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Camping Along Union Pacific’s Chester Subdivision In 1990

June 8, 2009

While I was in high school, I went on several camping trips along the Illinois Central mainline in the hills south of Carbondale. Camping and trains: what could be better?

After I graduated from high school, I did a few solo trips. I loaded up a tent, sleeping bag and as much gear as I could handle on my ten-speed and headed to one of a couple of spots across the track from U.S. 51 north of Carbondale. I would set up my tent and spend the night watching a parade of passenger and intermodal trains, with the occasional manifest freight thrown in for good measure. After a few of these overnighters, I told a friend of mine from Mount Vernon what I was doing. It sounded like a good idea to Rob, and we started talking about going somewhere a little more remote than I had been doing.

I had my first experience watching trains on Union Pacific’s Chester Subdivision the year before, when I went on a railfan expedition with the Southern Illinois Train Club February 18, 1989. I was amazed by the amount of traffic moving over the line, which was a stark contrast to the Illinois Central mainline through Carbondale. It seemed to me that somewhere along the Chester Sub would be the place to do a camping trip. Rob agreed.

It was a sunny September Saturday when Rob and I headed off into the Mississippi River valley to watch some trains and find a place to spend the night. That was when we found the perfect spot: on the banks the Big Muddy River below the tracks south of Grand Tower. It would be a spot Rob and I would return to several times, and is a spot I frequent to this day.

Trains ran one after another that evening and all through the night. It was an interesting time with the line seeing trains from both Union Pacific and Southern Pacific, along with run through trains from Conrail. Motive power was also much more varied that it would become in later years. Rob and I sat by a campfire late into the night; swapping stories, telling jokes, enjoying the cool night air and watching the trains parade by overhead.

While the light lasted, I committed several of the scenes to Kodachrome slide film with my still substandard camera. Several of the images, however, are worth a look; especially in this era of cookie cutter wide cab locomotives and mega-merger created homogenous railroads.


Soon after we arrived, a former Missouri Pacific C36-7 leads a GECX “Super 7” unit across the river with a southbound auto parts train.


As the shadows grow longer, an SD50 leads a northbound train across the river.


South of the river, Rob waves at the crew of a northbound Southern Pacific train. The Big Muddy River through the area is bordered on both sides by flood levies topped by gravel roads. The train is about to cross South Levy Road.


Still on the south side of the river, a former Rio Grande GP40 leads a southbound train across the Big Muddy River.


In one last view from the south side of the river, a mish mash of Espee and Rio Grande power leads a long northbound manifest toward the river.


A Union Pacific C40-8 leads a northbound train across the river.


At dusk, an Espee SD45 leads a southbound train onto the bridge.


Another southbound Espee train passes at dusk.


Burlington Northern C30-7s lead a southbound train onto the bridge against the last fading light of day.


The next morning, another day begins as an SD40-2 leads a northbound train over the river.


Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson

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