Unearthing the old Santa Fe in Illinois

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Sunday, August 22, 2010

More than 35 years have passed since I lived in Chicago, once home to the Santa Fe Railway. A lot has happened to both the city and the railroad; I’ve changed a bit, too. In a day’s time, I want to find, or at least remember, pieces of the Santa Fe that once was. My guides are my memories and the yellowing pages of a 1950 Illinois Division employee timetable.

First stop: Dearborn Station, at the intersection of Dearborn and Polk Streets. The impressive façade and clock tower still stand, atop shops and restaurants. Today, on a beautiful Chicago morning, Dearborn’s face to the world looks better than ever. But it’s almost a mirage, because everything behind the station front has changed. The four main tracks that snaked their way south through an old warehouse district have vanished (as have the warehouses) in a vast redevelopment. In their place are neat-looking, middle-class townhouses.

The tracks belonged to the Chicago & Western Indiana Railroad, owner of Dearborn. At about 18th Street, spurs led to Santa Fe’s impressive coach yard and roundhouse. Trains turned on a balloon track and then were set on servicing tracks. It’s all a memory now. North of Cermak Road, which served as the coach yard’s south boundary, I find low-income housing and retail storefronts. But if you look carefully, you’ll find a vacant green field near where the roundhouse stood. Today, a couple and a dog play with a frisbee.

Several hours and 66 miles to the southwest in Illinois, in the little community of Mazon, the old country depot remains in place, used by maintenance workers. So are the brick stations at Streator and Chillicothe, the latter once headquarters of the Illinois Division. This town of 3,000 is where Indiana Rail Road president Tom Hoback spent much of his boyhood while his dad dispatched trains from the depot’s second floor. Of the yard in Chillicothe there remain only two decrepit tracks.

My timetable shows the Santa Fe crossing a Burlington Route branch line in Monica, 18 miles southwest of Chillicothe. The branch line, connecting Buda and Elmwood, has been gone for decades. Curious, I beam up Monica on Google Earth.There I see the outline of the old Burlington grade; see the image at right. When I drive into Monica, the faint imprint of the Burlington is clearly visible. In the aerial photo at right, BNSF Railway’s tracks run across the bottom, crossed diagonally by the ghost railroad.

More than 40 more miles down the line, west of Galesburg, at Nemo, Santa Fe once crossed over the Minneapolis & St. Louis main line to Peoria. Nemo’s population was zero (the nearest tiny village, Ormonde, is two miles to the west), but Santa Fe kept a depot at Nemo open 24 hours a day in 1950, presumably because interchange traffic with the Tootin’ Louie required a three-track transfer yard. As I approach Ormonde, I glance to my right and what do I see a quarter mile away but a girder bridge going over a bed of weeds. I drive as close as I dare (it had rained a lot recently), and to erase any doubt, on the bridge girder is painted NEMOS. Time has covered all traces of where the depot stood.

I am sharing this with you not because you are entranced with Monica or Nemo or even Dearborn Station, but because we should never take what we see around us today for granted, believing it will always be there for us to come back to. What will the old Illinois Division of the Santa Fe look like 35 years hence? It’s safe to say that in many important respects, it won’t look like the railroad I saw today. I can’t even assure you it will still be there. — Fred W. Frailey

To leave a comment you must be a member of our community.
Login to your account now, or register for an account to start participating.
No one has commented yet.

Join our Community!

Our community is FREE to join. To participate you must either login or register for an account.

Search the Community

Newsletter Sign-Up

By signing up you may also receive occasional reader surveys and special offers from Trains magazine.Please view our privacy policy