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Long ago: Small-town train service August 24, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, memoir, railroads.
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My grandmother, Sybil Kennedy, around the time she met my grandfather

This is taken from a memoir entitled “When I Was a Girl” by my grandmother, Sybil Crowninshield Kennedy Bennett. The series starts here and alternates every other post.

Cato village had at its greatest size nearly six hundred population. [The number was closer to 400 when Grandma was growing up. The figure stood at 532 in 2010.] It was on the Fair Haven branch of the Lehigh Valley railroad. There were six passenger trains a day from Auburn to Fair Haven in the summer and four in the winter. The mail all came on the trains and all packages came by express on the trains as there was no Parcel Post even as late as when I was in college [it was established in 1913].

Going to meet the trains was a free entertainment, which we were not allowed to enjoy unless we knew someone going or coming. We did manage to accompany to the train and to meet quite a few people. After the train came in, people went to the post office, where the mail was distributed and put into boxes. Each family had a box and a number, either a pigeonhole where you had to ask for your mail at the window or a lock box to which you had a key.

It took a half hour or more to distribute the mail. The post office was in a large store and became really crowded with people who were usually talkative and full of jokes. We didn’t get to attend this rite very often, either, but sometimes we could, when there were other errands to the store or we expected mail. The Postmaster’s wife usually helped him and she accommodatingly read the post cards to her edification and would ask someone to “tell Mrs. Jones that her sister would be coming Thursday,” or some such message.

[The train trip was an important feature of an annual picnic.] The Cato churches, all three, organized and held a famous Sunday School picnic at the Picnic Grounds in Fair Haven [on Lake Ontario] every year. It was held on the last Thursday in August. The church people took extra food for those who had none and there were railroad tickets too for the people who couldn’t buy them. The big thing was the special train which came at nine o’clock in the morning. It had previously taken on passengers at Auburn, where it started, and at Weedsport. At Cato it really filled up. There were at least fourteen coaches, crowded to the platforms. There were those who sat down on the red plush seats and rode looking out the windows and those who walked through the train locating and visiting with friends. The Cato band always went and gave a concert, playing at the Cato station and the Fair Haven one and at the picnic. You can’t imagine the enthusiasm and excitement of all this and the disappointment if it rained.

Rail service to Cato village ended in 1953.

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Beach at Fair Haven in the present day

Lincoln Highway: Illinois January 25, 2012

Posted by Jenny in history, railroads, travel.
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War Memorial Arch over Lincoln Highway in Dixon, IL

In this series of posts, we journey on the Lincoln Highway from New York City to San Francisco, taking it state by state. Go here for an introduction.

Illinois proclaims on its license plates that it is the “Land of Lincoln.” It is therefore fitting that the national headquarters of the Lincoln Highway Association are located in Franklin Grove, IL, a small town smack in the middle of the state’s Lincoln Highway miles.

Westward all the way from Philadelphia, it’s been possible to follow the route of the Highway most of the time by driving US 30. It gets more complicated in Illinois. Entering the state from Schererville, IN, we follow Route 30 as far as Aurora, but then veer north on IL 31 to Geneva. There, we turn west on IL 38 and journey through De Kalb, Rochelle, and Dixon. At Sterling, the Highway rejoins US 30 and departs the state at Fulton to cross the Mississippi River into Iowa.

Soon after entering Illinois, we pass through Chicago Heights, which the city proudly proclaims is “The Crossroads of the Nation.” At first glance, it doesn’t seem all that obvious why the city deserves this description. Shouldn’t the crossroads be closer to the geographic center of the United States, which is Lebanon, Kansas—much further south and west?

The reason is more historic than geographic: Chicago Heights is where the Lincoln Highway crosses the Dixie Highway, a highway that was inspired by the Lincoln—the Dixie project was organized in 1914, just a year after the Lincoln Highway was conceived. It, too, was promoted by Carl G. Fisher. Both were part of the National Auto Trail system.

