Trails and Rails on the Southwest Chief #1

– Even though it’s April now and it feels more like December… remember when it was December and it felt more like April? Anyway, my wife Kandace and I took advantage of the nice warm weather we had four months ago and hit the road for four weekends in a row to research the route of the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, MO. This task was needed because there really aren’t that many good very detailed route guides out there about that portion of the route. The closest is a book written by Dr. Eva Hoffman that is for sale at the Silver Rails Gallery in La Plata, however we were looking for something EVEN MORE detailed to share with our future Trails & Rails docents. The only way to get the information we needed was to roll up our sleeves and drive the dirt roads that parallel portions of the tracks… hey, that’s quite a feat for this “city boy” who grew up in Chicago and lives in Milwaukee now. Anyway, our first weekend meant driving the route from Chicago to Naperville. It’s only 28 miles, but there is A LOT of things to document along the way through the city and burbs. We made stops on the west side of Chicago including at the Hull House, Cicero (Al Capone’s stomping grounds), and many places like Riverside, Hinsdale, and Downers Grove. We even found a Pepperidge Farm factory along the tracks — we’re going to write them and see if they will donate some goodies to give out on the train to people! The second weekend we drove from Naperville to Buda, IL. We were able to make a little better time in our research since we were out of the busy city. We spent some quality time learning the history of Aurora. The most interesting thing about the town was it was actually TWO cities divided by the Fox River until the 1850′s. When they merged, the town folks couldn’t agree on what side of the river the new city hall should be built on. The compromise was to build it on an island in the middle of the river. Its fun stories like that we are going to enjoy sharing with passengers when the program begins on the train. We also discovered a Del Monte plant and its connection with Mendota and heard all about the Cherry Hill Mine Disaster in Arlington, IL that killed 250+ workers. You can actually SEE the remnants of the old coal mine from the train as it rolls along!! I mean I have taken the train a lot out to Galesburg and La Plata, but was missing all of the history until now. I can’t wait to share this with passengers. Anyway, the third weekend featured research from Buda to Fort Madison. The highlight was stopping along the Hennepin Canal, which the train crosses near Buda. We walked the old towpath to get some pictures for our reference manual and saw more than 30 American Bald Eagle. I guess they are only there in the winter time — so no eagle spotting this summer — but we got some great photos to share during Trails & Rails. We hit a freak snow storm that blew in just east of Galesburg… but after a “time out” for lunch and to let the plows do their magic… we were back on the road researching to the IL-IA border. The fourth and final weekend of driving/research ended up being the most challenging and tiring. Since it was quite the drive between where we live in the south burbs of Milwaukee and Fort Madison, Kandace and I hit the road around 3:30AM. She was the lucky one who got to sleep all the way to about Galesburg and I was the unlucky one who got to drive through pounding rain! It was all good though. We enjoyed traveling through the rolling hills and small towns of Northeast Missouri on our way to La Plata. Our favorite sites along the way included stopping off at the Battle of Athens State Historic Site along the Des Moines River; it is just 5 miles north of where the Southwest Chief travels. Athens is now a ghost town and state park. While the battle here was small compared to Gettysburg or Manassas… it was historically significant because it was the furthest north Civil War battlefield west of the Mississippi River. We also passed through Baring, MO and spoke with some locals who showed us an old Santa Fe Hotel still standing (but boarded up) that you could see from the train. We ended the day rolling into La Plata around dinner time and joined my Trails & Rails Co-Coordinator Bob Cox and his wife Amy Cox for dinner at a great Mexican restaurant in Macon (this was before the good Mexican place in La Plata opened up!) We had a great time learning more about the route and deciding how we are going to convey all we learned to passengers this summer.   This article was written by Robert Tabern. Robert is the Chicago Coordinator for this Trails and Rails Group.

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