Friday, February 22, 2019

Get Your Kicks On...Route 129!

Illinois Route 129 is hardly unique among State Routes in that it is a former alignment of US Route 66, specifically the 1940 realignment, but it is an interesting both for its time as The Mother Road, and a more modern case study in deteriorating infrastructure in this country, as is used to be much more robust than its current 4-mile alignment between I-55 and IL-113 in Braidwood.

For those looking to traverse Route 66, however, you'll find many more roadside attractions on the adjacent Route 53, like the Polk-a-Dot Drive In in Braidwood, or the Gemini Giant in Wilmington.

Former bridge over railroad tracks at Braceville on IL-129 (Formerly US-66). Image: Library of Congress
But today's blog is on IL-129. It's a product of the Interstate System, as it gained its number in 1960 when US-66 was rerouted onto a new freeway slightly west of the 1940 realignment, in anticipation of what would become US-66's replacement, I-55, which is what it is today.

IL-129 shield from IL-113 in Braidwood.
The original US Route 66 more closely paralleled the Chicago & Alton Railroad, running south from Joliet on today's IL Route 53 on the east side of the tracks at Braidwood. The 1940 realignment brought the Mother Road west of the tracks, less than 200 feet from its original alignment, which was then labeled ALT-US-66.

At IL 129 & Coal City Rd, an abandoned fake piano from a 1950's advertisement for a music store based in Coal City. Image: Braidwood Historical Society.
I've always thought that was a little strange to have two different alignments of the same road so close to each other, but I suppose it was preferable than having to deal with train traffic in those days.

Looking west from present-day IL-53 and IL-113 and the railroad tracks to what was a Sinclair Gas Station owned by the Rossi family. Image: Braidwood Historical Society.

Here's the alignments on the 1940 Illinois Highway Map. Also note the existence of IL-113 N & S, now IL-113 and IL-102!
Here's a Google Map of the entirety of IL-129 which shows the current and historical alignment of the route:

The two alignments would converge about 8 miles south at Gardner, which is where IL-129 used to end. However, this is where the crumbling infrastructure of 129 comes into play. A bowstring arch bridge on IL-129 built in its US 66 days to cross over railroad tracks was closed in 1995 when the structure was deemed insufficient.

The state decided that repairs of the bridge would be too costly, especially in light of the fact that Route 53 was 200 feet away. It was offered to preservation groups, but ultimately demolished in 2001, as it was too expensive to move. It's an example of a piece of infrastructure that didn't need to be preserved. But thankfully, we do have photos and information on it.
Former IL-129 bridge over the railroad tracks. Image: Library of Congress
When the bridge closed, the 129 designation was briefly moved over to Route 53 to Gardner, but was removed just a year later, since there was little benefit to giving a second number to an already well-known road, and 129 south of the bridge only diverged into Gardner. As Illinois prefers to end state routes at other routes, IL-129 was dropped south of IL-113, leaving much of the remaining pavement as an unmarked highway, which it remains today.

IL 53/129 during their brief marriage as former US 66 alignments. Image: Richard Carlson
In spite of now being unmarked, Route 129 is still on at least one sign just outside Gardner, where the road crossed Carbon Hill Rd. 

Image: Bill Burmaster
However, the bridge over the tracks wasn't the only part of 129 closed as a result of structural deterioration. 129's interchange with I-55 is currently only a partial interchange, as it's currently only possible to get onto 129 from Northbound 55, since the southbound interchange was demolished in 2011.

Bill Burmaster's photo of the now demolished interchange when it was first closed.
The southbound to southbound movement was a flyover ramp over the northbound lanes. Not having this movement makes it impossible to traverse Route 66 using I-55 and IL-129 going from Chicago. Followers of the Mother Road would have to exit at Joliet Rd and use the pre-1940 alignment. 

The interchange is planned to be rebuilt and reopened, however the project is currently linked to the shelved Illiana Expressway project (for some reason), and thus no construction is imminent at this point. Thus, as presently constructed and signed, the route is 4 miles long, and doesn't even have a full interchange with one of its endpoints.

I liken Illinois 129 to a living fossil of infrastructure, which is why I think I find it so fascinating. The most interesting part of the Route is gone, and were it fully removed from the State Route system few would miss it, plus there are much longer unmarked sections of Route 66. It served as the Mother Road in between the original alignment and 66's conversion to a freeway, and thus doesn't have any of the interesting tourist traps of the 2 lane 66, nor the convenience of a freeway for long-distance travel.

I hope you enjoyed today's peek into part of Illinois' Route 66 history. Thanks for reading!

