As the decade of the 1990s began, the Illinois Central was very much in a transitional phase.
Despite dieselization in the late fifties and the addition of some modern technologies such as radio, computers and mechanized track gangs, the railroad operated much as it had done. In a sense, the railroad was still operated like a steam era railroad in many ways. The tools were different, but they were doing the same sort of jobs in the same old way. Crew districts were still the same as they had been in the steam era. Yards were still spaced every hundred miles or so. Trains for the most part even operated with the same symbols they had had for decades.
In many places, the railroad’s ties to the past held up in the old buildings and abandoned tracks were still in place. Carbondale was no exception to this, and in some ways held even more links than many other towns.
Carbondale was once a junction town. In addition to the mainline, there were at one time lines heading southeast to Paducah, east to the coal fields, southwest to Thebes and northwest to St. Louis. Being a junction town, Carbondale had a complete engine servicing facility with a roundhouse, turntable, coal, water and sanding towers.
Eventually the lines to the east were combined as far as Seely to the east before being pulled out altogether (with segments in Marion and Herrin operated by the Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad). To the west, the St. Louis line was the first to go. The line to Thebes was cut back to Grand Tower, and following a derailment seriously damaging a bridge was abandoned altogether.
Links to the old days were plentiful as the decade began, but they were slowly being eroded by time and the changing railroad itself.
The old Illinois Central passenger station in Carbondale was built in 1902. In this heavily retouched photograph that became a postcard, the depot is still nearly new as a passenger train does its station work.
Eight decades later, the depot no longer served passengers. Long since painted a questionable green color, the depot was home to the signal department’s office, and Amtrak office, and a lot of junk. A southbound freight train passes the depot, and in a moment will pass Amtrak’s replacement station a block to the south.
Reputed to be the oldest building in Carbondale and said to date to the 1850s was the old Illinois Central freight house. The covered transfer dock was a later addition to the building and was being demolished in 1991. Despite the historic nature of the station, it was torn apart and its frame became an open air pavilion. In this form it remains a focal point of the revitalized downtown today.
One of the last lines to regularly use steam locomotives out of Carbondale was the Murphysboro District. The line ran south of its namesake town and descended into the Mississippi River valley through Sand Ridge, Gorham and Grand Tower before ending near the big river at Thebes.
As the train entered Carbondale and crossed the Oakland Street crossing, the regular engineer had a special whistle signal he blew. He lived nearby on Springer Street, and his wife would hear the call and drive down to the roundhouse to pick him up. In 1991 the crossing was still there, but the rails were long unused. The track dead-ended not far to the west, and was removed entirely not long after.
Down at the roundhouse, a 2-8-2 took a ride on the turntable in 1957. The railroad had a roundhouse in Carbondale dating back to before the turn of the century, fitting the town’s status as the focal point of four branch lines and a hub for coal runs working the mines in the surrounding area.
Carbondale had a full locomotive servicing area to support locomotives readied in the roundhouse and mainline trains needing fuel or water. A diesel has intruded into this late fifties scene, and stored steam locomotives awaiting their date with the scrapper can be seen on a wye track in the background.
The turntable was still in use in 1991. I remember riding with the hostler one night aboard an Amtrak F40ph in the yard as he turned it on the turntable and positioned it for the fuel truck that would top off its tank for the following day’s run to Chicago on The Illini.
The turntable was removed in the mid nineties. Amtrak began turning its entire train on the wye in Carbondale and left the locomotive tied to the train downtown overnight rather than servicing it in the yard has been done for years. By late 2006, traces of the turntable were hard to find. The roundhouse however, despite having be razed in the early sixties, was much more evident as recognizable parts of its foundation still remained.
In 1959, a locomotive simmers south of the roundhouse. The locomotive was working a local freight between Carbondale and Cairo, and was one of the last locomotives in steam in Illinois. In the background to the left, is the old machine shop and power house.
Thirty-two years later, the machine shop building was still recognizable. A boxcar sits on a track that once led to the turntable, while to the right a track once reached branch lines to Johnston City and Paducah, Kentucky. In 1991, it was still being used to reach a plant that treated railroad ties with creosote. The plant was closed by the end of the decade, and the old railroad buildings were demolished not long after.
A sign on the other end of the machine shop read “Carbondale Roundhouse.” Not exactly, but at least the building was used for diesel maintenance after the real roundhouse was torn down.
Another locomotive simmers near the coal towers in 1958. A water stand pipe is evident, as are two sand towers.
In 1991, one of the sand towers still saw occasional use. The coal towers still stood, reportedly because they had been built too solidly to be easily torn down. All of the metal scaffolding had been torn off the towers for the scrap value once the locomotives they served were gone, leaving empty concrete shells. Could there yet be a little coal waiting inside?
South of the coal towers, a few partially dismantled tracks were all that was left of the old passenger yard. Carbondale was once busy with passenger trains, as secondary trains headed off on the branch lines until they were discontinued. St. Louis connections joined the mainline trains at Carbondale as well, a practice that continued until the dawn of Amtrak. In 1991, all the yard was needed for was storage space for an ancient Jordan spreader.
Just to the north of the roundhouse, the north leg of the east wye left the yard for the Johnston City and Carbondale Districts. A Mikado is dragging a train out of the yard and around the curve to reach the branch lines.
Three decades later, the same track is used for nothing more than storing freight cars that are of as little use as the track upon which they sit. The sun sets on these old cars, just as it is figuratively setting on the fading remnants of the old Illinois Central around Carbondale. Soon the sun will set on the Illinois Central altogether, as it will be merged into an expanding Canadian National Railway.
As the railroad once known as the Mainline of Mid-America was folded into its new owner from the north, the pace of disappearing remnants only would accelerate.
Fifties era photography by the late Bruce R. Meyer
Modern photography by Mary McPherson
Copyright 2009 – Mary Rae McPherson