Dan Davidson’s photographs below of Norfolk Southern’s Wabash and Illinois Terminal heritage locomotives might seem like a case of strange bedfellows. The colors don’t exactly match and those who have lived in Northeast Ohio all of their lives might not see as I did that the two make a logical pairing.
That’s because in central Illinois where I grew up the IT and Wabash were onetime competitors and later partners of sorts. Seeing those two units together also brought back a 38-year-old memory that unfolded about this time of year.
You may know that the Illinois Terminal was originally an interurban railway based in St. Louis that reached as far north in Illinois as Peoria and as far east as Danville. In between it served Springfield, Bloomington, Decatur and Champaign-Urbana, among other places.
The Wabash served most of those cities, too, except for Peoria and Bloomington.
The IT lasted longer than most interurbans, offering passenger service well into the 1950s. After getting out of the passenger business, the IT continued as a freight carrier and negotiated trackage rights agreements on nearby railroads.
One of those was the former Wabash line between Springfield and Decatur.
In August 1974, I moved to Springfield to begin working toward a Master of Arts degree in political studies at Sangamon State University.
There were no direct roads between my hometown of Mattoon and Springfield. The fastest route was through the country on rural roads that were coated with tar during the summer that could be a mess to clean off your car.
So during the hot weather season, I’d drive to Decatur via Illinois Route 121 and take U.S. 36 to the capital city of Illinois.
West of Illiopolis, U.S. 36 ran between the former Wabash and what was left of the former IT tracks.
It was late afternoon as I made my way to Springfield to get settled in the week before classes began. I was in a state of heightened anxiety about moving to a new city, living in an apartment for the first time in my life and attending a new school.
I saw a distant headlight on the adjacent ex-Wabash tracks – which were then Norfolk & Western – and soon came upon an IT train going east.
I was vaguely aware that the IT was in the freight business, but did not know that it used the ex-Wabash to get to Decatur.
I would make many trips over this route during the next two years, but never again saw an IT train on the ex-Wabash between Springfield and Decatur. Indeed, I don’t recall seeing any IT trains in Springfield — or anywhere else — as I was out and about. Maybe I did, but have forgotten them.
Nearly four decades later, the IT is long gone and Interstate 72 has supplanted U.S. 36 between Decatur and Springfield. Sangamon State is now the University of Illinois-Springfield.
But the memory of that IT train lives on and seeing Dan’s photographs reminded me of that moment in time from so long ago.