Friday, February 15, 2019

Poor's Manual of Railroads of the United States

Before the days of the internet, the only way to get information on the railroad industry was through documents, photographs, maps and books on the railroad industry. One of the most comprehensive books on the industry came from Henry V. Poor, of what is now Standard & Poor's, or S&P.

Poor began publishing a manual on railroads in 1868, which was geared toward investors at the time, and included information railroad companies and their capital, rolling stock, expenditures, and other financial information on any particular railroad in the United States. The Poor Manuals remained in annual publication until 1924.

A 1909 Volume I own, in relatively bad shape, but as old and large as the book is, I'll take it!
I discovered the Poor Manuals in my search for abandoned railroads, as they include a treasure trove of information on even the most obscure railroads. Many of the editions are digitized and available in eBook format for free on Google Books. Reprinted editions, as well as very old reference copies, such as mine from 1909, are available on both eBay and Amazon.

Most of the editions include over 2,000 pages of information, and not just of financial documents, but sometimes maps and descriptions of the routes as well, which is invaluable for the preservation of railroad history. In spite of the amazing and hard work by railroad museums, historic preservation groups, railroad historical societies, and just plain railfans, nonetheless, there's work to be done to preserve the history of the railroad industry on the internet. Indeed, books and non-digital photographs are a large part of our historical record, even if they are harder to access.

So with that in mind, let's take a look at this behemoth of a railroad book!

Like I said, huge.

The first few pages are your typical acknowledgements and introductions, followed a few ads for banks and railroad companies, and then comes an index of all the railroads covered in the book, which is extremely helpful, as again, this is a huge reference, and looking for info on one railroad would take forever otherwise. The index itself is over 100 pages long!

Looking at one page of the index, you can see many of these were very obscure. It also shows street and interurbans railways as well.
Following the index begins the real meat of the book. In the 1909 manual, the Bangor & Aroostook Railroad is the first railroad mentioned. It references the miles owned by the company, any lines in which it leases, a corporate history, a map of operations, a description of the rolling stock owned by the road, its miles of operation in the previous year, funding, financing, profit or loss, accrued interest on bonds, debt, capital stock, and finally directors.

Needless to say, there is a fantastic amount of information that can be gleamed from this book. My copy has several pull out maps, including one of the entire Pennsylvania Railroad system, which was nearing its peak in 1909.

New York State map. (Poor's Manual of Railroads, 1909)
One of the most interesting things about the book is that, as a corporate reference, it makes reference to many railroad proposals and startup companies, many of which never got off the ground. One particular example is the Alva, Buffalo & Colorado Railroad, who's charter was revoked in 1915 without ever building a connection between Buffalo and Rosston, OK, as was proposed. It's thus probably the best resource for unbuilt railroads, which usually do not attract much interest from railroad historians or fans.

Alva Buffalo & Colorado in 1921, out of existence from the 1921 Manual.
This list is also great for finding the predecessor railroads of larger companies, as railroads have continuously consolidated themselves over time.

The unbuilt route in black on my abandoned railroads map.

While the book is obviously a tough read and has very dry subject matter, it's not a novel, and it's not to be judged as such. It may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it has information that you're going to get in almost no other place. I'm still poring through the obsolete companies list to find more obscure railroads to add to my map!

As always, thanks for reading!

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Forgotten Industrial Railways of Plainfield

Growing up in the next town over, I can safely say that Plainfield, IL has had (and continues to have) a much more interesting railroad history than Bolingbrook. Plainfield is the home of a Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway junction (now run by CN), and once had interurban railway service via the Aurora Plainfield and Joliet Railroad.

I have discussed and photographed some history of each of these lines on my Facebook page, including the EJ&E caboose on display off of IL-126.

But today, we're going to talk about the most obscure railroads in Plainfield, the Material Services Railroad and Chicago Gravel Company, both of which helped create many of the lakes in the Plainfield area. The ice ages beginning 1.8 million years ago left many stone deposits in the land of northern Illinois. Quarrying is active even today along the DuPage and Des Plaines Rivers, and many spent quarries have been converted into Forest Preserve land. Such is the case with Lake Renwick.

Material Services Whitcomb Locomotive at Wilco Blvd near Lewis University W of Lockport  8-11-73 Photo: Don Crimmin
Both of these lines are approximated on my abandoned railroads map, however, the nature of industrial operations means that a complete trace of the railroad operations that occurred is likely impossible.

Material Services Railroad (in Red, with an Orange Spur), Chicago Gravel Company (in Yellow)
The Material Services Railroad is the longer of these two operations, and began just west of Lockport at a junction with the Elgin Joliet & Eastern, near Lewis University. This once served a quarry immediately south of the University.

