Coaling towers: revenge via rebar

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, March 17, 2022

In a 1954 photo, Morgan and an IC brakeman highball the Seminole at Gilman, Ill. Philip R. Hastings photo
I have a thing for railroad coaling towers. Like modern-day Colossi of Rhodes, they punctuate the landscape, giant reminders of the steam locomotive culture that held sway for more than a century. Locomotives have been scrapped, roundhouses leveled, crew districts stretched beyond 100 miles, but those stately slabs of reinforced concrete linger on the horizon, protected merely because they’re too damned expensive to tear down. Call it rebar revenge.

My attachment to these monoliths began early in life, when, as a little kid in the late 1950s, our family would pass the New York Central coaling tower along U.S. 12 in Michigan City, Ind. (It’s still there today, astride Amtrak’s Michigan Line.) Long before I knew what an NYC Hudson was or the train number of the Twilight Limited, I knew that giant steam locomotives parked underneath the tower to get their fill of coal. My dad said so. 

These are some of the thoughts I had recently as Alison and I left Charleston, S.C., after eight weeks and pointed the car northwestward toward Milwaukee. It’s a family trip we take every late winter, 1,010 miles of mostly boring Interstate, relieved for a while by the beauty of the Appalachians.  

This time I had a hare-brained idea to give the drive a theme. I asked Alison if she wouldn’t mind “chasing” a few coaling towers along the way. I figured there would be some interesting ones, if I just did a little homework.

I couldn’t have pulled this off without some assistance from my friend and colleague Jeff Brouws, photographer, author, book designer, and student of coaling towers. For the past several years Jeff has been photographing most of the remaining towers in North America, creating rich black-and-white images that, in Jeff’s hands, easily rise to the level of fine art. 

Jeff’s coaling tower project occupied him for five years, from 2013 to 2018, during which he photographed 107 extant examples, covering about 20,000 miles on various road trips. He outlined his inspiration for the project in an essay he wrote for Trains Editor Jim Wrinn in the August 2016 issue of the magazine:

“The coaling towers, as stately ruins, enter our consciousness, lodge there, and remind us of what we value as a culture: history, architecture, science, change and even … stasis,” Jeff wrote. “The coaling towers are anomalies, architectural remnants that have magically escaped the caprice of historical progression. Go see them while you can.” 

Former L&N coaling tower looms over the hamlet of Chaska, Tenn. Kevin P. Keefe photo
I decided to take Jeff’s advice. Before we left Charleston, I consulted with him on what we might see along the way. He suggested four towers that just might fit within our tight two-day schedule. The first was on the former Louisville & Nashville in the tiny hamlet of Chaska, Tenn., not far off I-75 near the Kentucky state line. 

For some background, I turned to my go-to L&N expert, writer Ron Flanary. Ron informed me the Chaska coaling tower is on L&N’s old Cincinnati-Atlanta line, originally the railroad’s Knoxville Division, opened as a through route in 1905. During the 1930s it was merged with the Atlanta Division to make the Knoxville & Atlanta Division, and after more iterations it’s today the KD Subdivision of CSX.

Chaska still sees six to eight trains a day, but nothing like the flow of traffic from a few decades ago, when the town was a helper base for the grade over Duff Mountain. Ron told me a helper, usually a 2-8-2, was based at Chaska until the end of steam on the K&A around 1953-54. 

We found Chaska after a twisting 20-minute drive on U.S. 25W along the Clear Fork River. There it was, across the river, soaring above a couple of exceedingly modest houses snuggled up against the CSX right of way. Getting a photograph of the soot-stained concrete cylinder proved a bit difficult — the shortest access was through someone’s front yard protected by an intimidating pit bull behind flimsy chicken wire — so I used the longest lens I had and got what I could. 

Morning light bathes the tower at Irvington, Ky., on what L&N called the 'Texas.' Kevin P. Keefe photo
Our next target — another L&N coaling tower at Irvington, Ky., just west of Louisville — was too far to make in remaining daylight, so we planned a rendezvous for the following morning. It turned out to be serendipitous: we easily found it the next day, a real beauty, bathed in brilliant sunlight and straddling a graceful curve in the middle of town. 

Irvington is on a stretch of track long known as the “Texas,” Ron told me, and railroaders call it that even in 2022. The original railroad through here was established in 1882 as the Louisville, St. Louis & Texas, later renamed the Louisville, Henderson & St. Louis when it became obvious the line would get no closer to the Lone Star State than Henderson, Ky. L&N acquired the line in 1929 and it became part of the Evansville Division.

There was a branch at Irvington that split off for Madisonville, Ky., so the coaling tower was there to handle fueling of locomotives on both the main and the branch. CSX still runs some trains this way, although traffic between Louisville and Evansville has declined. There was no train in sight when we arrived, but the tower made for a nice portrait anyway.

The tower at Frankfort, Ind., once served Nickel Plate's Lake Erie & Western district. Kevin P. Keefe photo
Then we were off again, this time mostly on I-65 to make it to Norfolk Southern’s yard at Frankfort, Ind., a one-time division point on the Nickel Plate, mostly part of NKP’s former Lake Erie & Western.

You can’t miss the coaling tower, standing tall adjacent to the ruins of the NKP shops and roundhouse on the west side of town. I didn’t linger long — we still had one more coaling tower appointment on the calendar, and an NS agent’s squad car was parked nearby — but I managed to get a shot. I couldn’t help but ponder what this scene might have looked like in the 1950s, when impatient NKP Berkshires could be seen hustling hotshots out of town along the Cloverleaf.

Next up was the prize of the trip, the celebrated Illinois Central twin coaling towers at Gilman, Ill., just a short trip 98 miles northwest of Frankfort. I say “celebrated” because this was the location of one of photographer Philip R. Hastings’ best-known images from his mid-1950s steam forays with Trains Editor David P. Morgan. You’ve likely seen it: Morgan and an IC brakeman highballing the northbound diesel-powered Seminole as the 2-8-2 on the Markham local pauses alongside a coal chute. The photo was first seen in DPM’s story “Dig Those Domes!” in the May 1955 issue.

Shorn of their hardware, ex-IC towers at Gilman, Ill., remain impressive. Kevin P. Keefe photo
The attractions of the Seminole and the Markham local are long gone, but the two towers endure, flanking today’s Canadian National main line, albeit shorn of the various forms of hardware that made them especially interesting.

The place is worth visiting, especially on a day when freezing weather keeps the rutty access road solid. Jeff had warned me that driving the mile or so north from Gilman to the towers on what the maps call Commerce Street could be a treacherous confrontation with mud, but not so today. Alison and I navigated the CRV to a wide spot next to the coaling towers and I reached into the back seat for my camera. 

Despite a howling wind, I lingered awhile beneath the west tower’s big concrete arch, trying to imagine how much fun Phil and David must have had on that sunny day in 1954. Our visit couldn’t quite compare, but I took some satisfaction in reaching my modest little road-trip goal: four worthy coaling towers in two days. And Gilman was the concrete cherry on top. I must do this again someday soon.

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