Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Area 51's Railroad

With how much Area 51 has been in the news recently, I figured it would be a good time to talk about one of the facility's more interesting (to me) pieces of infrastructure, at least that the US Government acknowledges exists, its railroad.

An L.A Times article from 2014 notes the railroad as well. It states, "[Thornton "T.D"] Barnes worked on a nuclear-rocket program called Project NERVA, inside underground chambers at Jackass Flats, in Area 51’s backyard. “Three test-cell facilities were connected by railroad, but everything else was underground." This implies that this is the extent of visible railroad operations at the facility, but more might exist underground for testing purposes.

First, let's talk about what we know. In the middle of the Nevada desert, or the "Nevada Test Site" on topo maps, exists a small railroad operation less than 7 miles in combined length. It is west of Groom Lake, otherwise known as Area 51, in an area known as Jackass Flats, or Area 25.

You can see the railroad's west end at approximately 36.832704, -116.311753 on Google Satellite Imagery. I've mapped this operation below;



This line is first acknowledged on topo maps in 1983, but it's unknown if it existed earlier, since the area became a top-secret facility sometime in the early 1950's. Were it located anywhere else, there probably wouldn't be much else to say about the operation, but this is Area 51, and the speculation can literally drive people mad with theories.

Honestly, it only appears as though the line was used to haul materials between the three different sites. It isn't connected to the rest of the rail network in any way that can be inferred by imagery. This isn't a secret transcontinental railroad, as has been suggested by some.

The entirety of the line is acknowledged in the 1986 Beatty Topo Map.
From imagery, there are a few interesting nuggets that can be found, however. At least part of the railroad still appears to be in operation, as rolling stock can be seen.

Two cars and a small engine appear at the south facility.
Many more cars can be seen on small branches emanating from a spur just north of here:

Pictured: The train from Super 8, probably.
A little sleuthing on behalf of my readers unearthed the fact that this line was unofficially known as the "Jackass & Western Railroad", and is out of service despite the existence of what appears to be rolling stock still along the line.

NOTE: I cannot stress enough how bad of an idea it is to trespass at Area 51, or any US Government facility, so please do not raid the area for any reason whatsoever. All of the information in this blog was derived from satellite imagery or government sources.

Thanks as always for reading!

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Inside the Big House: The Old Joliet Prison (1858-2002)

Today I visited the Old Joliet Prison, a now-abandoned and famous prison off Illinois Route 171 in Joliet, IL.

The East entrance to the prison, the same one where Joliet Jake left prison in The Blues Brothers
The Old Joliet Prison is among the most iconic buildings within the City of Joliet. In addition, the city and facility have nearly identical timelines, as the city was incorporated in 1852, while the prison was constructed from 1857-1861, with the first prisoners arriving in 1858.

The Prison as shown on the USGS 1923 topo map. Note the existence of railroad tracks which went through the center of the facility.
It is close in proximity to the old Joliet Iron Works, although on the opposite side of the former Chicago & Alton Railroad tracks. It was likely constructed at its precise location due to its proximity to those tracks, as its first batch of prisoners came from what was the only other penitentiary at the time, Alton Penitentiary, about 300 miles south from here. It was also near limestone quarries which are now full today, providing work for the prisoners to do, and materials for the buildings.

A sign on the inside of the prison showing the quarrying and railroad activity going on.
The prison is iconic within the Chicago area for being a backdrop to numerous movies and TV shows dealing with prison life. As stated earlier, the opening scene of The Blues Brothers was filmed here, as was much of the first season of Prison Break. More recently, an episode of Empire was also filmed here.

Entrance to what was the Warden's quarters, located on the second floor. Offices were on the first floor in this building.
Nearby Stateville eventually replaced the need for the prison, but not for almost 80 years of the two existing simultaneously. It closed down for good in 2002 after nearly 150 years, but outside of filming movies, it was left vacant for nearly 15 years afterwards, attracting vandals, squatters and urban explorers.

It's amazing what just 15 years of neglect looks like. Here is a stairwell in the hospital building. 
Recently, the prison was opened up for tours, but has also had parts of it used for haunted houses in the interim between its use as a prison, and its current use as a tourist attraction.

Inside the East gate. Many buildings were fenced off, either from Arson or neglect, they were unsafe.
The tour began inside the East gate of the prison, where on the left were the cafeteria and commissary areas, and on the right, a mattress factory.

Some buildings look more like warzones.
The prison could be considered a small city in how it was set up. Early in its life, a common mantra was self sufficiency, as the limestone was constructed from nearby quarries, and some prisoners were taught trades, which proved useful in their re-entry into society.
A guard tower.


Part of what was guard offices.
Lots of graffiti. Joliet Historical Society officials are trying to determine how much, if any, of the vandalism should be preserved in the history of this place.

During the tour, most buildings were inaccessible, for obvious reasons. Lots of metal and debris everywhere.