1939 Aerial Photo via Industrial History.

Operations would continue heading westward all the way to Plainfield, IL, and very near the western end of Bolingbrook, leading me to question whether the line made it any farther northeast than Essington Rd and 135th St.

Overhead view of the railroad from an old alignment of Renwick Rd. Photo: Don Crimmin, 8-11-73.
According to Don Crimmin, this operation was only done in warm weather, as the only function of the line was to haul gravel from what would become Lake Plainfield and other pits. The nature of this operation often used "snap track", in which temporary rails would be created to access certain areas of the gravel pits, and then taken out once that section was depleted.

These strips are evidence of what were temporary rights-of-way to access gravel.

The same train leads empty gravel cars. Photo: Don Crimmin, 8-11-73.
Once farmland, these pits would be mined, depleted of gravel, and filled with water, becoming areas for fishing swimming, and a gun club.

MSRR Whitcomb 154 heading west toward Plainfield at Weber Rd in Romeoville. Today, this is all retail development, with a Wal-Mart on the opposite side of Weber. Photo: Don Crimmin 8-11-73.
Between the pits at Plainfield and the EJ&E junction just west of Lockport, almost none of the right-of-way is still accessible. West of I-55 is a private sportsman's club. North of 135th St, where the line ended operations is luxury homes, built on the side of the newly-created lake from the pits. East of I-55, the former right-of-way is now a utility easement, but no trace of the railroad exists anymore.

MSRR Whitcomb 153 at the Wilco Blvd crossing. Photo: Don Crimmin 8-11-73.
Beyond that, retail and housing developments make tracing nearly impossible, as does Lewis University Airport. The one exception is immediately south of Lewis, where the curving right of way is now a short trail, only accessible via the university. Thus, I have no good pictures from the right of way today.

However, there remains much evidence of railroad operations at Lake Renwick, where the Chicago Gravel Company had extensive operations.

Just like Lake Plainfield, strips of land are still evident on each side of Lake Renwick.
The railroad history of Lake Renwick is a little more complicated. The Chicago Gravel Company began excavating the site for a gravel pit early in the 20th century, when they struck an underground spring, creating the artificial Lake Renwick of today. The lake would be a summer destination and a winter harvesting ground for ice.

It was a rainy, 45 degree day, yet the lake was still frozen solid from the recent sub-zero temps.
Ice harvesting operations ended in 1924, but gravel mining operations would continue at least until the 1970's. While I don't have any photos of these operations, Don Crimmin sent some photos of the locomotive power used by Chicago Gravel Company.

Chicago Gravel Whitcomb Cab at Plainfield, just north of Renwick Rd. Image: Don Crimmin 3-8-79.

Image: Don Crimmin 3-8-79.
According to Crimmin, "The scale house with scale and pad (at Lake Renwick) have been retained as a historical artifact."

Some of the exposed railroad ties showing a former right-of-way, right off Lake Renwick's main trail.

Many railroad ties remain in the woods to this day.
Compared to Material Services' route, CGC had a much shorter operation, as it interchanged with the EJ&E right at Lake Renwick. Today, the CN line is very active through there, and walking along the path, you can quite easily hear the CN trains, even if you can't see them, which always makes me a little nervous.

This curve signals where a wye used to be, where the line branched off into another gravel mining site within the lake.
Despite being a Forest Preserve, there are a TON of railroad artifacts to be found here. 

A railroad spike and plate easily visible in the brush. I wonder if digging it up a bit would reveal rails, like at Argonne?
Much of the former right-of-way of the mainline is now a trail, or adjacent to a trail. Much of the strips are either inaccessible, or extremely difficult to access. I guess I could have walked on the ice if it were colder out.
The main path in Lake Renwick Forest Preserve is about 30 feet above the lake, thus some of the strips of land for railroad operations are quite easy to see.
Looking west onto one of the mine strips. Slightly off the beaten path, it's still quite accessible.

The active CN tracks split the Preserve into two. The west side is a bird sanctuary that is fenced in for some reason. Makes going under the bridge slightly creepy.
Immediately west of the bridge, a clearing to the Lake signifies where another wye was located.
A few deer here, otherwise it was desolate, muddy and wet on my visit here.

More evidence of the former ROW. Funny enough, with a CN train coming through about 100' east, you can still hear trains!

So yeah, the railroad is alive, even if this quarry is depleted.
These operations have  been of interest to me since I discovered their existence, in spite of the fact that operations ended in the mid-1980's, before I was born. I never knew about these before I began tracing abandoned rights-of-way on Google Maps, so this was as much a learning experience for me as I hope it was for you.

 As always, I hope you enjoyed today's blog, thanks for reading! In addition, special thanks to Don Crimmin, who provided a lot of information on these operations, and provided historical photos.