A mood piece for a rail newsletter, nights watching trains.
|Things have changed in Peoria since I spent nights watching trains there: The Santa Fe, itself merged with rival Burlington Northern, sold its ex-TP&W lines to the new TP&W. C&NW is now part of Union Pacific, Conrail is split between CSX and Norfolk Southern. The third trick switcher on the P&PU has been on-again-off-again more times that I can count. Illinois Central is now Canadian National and C&IM has changed owners--twice! Miles of track have been torn up. But at night, when the locomotives have passed the tower, it still can seem like an earlier time...
The moon is out; the Illinois River flows slowly by, lapping at the concrete piers of the Peoria & Pekin Union's lift span. The span itself is in the raised position; a tug and barge passed by about fifteen minutes ago. Across the river on the East Peoria side, the signals on the double track main burn red in the darkness, and occasionally the headlight of 604, the third trick switcher, can be seen moving about the south end of the P&PU yards. Away to the west a clock chimes twice.
It's 2 in the morning, balmy under clear skies in Peoria.
I sit below Bridge Tower, home of the P&PU dispatchers, waiting for two coal trains my scanner told me were in the area when I left work at the radio station an hour ago. They haven't shown yet because the Chicago & Illinois Midland had a little tussle with a truck on a grade crossing south of Pekin. That has delayed the train of empties it would exchange with the Burlington Northern coal train.
I could conceivably jump in my car and chase the coal trains into town, but the quiet and solitude beneath the stars here next to the river is relaxing after a hectic evening at work. That's worth more right now than tearing around the countryside looking for trains. I'm a fairly sedentary railfan anyway, kind of like a fisherman. I prefer to wait and let the trains come to me.
The scanner bursts to life: a Santa Fe (ex Toledo, Peoria & Western) eastbound from Lomax wants the block from Iowa Junction across the draw and through P&PU territory to Farmdale Junction and its own yard.
The huge, abandoned Cargill grain elevator behind the tower blocks my view of Iowa Junction and the abandoned 90/91 yards. Even so, the headlight of the lead locomotive paints strange and futuristic splashes of gold light on the rails and the walls that abut the tracks.
Now the faint metallic whine of the cables lifting the counterweights comes to my ears, and the red & green navigation lights hung on the bottom of the bridge deck begin to drop closer to the waters of the Illinois. The moonlight and the twinkling stars, along with the lights of Caterpillar across the river and the Peoria skyline, with approaching train's sun-bright beam and whining diesels create in the quiet of the night an intimacy in sounds and sights.
It takes only a couple of minutes for the lift span to get into position, then the east main signal on the far shore changes from irritable red to beckoning green. The Santa Fe units growl as they pull their train onto the bridge and over the slow-moving waters.
The headlight plays across the stream, highlighting the struts and beams of the bridge as it crosses. Just before it passes, the brightness of the headlight triggers the photo-sensitive streetlight on the side of the tower, causing it to shut down.
It's REALLY dark here now, and the pale blue illumination of the moon makes things look mysterious and romantic. This is a general freight, mostly boxcars for delivery to other roads south of Chicago. It could be 1948 and the TP&W is detouring across the river on the P&PU.
It's tough to read the markings on the cars, but I can imagine. Great Northern, Delaware, Lackawanna & Western, Atlantic Coast Line, Rock Island, Wabash, CB&Q, Katy, C&EI, IC, GM&O. Listen! Isn't that the whistle of the 0-6-0 yard switcher in 90/91 yard? Smell that coal smoke! The glistening lights and the moon and the passing train make me believe...At least until the rear of the train comes into view.
Six trailers on flat cars, and a string of double-stack containers bound for Hoosier Lift, the intermodal yard in western Indiana. She has cleared the tower now, the caboose's red marker slowly flashing in the cavern-like darkness of the lift span.
The final wisps of illusion are carried away by the streetlight clicking back on and new voices issuing from the scanner.
The C&IM has arrived at the P&PU in Pekin; the grade crossing accident obviously taken care of. The dispatcher calls the BN in Galesburg and informs them that their coal train can quit waiting and head on into Peoria. There's a surprise! I had thought BN was holding the train just outside Peoria city limits, but it's been sitting 40 miles away in Galesburg.
The action doesn't settle down for almost two hours. By the time the Burlington has dropped off its train, and the C&IM hauled away the coal, the Norfolk Southern has shown up at Farmdale Junction. When they get her put away in the yard, 604 has to haul the cut of interchange cars to the Iowa Interstate on the Peoria side of the river. Then the Illinois Central arrives from the south, followed by Conrail at Farmdale, running late because it got behind the NS and had to wait in Bloomington for the block to clear.
Finally it is quiet again. The river flows by, murmuring gently at the piers of the lift span. The moon is low in the sky and in the east the stars are fading before the burgeoning purple-orange glow of the coming day. The signals on the East Peoria side of the river glow red through the tunnel of metal that is the bridge, and from the west a clock chimes the hour. Five o'clock. Time to head for home and cool sheets in an air-conditioned bedroom.
Things are different now, changed from the rip-roaring railroad town Peoria once was even as recently as a generation ago, changed even from the days just a few years past when I spent more than one night down by the tower and the lift bridge. Peoria has changed, sometimes for the better, sometimes not; I've changed too, been married and divorced, added to my rail hobby an interest in the Middle Ages and participation in a re-enactment group, returned to strategy gaming and barbershop singing, and I've moved from a Peoria that I enjoyed.
But sometimes at night laying in bed by the Mississippi River, when a BNSF freight grinds up the bluff, I can close my eyes and see in my mind those summer nights and rails by moonlight.