The Central guard tower. It was only accessible via a tunnel system, which often flooded.
The first building we got to see the inside of was the segregation area, or the prison within the prison. Interestingly, this was quite the reprieve from the July sun, it was quite cool inside! I doubt the prisoners interned there had the same positive thoughts about it, however.

Historical image of the inside. Image: Joliet Area Historical Museum.

Ironically, the toilets were some of the cleanest parts of the interior.

These cells made me the slightest bit claustrophobic.  
The tour guide told a story of how two girls on an earlier tour got themselves locked within here, requiring the Fire Department to come rescue them. Apparently, very few keys exist.



This looks like something out of Silent Hill. It should be noted that my flash is on here, the real cell is much darker.

This would make one hell of a haunted house.

Different wardens employed "punishment" or "reform" tactics to the prisoners. This message was painted during one of the reformists' tenures.

Looking up to the second floor. I wonder how many prisoners dreamed of escaping through here.
The electric chair, when the prison was used in executions, was located nearby. However, it was transferred to Stateville sometime in the 1950's, and hasn't been used in decades. Illinois used the lethal injection until 1999, and finally abolished the death penalty for good in 2011.

The next place we visited was easily the scariest, the hospital building. Much of the equipment, including an X-Ray machine and the psych ward, was still on site.


Patient treatment center.

What appeared to be a doctors office.

Another image with my flash off. It was really dark in here.

I have no idea what this is supposed to be.

X Ray machine. Looks like a zombie or nurse could pop out of the shadows at any minute! 
You can tell this was one of the more modern buildings on the campus, at least in the interior.



This was an elevator door. With no power in the building, it would only work if supernatural forces acted upon it. I'll take the stairs.

The rest of the tour consisted of more of the prison's history, including some of the most famous inmates, and a walkthrough of the rest of the buildings on the campus.

Large smokestack in the center of the facility. The grounds were pretty large. It hardly felt like a prison.

This was the exercise facility for those in solitary confinement. Obviously, it was much smaller.

Many scenes in Prison Break were filmed in this gate.

The education center. In the earliest days, prisoners would become literate here. Later, prisoners could earn their G.E.D and, for a short time, even Bachelor's Degrees through Lewis University.

The chapel. Any religion could be practiced here except Voodoo. Originally supposed to be part of the tour, the roof caved in during a storm last fall.

I was able to peek inside. I was amazed by the amount of light that comes in through here.

More exercise courts.

Very few stairwells were accessible.

Looking east toward the exit. Railroad lines used to run inside here, but I wonder if they just transported materials, or if prisoners came via railroad as well.

The west, and more commonly used, exit. 

Another condemned building. I wonder how much loot is in here.

This building looked pretty stable, but other than a peek inside, there wasn't much to see.

View of the outside of the prison.
The Old Joliet Prison is about as unique of a tourist attraction as you can find, and it is full to the brim of history, most of which is more depressing than what the average tourist spot is, but it's nonetheless a tale that needs to be told. Certain things about the conditions, and some of the crimes committed within the prison are noted on the tour, but omitted in this blog.

If you'd rather watch my photos, I made a video collage below.



Thanks as always for reading!



Saturday, June 29, 2019

Railroad University: Abandoned Spur Lines Near Colleges

Spur tracks serving industrial outfits used to be much more numerous than they are now, before competition from the trucking industry made many of them unprofitable.

Many colleges and universities in the early 20th century were directly or indirectly served by railroad spurs, some built specifically for the college, others built to serve nearby industries.

Notre Dame & Western Railroad #5352, serving Notre Dame University. Image: Dick Leonhardt
With that in mind, today's blog will be on these railroads and spurs that served universities.

#1.) & #2.) Notre Dame & Western Railroad and St. Mary's Railroad - South Bend, IN
I was notified of these sister lines by Tom Burke, who noticed their earlier omission on my abandoned railroads map.

Image: Notre Dame University Archives
What makes these lines unique is that they actually were separate entities in the railroad world, the Notre Dame & Western Railroad began service in 1902, splitting off from the Michigan Central tracks west of the campus, and continuing east past St. Joseph's Lake into the central heating system of the campus.

On the map in red: The ND&W Railroad spurred off from the Michigan Central east to the campus, while St. Mary's Railroad headed west.
The line's primary operation was to haul coal to the campus, but also transported other materials in addition to people, including those attending ND Football games. The ND&W actually lasted much longer than many other railroad spurs on this list, although excursion trains stopped much earlier. The Michigan Central's successors, New York Central, Penn Central & Conrail all transported coal via the branch, but service ended before Norfolk Southern took over Conrail in 1999.

Efforts to re-open the line lasted as late as 2006, however it was officially abandoned with the tracks removed by 2012.

St. Mary's Railroad had a similar story throughout its life. Given that St. Mary's is a much smaller campus than Notre Dame, it also stands to reason that its railroad was much smaller, less than a half mile in length. Nonetheless, it ran until at least 1990.