Fountain erected by Arche Women's Club in 1916 at Lincoln-Dixie intersection

As you see from the map below, the Dixie Highway was not a single route but rather a set of interconnected highways. It had a major split between an Eastern Division and a Western Division (the Western is what passed through Chicago Heights), with various connecting links.

Map of the Dixie Highway

Looked at from one point of view—the large number of divergences and splits in the route—the Dixie Highway disappoints. But from another point of view, it’s wonderful: you can follow it from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, to Miami. I was even more intrigued when I suddenly realized that I live just a block away from its Carolina Division, which uses what’s now US 25 to go from Knoxville to Waynesboro. Yes, that’s Weaverville Road in Asheville!

Chicago Heights had to fight for the Lincoln Highway to be routed through its downtown area. Back in 1914, the Chicago Heights Automobile Association learned that the Lincoln Highway was to bypass it to the south, going through Frankfort. This was not to be! The citizens of Chicago Heights marshaled their forces. On the quickly designated Illinois Good Roads Day (April 15, 1914), residents of the city went out to spread100 loads of stone on what would become the Highway’s route south of downtown. The Lincoln Highway Association, impressed by the dedication and the sweat, decided to route the highway through downtown Chicago Heights, thus giving travelers the benefit of the city’s hotels, restaurants, and garages, and the city the benefit of all that extra business.

Driving west of Chicago Heights, we arrive at Geneva, which boasts the Fabyan Windmill, dating to the 1850s. Oddly enough, we will encounter another windmill along the route of the Lincoln Highway in Illinois.

Windmill in Geneva, IL

In De Kalb, it’s possible to visit the Barbed Wire History Museum, which commemorates the inventions of city resident Joseph Glidden.

Glidden's four-point triangular line (top) and military concertina wire (bottom)

Continuing across the state, we arrive at Rochelle, known as “Hub City.” As in the case of Chicago Heights, the reason for the designation isn’t all that obvious from a glance at the map, but here the explanation lies in railroads as much as highways: it is located at the crossroads of two major rail lines, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. What’s really great is that the city has created a park where railfans (English equivalent: trainspotters) can watch trains pass through this junction.

Diamond junction of UP and BNSF

As something of a railroad buff myself, I was enthralled when I learned the story of the Rochelle Railroad Park. Apparently, railfans were parking very close to the interchange siding to watch the trains go by, creating a safety hazard. Rather than banning viewers from the area, the city decided to create a park where railfans could safely watch the trains. It created an elevated viewing platform with picnic tables and added a museum, complete with a re-created hobo jungle as well as a historic locomotive, a display of tracks, and a model railroad shop.

The city even included a scanner in the picnic area so that railfans can hear radio traffic on the two railroads. Fantastic! I hope to go there myself some day.

At Franklin Grove, travelers can visit the national headquarters of the Lincoln Highway Association. That is another place I would like to visit.

Downtown Franklin Grove

Further along, the town of Dixon is known not only for its War Memorial Arch (see at top) but for its Petunia Festival. In the early 1960s, after Dixon’s elms were decimated by Dutch elm disease, the town decided to beautify its streets by planting thousands of pink petunias. The petunias continue to be planted, watered, and maintained every year, and in July, Dixon puts on a parade, carnival, concert, and fireworks show.

At the western border of the state in Fulton, travelers can view another windmill. The interesting thing is that this is a recent construction. The city of Fulton contracted with a Dutch company to build the structure. The parts were fabricated in Holland and shipped to Illinois, where they were assembled in 1999. Today, the mill grinds wheat, buckwheat, rye, and cornmeal atop a flood control dike on the Mississippi.

De Immigrant Windmill, Fulton, IL

And now we cross the mightiest river and enter the West.

Lincoln Highway in De Kalb

N&W’s Lamberts Point pier June 7, 2010

Posted by Jenny in memoir, railroads.
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Lambert's Point Pier 6, Norfolk

This is a continuation of the post entitled “The N&W Railway and I.”

Does the idea of tandem rotary dumpers leave you cold? Are you not all that interested in thaw sheds and shiploaders? Then please, by all means, skip this post.

I can’t remember exactly what year it was that I visited the N&W (I should say Norfolk Southern) Lamberts Point Pier 6 in Norfolk. Probably in the mid to late 90s. But I can tell you that I will never forget the impression that it made.

As you might imagine, the business of moving a heavy, bulky, dirty commodity like coal from Point A to Point B, or from the mine to the train to the ocean vessel, involves a lot of heavy, bulky, complicated equipment. When it comes to getting the coal from the train onto the ship, almost all of the time the procedure involves a ground storage facility. In other words, the coal gets transferred from the railcars into large stockpiles, and then it can stay there for quite a while until it is transferred by bucket-wheel or clamshell machinery, or something similar—big scooping devices in one form or another—onto the ship.

The thing that’s amazing about Lamberts Point is that the coal goes directly from the train into the shiploader and onto the ship. (Well, there’s a slight exception called the surge silo, in some cases.) The other thing that’s really  cool is that you have dozens of trainloads that have come from places like McDowell and Wyoming Counties, West Virginia, or Buchanan County, Virginia, and at the upper end of the Lamberts Point pier the locomotives are detached from the coal cars, and from there on it’s all done by gravity.

It’s a bit like one of those Rube Goldberg machines where, once the first part is set into motion, a whole chain of events unfolds without the need for any outside propulsion.

If you look at the (admittedly tiny) photo above, you will see a few hundred coal cars that have no locomotive attached. Each individual car is known by an identifying number, and each one is released down the slope in a certain intricate sequence in order to put together a particular blend for an overseas customer. Since 95% of the coal moving through Norfolk is metallurgical, that will be a steel company. Using the names I am familiar with from a little ways back, that could be Sollac or British Steel, Eregli or Ilva, Posco or Nippon Steel. Probably these have all changed their corporate identities by now.

Carefully shepherded by a team up in a giant glass-sided control tower, each car passes in its proper sequence over an electronic scale and then glides into the dumper area. If it is during the winter, there is a detour through the thaw shed to heat up the railcar, since otherwise frozen coal might stick into the car. And then the railcar goes into the dumper area and gets turned completely upside down—track and car together—to empty out the coal. This is much more efficient than hopper cars in which bottom slats open up to let the coal out. The photo below is not from Lamberts Point, but it illustrates the concept of rotary dumping.

The whole thing gets turned upside down

The empty railcars then pick up momentum and glide up a slight slope into the “kickback” area, where they roll back gracefully onto a different track for diversion to the area of the yard where they will be hitched up to locomotives again and return to the coalfields.

In the meantime, the coal from the rotary dumpers is fed into towering shiploaders that drop coal into vessels of up to capesize proportions. That means vessels of around 120,000 deadweight tons, ones so large they can’t go through the Panama Canal—those smaller ones are called panamaxes.

And what kinds of coal, exactly, are going overseas? Here is a list from when I was knowledgeable about the business—it has certainly changed since then—Buchanan, Amonate, Jenkinjones, Virginia Pocahontas, McClure, Clinchfield, Moss No. 3, Kopperston, Rocklick, Tanoma, Virginia Crews, Iager, Red Ash, Litwar, Race Fork, Permac, Raven, Pinnacle.

I know that a lot of those operations have shut down, but I hear that new things are happening in the overseas market, and that India and China are buying a lot of coal. But it all goes back to a world of narrow, shadowy valleys on that Virginia/West Virginia border, towns like Welch and War and Wolf Pen, with the big tipple and next to it the rail spur that takes up nearly all of the space next to the stream, and a row of houses and a twisting little road that winds its way along.

Coal tipple