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Morning On Cobden Hill

June 16, 2009

The sun rose over the hills of southern Illinois to reveal a hazy, humid morning. It was relatively cool for a morning in late July. The morning birds began singing and while it was a beautiful sound, it wasn’t the one we were waiting to hear. Still no sign of #58.

My best friend and I were camping along the mainline of the Illinois Central Railroad between Makanda and Cobden, Illinois. We had been up all night watching the parade of trains, which always seemed to run heavier during the night on this portion of the Centralia District. There were always a couple of manifest freights, two intermodal trains each way, and Amtrak’s City of New Orleans passed in both directions in the hours between midnight and dawn.

Except for this morning. Daylight was breaking and the northbound Amtrak still hadn’t shown up. It was due around three hours ago.

The southbound City had been right on time, arriving a tad after one in the morning. In fact, it had met the northbound Memphis to St. Louis intermodal train before our eyes. We thought we heard #58 coming a couple of hours ago, but it turned out to be manifest freight MS2 with a locomotive in possession of a horn that was a dead ringer for the K5LA found on most Amtrak power.

We had sat up for the last couple of hours, straining to hear the distant sound of the train that wouldn’t come. By this time we were not in the best of shape. My friend was upright, though hunched over his knees in almost a fetal position. Sheer determination was all that was keeping me awake.

We were camping in an area that was secluded, though not exactly unknown. When the Illinois Central had introduced its orange and white colors in 1966, a publicity train had traveled the line for the company photographers to take pictures of. One of the locations the train stopped at was the cut above which our tents were set up. Not that we were using the tents much; more frequently we were sitting on a rock ledge to the right of the train in the old public relations photo.

Finally, there it was. The distant sound of a train off in the distance. If it wasn’t Amtrak, it certainly sounded like it. But then, we had been deceived already on this day.

“Hey. Wake up. 58’s coming,” I nudged my friend into consciousness.


The horn sounded again; this time a bit louder as the train passed through the distant town of Anna. That got his attention.

I grabbed my bag and crossed the track to get a better angle for photos. In my bag was an inexpensive 35mm camera loaded with slide film. The camera wasn’t much, but it was all a high school kid on a small allowance could afford. At least it took an image.

My friend joined me at trackside after a few minutes, and we stood in silence listening to the steadily nearing sound of the distant train mingling with the sounds of the morning songbirds. After several minutes, we finally saw the train’s headlight round the curve to the south and charge down the tangent to where we stood between the southbound main and the rock wall of the cut.

The engineer blew a couple of short blasts on the horn as the train passed us; a sort of time honored salute that train crews often give to their admirers. The twin F40 diesels never looked better. Now I am aware that to some, the F40 was a boxy monstrosity that could never compare to the old style EMD cab unit. I grew up with the F40 and never saw an EMD cab unit, operating or otherwise, until years later; so please forgive me my trespasses. On this fine morning #58 was a couple of F40s and a train of Heritage cars, and all was right with the world.

The tardy City of New Orleans passed us, rounded the curve and disappeared from sight. A minute later, the train had disappeared from earshot. We broke our silence and started walking up the track to the trail that led up the hill to our waiting sleeping bags, when suddenly I heard another sound to the north. I held up my hand for silence and stopped.

“Come on! That’s another train!”

We took off down the northbound main the City had just vacated, crossed the short bridge over Drury Creek, and turn to look north as the sound of the approaching train grew louder. After a few moments, a quartet of Norfolk Southern GP38s rounded the curve with southbound #123 bound for Birmingham, Alabama.

The N.S. trains usually seemed to be as long as or longer than anything the I.C. ran, but also tended to have enough power to make better time up the hill. As usual, this train was making a good clip up the hill. After a few moments though, the end passed with its marker on the rear still flashing despite the growing daylight. After several minutes the train vanished from earshot, leaving us with the morning birds for company.


Post Script: Several years later I was looking through a book that chronicled the history of Illinois Central Railroad steam power. The book had delved into the old railroad’s publicity still archives, and contained numerous photos that had appeared in the railroad’s company magazine over the years.

Among many photos that jumped out at me, one held a special significance. It was a photo taken for an article about the St. Louis Division in the company magazine. The photo was not dated, nor was there a location given. But the photo looked as though it were taken from the same rock ledge I had once sat upon as a teen.

I may never know for sure if the photo was taken at “my spot,” but I would like to think that it was.


Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson

One Comment leave one →
  1. T.J. Kaufhold permalink
    February 2, 2010 9:02 am

    Thank you for the layout T.J.

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