St. Mary's Railroad Locomotive. Image: Dennis Schmidt
#3.) Massachusetts Institute of Technology - Cambridge, MA

MIT still has a railroad line running close to its campus, but in earlier times, the campus was also served by a tiny railroad spur serving coal to its HVAC system. In addition, this line connected with numerous spurs to the factories which were once located north of its campus.

A c.1930 map showing the factories north of MIT in Cambridge. Image via Boston Streetcars.
There are a few examples of scarchitecture from the past tracks that are visible today.

The MIT Police Building has an obvious example of scarchitecture from the line was spurred off from the still-existing tracks here.
Despite just one track running over the Charles River, the bridge has two spans, a visible reminder of its past.
#4.) Ohio State University Railroad - Columbus, OH

Map of the line, spurring from what was C&O trackage (now CSX) west of OH-315 to the OSU campus.
You might be beginning to see a common theme with regard to why these university spurs were built, as indeed Ohio State's Railroad spur was also used to haul coal to its heating system. Unlike Notre Dame's, however, it did not get its spur named as a different railroad, it was simply Chesapeake & Ohio's Ohio State branch, beginning service in 1909.

Image: The Lantern (Ohio State's Newspaper) via Rare-Mileage
The line at its peak was roughly 2.5 miles long, and in addition to coal, also hauled materials for the university's expansion, and indeed took passengers to and from OSU Football games from time to time. Despite not being named, OSU did own a couple of their own pieces of equipment for the line, including the diesel crane shown above.

Perhaps the most famous run along the line was 1948's,  “Freedom Train”, which stopped and visited the university, carrying with it original copies of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. (Rare-Mileage)

With the construction of OH-315 in 1970, along with coal being hauled by truck, the line was abandoned.

#5.) Penn State University - State College, PA

Penn State University's railroad connection via the Bellefonte Central Railroad was actually at once proposed to be much longer than the line which did come to fruition. While only about a mile was built, it was proposed to be part of a longer line between Fairmont, PA and Lemont, PA, slightly over 10 miles long. This was to be part of the Lewisburg & Tyrone Railroad, a Pennsylvania Railroad subsidiary.

A Bellefonte Central Car. Image: onwardstate.com
The Bellefonte Central Railroad served many mining interests near State College, with a line running between Bellefonte and Pine Grove Mills, which had a spur directly serving State College and Penn State, ironically running across from PSU's Department of Geography.

Coal was the dominant commodity for the line, and its largest customer was the university. The fact that it also was a major source of passenger traffic helped keep the line running until 1974. 

Image: Onward State
The spur ended at Fraser St & College Ave near today's College of Engineering Building. 

#6.) Illinois State University - Normal, IL

My fiance's alma-mater had its own coal spur as well, from the original Chicago & Alton Railroad Tracks, which later became the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad, now today owned by Union Pacific.


ISU and Normal, IL on the 1926 USGS Normal Topo Map.
The line ran on what is today School St up to Mulberry St from the mainline. This was abandoned sometime in the 1950's according to Topo Maps.

Just east of the campus ran a much more substantial Illinois Central line, abandoned between Clinton & Oglesby, IL. Today, this is known as the Constitution Trail.

The Constitution Trail at Bloomington, IL (Image: BN Realty)
#7.) Northern Arizona University - Flagstaff, AZ

My own alma mater also had a rail line running adjacent to it, however this line did not serve the college, but was rather one of the last logging railroads in the State of Arizona.

One of two abandoned logging railroads starting from Flagstaff. The other, the Arizona Mineral Belt Railway, was abandoned in 1904.
The Saginaw & Manistee and the Arizona Lumber & Timber Company had a railroad line running from the AT&SF Railway at Flagstaff, extending south approximately 36 miles to Allan Lake Landing. It actually followed a roughly similar path of the Arizona Mineral Belt Railway which came decades before it. This line lasted until 1966, but as a logging road, it only served the interests of the company which built it, and did not have any spurs of its own (other than for logging purposes)

#8.) University of California, Berkeley - Berkeley, CA

The Berkeley Branch of the Central Pacific, later Southern Pacific Railroad is still in service, as a BART Line servicing downtown Berkeley, CA, however now its trackage lies below street level. It opened for service in 1876.

Berkeley, CA Southern Pacific Station. Image: Postcard via eBay
From what is now known today as Emeryville, CA, the line ran to Downtown Berkeley, up Adeline St and Shattuck Av up to Vine St, serving both passenger and freight trains. Today's BART line ends operations on Shattuck a few blocks south, turning west at Hurst Av. 

Image: USGS San Francisco Topo Map, 1899

While the University of California campus wasn't directly served by the line, it was located only a block west of the campus' west end, and the existence of the university was an impetus in the line getting built in the first place.


The relationship between Higher Education and the Railroad Industry certainly goes beyond these lines which indirectly or directly served universities, thus if there's any other historic branch lines that served universities, let me know in the comments. Thanks as always for reading!