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Change Over The Years At Gorham

June 29, 2010

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 south of town, a northbound MoPac freight passes under Illinois Highway 3 behind Mikado 1517. Photo from the collection of Kurt Jensen.

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.

Southbound from Chicago in the mid eighties was this auto rack train led by GE power. The second locomotive wears Union Pacific colors with MoPac lettering. John Carpenter photo.

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.

A southbound Conrail train from Indianapolis enters the Chester Subdivision. These trains come off the former Pennsylvania Railroad at St. Elmo, Illinois, and travel south along the Chicago and Mount Vernon Subdivisions to Gorham. John Carpenter photo.

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.

This is the first train I ever saw at Gorham. This northbound came screaming into town hot on the heels of the Southern Illinois Train Club caravan on February 18, 1989.

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.

Later in the day on February 18, 1989, southbound auto train AIZ was coming off the Chicago line as an empty coal train waited for a signal to head north toward St. Louis.
A May day in 1989 found a southbound Union Pacific train coming off the Chicago Subdivision with a display of motive power that spanned the transition from MoPac to U.P. Behind the Union Pacific and Missouri Pacific SD40-2’s was a GP50 in U.P. yellow with Missouri Pacific lettering.
Steam occasionally comes through Gorham. On June 13, 1990, restored Cotton Belt 4-8-4 #819 came charging through town on its way to the National Railway Historical Society convention in St. Louis. Myron Dudenbostle photo.
A few days later, southbound automotive train AIZ was coming off the Chicago Subdivision.
AIZ’s power cut off to pick up a block of cars left by another train a couple of hours earlier. At one time block swapping was a common practice at Gorham, with trains setting out and picking up cars on the few remaining yard tracks.
On a cold late afternoon in February, 1992, a southbound Cotton Belt auto rack train sprints through Gorham. Southern Pacific may have been the weaker of the two roads, but their shorter “sprint” trains usually seemed to be in more of a hurry than anything U.P. ran.
The sun had just about set a couple of hours later as a northbound Espee train overtook a U.P. train waiting its turn to head up the Chicago Subdivision. That train had been stopped for a couple of hours at this point, and was still there when we left.
Union Pacific was power short in the fall of 1997, and for a short time leased a number of Amtrak F40ph’s to make up the difference. The Amtrak units, which had been rendered surplus by the arrival of new power from General Electric, didn’t stay around long. But they did stay long enough for me to catch two of the units trailing a C30-7 against the fall colors from the Route 3 overpass south of town.
A tunnel motor in a hurry! Northbound on an auto rack train just before sunset, the filthy unit may have been a bit out of place in the conspicuously tunnel free former Cotton Belt country. Not complaining, mind you. In 1999 we knew anything in Espee paint was on borrowed time.
By June of 1999, it was rare to see a straight set of Espee power. Most appearances tended to be like this; a unit or two mashed in with U.P. power.
March 5, 2008, found an SD40-2 leading a southbound train off the now renamed Mount Vernon Subdivision. The train had been sitting for some time, and I finally gave up the ghost and headed out of town… only to hear the dispatcher say “here comes your signal.” By happy accident, that radio transmission came at just the right time for me to stop the car and shoot the train heading out of town against the sunset.
Just north of Gorham on March 12, 2008, SD70ACE 1982 in its commemorative Missouri Pacific paint was northbound on a St. Louis bound stack train.
As you enter Gorham after turning off of Illinois Route 3, this sign greets you. Flowers were still in bloom below the sign on October 1, 2008, as a pair of run-through CSX units passed in the background.
Modern General Electric power with the classic wings on the nose lead an empty grain train through Gorham on December 7, 2008.
Flying the red, white and blue, another set of modern power rounds the curve off of the Mount Vernon Subdivision on June 6, 2010.
The particulars keep changing but the trains keep rolling through Gorham, as evidenced by this northbound led by an SD70M on June 6, 2010. As long as I’m shooting trains, Gorham will remain on my short list of places to frequent.


Copyright 2010, Mary Rae McPherson

All photos by Mary Rae McPherson except as noted.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Erik Coleman permalink
    June 30, 2010 2:23 pm

    Love your blog, Mary! This article brought back fond memories of many summers spent at my grandparents in Chester, Ill., and railfanning up and down the Chester Sub. I was even aboard the pictured Cotton Belt 819 excursion as well! Thanks!

  2. Jessica VanPelt permalink
    February 2, 2015 12:37 pm

    Every now and again I run across your blog archives of Gorham and always catch myself reading and rereading everything you have posted of my hometown. I still reside here and don’t even hear the trains anymore because of familiarity but I know they are there. My grandfather worked on the rails all his life and many of my neighbors also. I am very fond of the history you capture in your photos and your writing.
    Jessica Van Pelt

  3. Travis mattingly permalink
    February 8, 2016 4:33 pm

    This is the first time I read your site. It reminds me of spending countless hours at my grandparents. My Dad’s family is from Gorham. My grandpa was a teacher and basketball coach. But in his youth he worked for the railroad,with his dad who retired from the railroad. I was always so fascinated with all those trains going through town. I always wondered as a little boy where they were going. Travis Mattingly

  4. edule permalink
    January 8, 2019 8:48 am

    i razed the valmeyer rr depot in 1979 and found records from 1903.a schedule shows the name fordyce wamhere gorham is.

  5. Amanda Schneider permalink
    March 23, 2021 7:31 pm

    Thank you so much for this information. My grandfather worked at the station in Gorham. All of their children (my dad) were born there. Lots of family at Good read cemetery.
    I was just wondering, if you know, I have been told my grandfather was responsible for everything water related. Does that position have a name? Could you tell me anything about his “job”?

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