Finding Nemo

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Monday, November 16, 2015

Today is nasty, windy and rainy. So to pass the time in western Illinois, I’m looking for Nemo. Not Pixar’s fantasy movie Nemo (I’m not that stupid), but the real one. Well, that’s not right, either. My Nemo is fictional, too. There never was a town of Nemo, because the population of the place never made it from 0 to 1. And even the physical presence of Nemo has been gone for, hmmm, about half a century.

Now that I’ve confused you, go to Google Maps and type: Ormonde IL. That puts you on the main line of the former Santa Fe Railway (think: BNSF Transcon) 14 miles southwest of Galesburg. Now follow the railroad 1.7 miles back toward Galesburg.

You’re in Nemo.

Sounds easy, but once I reach Ormonde, I can’t find Nemo. I know it’s marked by a railroad overpass, but when I spot an overpass, it spans a road and is clearly not my Nemo. I drive slowly east on a county road and finally, yes! I am there.

Absolutely nothing remains of Nemo but this tiny overpass. But once upon a time, until the 1960s, Nemo was an important interchange point between the Santa Fe and the Minneapolis & St. Louis. Every day, two eastbound Santa Fe freights would stop to pick up refrigerated meat destined for Chicago, or maybe live cattle or hogs for the Windy City’s stockyards. Other stuff, too, of course, and traffic flowed both ways. In fact, the Nemo gateway was once Santa Fe's preferred way to connect Chicago and the Twin Cities, for the obvious reason that it got a pretty long haul. A short three-track yard connected the two railroads on the southwest quadrant. A fourth track led to a stock pen for resting livestock. Below the Santa Fe tracks, where the M&SL ducked under, stood a joint ATSF-M&SL depot.

This last fact is unusual, because tiny Ormonde was itself a 24-hour office. Probably nowhere else on the Santa Fe stood two of its depots less than two miles apart.

(I’m probably boring you, but Santa Fe from early in the Twentieth Century devised its own form of centralized traffic control, in which the two main tracks could be used bi-directionally on signal indication. Every 15 or so miles across Illinois a telegraph office controlled a set of double crossovers and the associated signals. You could recognize these depots because their bay windows extended out an extra six feet or so. That space contained the interlocking machine. Ormonde was such an office, as were 24-hour depots in East Fort Madison, Lomax, Stronghurst, Williamsfield and Monica, among other villages. This was all very sophisticated for its time, and expensive, and lasted until Santa Fe put in real CTC in the 1960s.)

Anyway, I drive my rental car onto what had been the M&SL right of way, almost to the overpass. It amazes me how quickly all traces of abandoned railroads disappear. There is just nothing, not a clue, left to say there was ever a Tootin’ Louie here but that overpass, so thoroughly have weather and farm tractors reclaimed the right of way. Of course, if you go 30 miles to the northwest, where the M&SL crossed the Illinois River, you will find evidence of what wind, rain and tractor cannot undo: the humongous steel bridge, still standing, missing only the lift section. See for yourself on Google Earth.

It’s such a boring day, I guess, that I become fascinated with abandoned railroad rights of way, or rather my inability to spot them. I have my Steam Powered Video atlas with me, to identify once-upon-a-time rail lines, and an hour or so later I’m in Galva, on the former Burlington Route’s Chicago-Omaha main line, still busy as ever for BNSF. For the longest time, there is absolutely no evidence I can find that a Burlington branch line once crossed that railroad’s main artery in Galva. Then I drive along SE Third Street and notice that not a single old house faces that road. Eureka! What is now a city street was once that branch line’s way out of town. (It helped to download, for free, a U.S. Geological Survey quadrangle map from 1953.)

Later still I’m in Mendota, where the Q once crossed the Illinois Central’s “Charter Line,” its original land-grant route, from Freeport to Centralia. The actual IC main line still exists for two blocks through downtown Mendota, as part of a museum. But south of where the two railroads crossed, new commercial development completely obscures the former right of way — that is, until you cross Mendota Creek a mile south of town over what is obviously the original railroad bridge. North of that short segment of preserved rail, new houses stand atop the Charter Line, and after you leave Mendota plowed cornfields simply bury the old right of way for all time. But for maybe a block or so, right on the north edge of Mendota, between new homes and cornfields, is a weedy stretch that screams to me, I’m here! I’m here! Find me! Yes, Charter Line, you’re there, somewhere, buried by weeds, scrubs and several decades of erosion.

I hope I’ve encouraged you to search for signs of railroads no longer with us. Why? Okay, I am being sentimental, but let me ask you: When you are no longer with us, who will remember you? Your spouse and children, sure. Your grandchildren? Yes, if they are born before you leave us. Great grandchildren? Don’t fool yourself. In a split second of history, you will be obliterated (not so if you bequeath an entire university). Honor yourself, in a manner of speaking, by honoring that part of railroading that has left us forever.—Fred W. Frailey

P.S.: Speaking of remembering, those of you with the memory of an elephant will recognize  

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