Change Over The Years At Gorham
Time has not been kind to the town of Gorham, Illinois. This is nothing new; the great tri-state tornado of March 18, 1925, destroyed every building in town. Gorham was rebuilt, but the changing fortunes of small communities throughout America are slowly accomplishing what the tornado failed to do.
Like many small towns Gorham was a railroad town at one time, but changing times have left it not much more than a timetable location on the Union Pacific map.
Back in its heyday, Gorham was the point where southern Illinois coal traffic reached the main St. Louis – Texas line of the Missouri Pacific. A compact but busy yard was located on the southeast side of town, and many of the town’s men were employed by the railroad. The coal line ran through the towns of Murphysboro and DeSoto to Bush, where a large yard and engine terminal serviced the feeder lines that joined the spider web of trackage belonging to several roads that serviced the many mines in the region. Bush was the last stand of Missouri Pacific steam, and the end of steam foreshadowed the slow death of the southern Illinois coal industry that was soon to follow.
Just to the south of the yard, a diamond once existed where the single track of the Illinois Central Railroad’s Murphysboro District crossed MoPac’s double track line. The I.C. once ran from Carbondale through Grand Tower and on to Thebes. In the sixties the line was cut back to Grand Tower, where the I.C. delivered coal to a Central Illinois Public Service electric plant. The line was abandoned altogether in the early eighties after a derailment took out a trestle south of Murphysboro.
Unlike the majority of the coal branches of southern Illinois, the MoPac line from Gorham through Bush became more important with the passage of time. With the MoPac’s acquisition of the Chicago & Eastern Illinois the line changed in character from a branch line to a main line, as it became a key link in the route from Chicago to Texas. In Gorham, the junction changed from a coal marshalling point to the junction where the Chicago and St. Louis mainlines converge.
The St. Louis to Scott City portion of the route, formally known as the Chester Subdivision, was at one time referred to as “The Joint Line,” as trains of both MoPac and Southern Pacific’s Cotton Belt subsidiary used the line. Cotton Belt owned the line from the Mississippi River to Dexter, Missouri, where the railroads each went their own ways into Arkansas; MoPac through Little Rock and Cotton Belt through Pine Bluff. Eventually Cotton Belt was folded into the Southern Pacific system, which was in turn merged into MoPac successor Union Pacific. The old coal line was known for years as the Chicago Subdivision, but in recent years has been renamed the Mount Vernon Subdivision as Union Pacific has spilt the line into two Subdivision.
Standing in the sun along the tracks on an early June day, I couldn’t help thinking about the changes over the years. Waiting on a coal train heading from Wyoming that was lined up the old coal line, I thought about the woman who walked out of restaurant on that fateful afternoon in 1925; only to be blown back inside by the storm that took the lives of several of her friends inside the building. She survived, shielded from debris by an oven and a cow the storm deposited in the mass of destruction.
On this pleasant day 85 years removed it was impossible to envision the black mass of the mile-wide tornado, surrounded at the base by a steam-like cloud of water picked up as it crossed the Mississippi River moments before smashing into the town. It was much easier to remember the changes I have witnessed since I became a regular visitor to the town.
Gorham has long been a hotspot for railfans. With the combination of St. Louis and Chicago traffic, along with runthrough trains from CSX (and predecessor Conrail), Gorham can easily see fifty trains in any twenty-four hour period. I first came to Gorham on a February day in 1989, part of a group of fans belonging to the Southern Illinois Train Club photographing the line on a club railfan expedition.
Back then, the MoPac flavor of the line was still apparent, as the road’s blue power had yet to completely disappear under the yellow of Union Pacific. Indeed, early post merger units that displayed Union Pacific paint with Missouri Pacific lettering were still abundant. At that time, I was a sixteen year old kid used to the occasional trains that traversed the Illinois Central Railroad in my hometown of Carbondale. The steady parade of trains flying the flags of roads I had never seen before left me in awe. I have been coming back ever since.
Copyright 2010, Mary Rae McPherson
All photos by Mary Rae McPherson except as noted.