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One Last Time

May 29, 2009

The Illinois Central had announced it was going to be removing one of its two main tracks in 1989. The plan was to replace the double track with single track and passing sidings spaced every twenty miles or so. This meant that one of the tracks would be disappearing by our old campsite. I was determined to get a good photograph of a train there before the track could be removed. Luck didn’t look to be with me, however. I was seventeen with no driver’s license and parents that made sure I knew that even with a license I wouldn’t be at the wheel any time soon. That made the twenty miles from my house quite an obstacle.

On April 20, 1990, I got my chance. Mom was still keeping her horse on a stable on Boskydell Road, and I was able to talk her into driving me down before she went to the stable. I would have until noon, and if nothing came by before then, I was out of luck.

We left the house early in the morning, but not quite early enough. As I got out of the car, I could hear a southbound train climbing up the hill toward Cobden. If only we’d have left ten minutes earlier….

It was a good ten minute walk through a wooded trail back to the campsite. In my book bag was a copy of the Illinois Central Historical Society’s 1988 calendar, which featured an old I.C. publicity shot taken at the same location in 1966. I took a few photos looking in each direction from about the spot the publicity photographer stood nearly a quarter century before. Suddenly a new sound caught my attention. It was faint at first, but a sound I was very familiar with. Four sixteen cylinder engines producing a combined eight thousand horsepower were dragging a train up the hill from Makanda.

I started to set up for an update of the old publicity photo, but then I began thinking. What if one of the tracks was already out of service? If so, which one? If the northbound main was out of service, standing on that track to get a photo would be a VERY bad idea. I decided I had better climb back up to my spot on the ledge, which would be a much safer vantage point. I climbed up to my seat, took out my camera and got into position.

It took a good five minutes for the train to reach me from the time I first heard it. At last, four Norfolk Southern diesels rounded the curve with train 123 for Birmingham, Alabama.

“Follow the engines in the viewfinder. Not yet. Not yet. Come on, that’s it, perfect.”


The locomotives passed by below, running wide open and making about 25 miles per hour up the hill. Following behind was a string of freight cars easily over a hundred cars in length. As the end of the train rolled by the roar of the cars was replaced by the distant roar of the train’s diesels, punctuated by the distant horn as the train crossed several rural roads as it neared Cobden. Ten minutes later, the sound of the train faded out of earshot.

The second track was abandoned that summer, and pulled up a year later.


Copyright 2008 – Mary Rae McPherson

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