already in the mid-80s, but a breeze and the shade of the park’s generous picnic shelter made for a perfect summer morning. So did the sounds of scanner chatter on the speaker overhead.

Many of you reading this are undoubtedly familiar with the Rochelle Railroad Park: how it came together in the 1990s when the city’s economic development director, Ken Wise, noticed railfans hanging out near the diamonds and thought, "Hey, we can turn this into a local attraction!"; how Trains magazine stepped up by establishing the Rochelle webcam on Memorial Day 2000; and how the park has endured, gradually adding amenities along the way, including a 50-ton Whitcomb diesel on display, a nod to the builder’s history in Rochelle.

The establishment of the webcam is a story worth re-telling. The prime mover on the project was Mike Yuhas, Trains’ ad sales manager and now recently retired. Mike approached Wise directly about establishing the 24-hour video camera, and soon he was heading down there with Kalmbach I.T. whiz Keith Bauer to set up the first webcam. Mike takes it from there:

“People from Rochelle Municipal Utilities met us and helped us with the installation. In the weeks leading up to our visit, RMU installed a fiber optic line from a corner of the RMU generating station, just across the street, to the park pavilion. This circuit allowed us to route the camera’s output to the computer interface, and thence on to the internet at large. After a little fiddling with the machines, we quietly started streaming live images of the Rochelle diamond. Keith and I drove back to Milwaukee elated.

“Early the next week, though, the feed stopped working,” Mike recalls. “It turned out the webcam became so wildly popular that our bandwidth demand severely impacted RMU’s other internet customers, and the Trains webcam was temporarily cut off. The solution was to throttle back our frame rate. Over time, as RMU has invested in greater internet bandwidth, those restrictions gradually disappeared.”

Of course, long before there was a public park here at Milepost 74.8 on UP and 83.2 on BNSF — let alone a webcam — this was a crossroads for Chicago & North Western’s Chicago–Omaha and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s Chicago–St Paul/Minneapolis main lines, a crossing controlled by the Q’s sturdy brick tower at the corner of 2nd Avenue and N. 12th Street, just west of today’s park. 

Union Pacific's westbound City of Denver passes NX Tower at the Rochelle diamonds one evening in July 1950. Stanley H. Mailer
The operator inside had plenty of freight trains to O.S., not to mention a stellar lineup of passenger trains, few of which actually stopped in Rochelle. In the early 1950s, the Burlington generally ran eight trains through town each day, including such flagships as the Morning and Afternoon Zephyrs and (for partners Great Northern and Northern Pacific) the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited. The fanciest trains to actually stop in Rochelle were GN’s Western Star and NP’s Mainstreeter, known more for their coach traffic than the sleepers they carried.

The other main line in Rochelle had a lineup no less august. Thanks to its long-running arrangement to run Union Pacific trains in and out of Chicago, the North Western boasted such UP standard-bearers as the City of Los Angeles and City of San Francisco, along with the City of DenverCity of Portland, and Challenger. North Western served Rochelle directly with a couple of local trains, which remained after the UP trains moved to the Milwaukee Road in 1955. (MILW local freights passed through using trackage rights on the CB&Q, making Rochelle a three-railroad town.)

Burlington E7s lead the first eastbound streamlined Empire Builder through Rochelle on August 31, 1947. Jim Scribbins
I first became aware of Rochelle in the August 1971 issue of Trains, courtesy of a short but lovely bit of prose by Stanley H. Mailer called “The Asparagus is Still There.” It accompanied Mailer’s evocative photo of the City of Denver, shown here, charging through town in the form of one of Electro-Motive’s early streamliners, the setting sun glinting on its automobile-style grille.

Stan’s photo sent me looking for others at Rochelle — a search made mostly in vain. Judged by what’s in the Kalmbach library, photographers going out to shoot the Burlington in the postwar years tended to head for Buda or Galesburg, rarely Rochelle, although I did find the accompanying view of the inaugural eastbound streamlined Empire Builder cruising into town behind brand-new E7s on August 13, 1947. Credit the great Jim Scribbins for this image.

North Western FTs bring a freight in off the northern Illinois prairie in a July 1948 view from the signal bridge just west of the diamonds. Wallace W. Abbey, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
I also remembered this terrific Wallace W. Abbey overhead view of two C&NW FTs rolling into Rochelle with an eastbound freight on June 20, 1948, now in the collection of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. The ever-intrepid Wally must have climbed a signal bridge to get the shot, something he likely got away with after checking with the guy in tower — during his college days Wally was a summertime extra-board operator on the North Western.

I won’t let another 10 years pass before I get back to Rochelle. The other day when we stopped, we saw one BNSF local and four UP stack trains within just the first half-hour, all while relaxing in the breeze and the shade. Maybe the tower and the FTs and the streamliners are gone, but Rochelle still offers ample compensations. 

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