A Few Moments At Aldridge
A light dusting of snow covers the banks of the river. The muddy water that gives name to the Big Muddy River lazily flows toward the Mississippi. The afternoon light is growing softer on a late January day. The snow fell earlier in the day, but now that twilight is fast approaching the sun has broken through the clouds as the winter weather system earlier in the day has moved off to the east.
It is a quiet spot, nearly silent this time of year. In the warmer months the days are filled with the sounds of songbirds, buzzing insects and the splashing of fish in the river; the nights filled with the sounds of crickets, cicadas and numerous varieties of frogs interspersed with the periodic howling of a roaming pack of coyotes. The spot is rather like a border, a space in between the farmers’ fields in the Mississippi River Valley and the wooded hills of the Shawnee National Forest. Just now the air is still and the silence is broken only by the calling of an occasional crow, a passing car on Illinois Rte.3 and the faintest of audible trickles coming from the river.
The river is bordered on either side by a levy, built up during the depression just over two decades earlier to keep the spring floods from washing out the surrounding fields. Each levy is topped by a gravel road. The highway crosses the river on a truss bridge, and just to the east of the road is a second bridge belonging to the Illinois Central Railroad. The railroad bridge carries a lightly used branch line running south into the Mississippi Valley from Carbondale.
The quiet stillness is broken by the distant moaning of a deep throated steamboat whistle rolling up the valley from the south. Shortly a car approaches from the same direction, crosses the bridge and pulls to a stop alongside the road. Two men quickly get out of the car, each one carrying a camera. The men are answering the siren call of that whistle, for this is one of the few areas left where the steam locomotive is still to be found.
The two men take up positions just below the highway bridge as a lazily rolling cloud of smoke and steam approaches above the south levy, the source of which is still hidden from their view by their low angle. The train moves quietly here, slowing for some ten mile per hour track all the way to Grand Tower to the north.
The fireman looks down from his seat on the right hand side of the engine at the men taking pictures of him and his charge; they have become quite common now that his train is one of the last holdouts of the old steamers.
The engine crosses the river and then blows the whistle for the road on the north levy as the short train clanks and clatters over the bridge. As it does so, the two men jump back in their car and race ahead to get one more photo of the train as it crosses Rte. 3 as the highway makes an “S” curve. The caboose passes and the train clatters off into the distance, a haze of smoke and dissipating steam in its wake. The deep moaning of the whistle is heard again off in the distance, and silence again settles to this quiet spot.
Carbondale was one of the last strongholds of steam locomotives in the state of Illinois, and the local run down the “Mud Line” through Aldridge was one of the last runs to regularly be assigned steam. Many well known railroad photographers of the late steam era passed through the area, including a couple of students from the University of Illinois in Champaign; Bruce Meyer and J. Parker Lamb. In late January, 1959, the pair swung through Carbondale while chasing the last holdouts of steam. Their photographic record is a treasure today.
Scenes such as this were not to last much longer. Within a couple of months the steam engines were gone, and the track itself was gone barely a decade later. Today you might just make out the rotted pilings where the bridge once stood and an overgrown cinder covered right of way. Where the tracks crossed the highway is still visible, though one has to look closely to recognize what once was.
Black and white photography taken by Bruce R. Meyer, January 27, 1959
Color photography by Mary Rae McPherson, April 15, 2005
Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson