Train Time at Mattoon, End of an Era for Me

Amtrak Train 390, the northbound Saluki, arrives at the former Illinois Central station in Mattoon, Ill., on March 10, 2014.

Amtrak Train 390, the northbound Saluki, arrives at the former Illinois Central station in Mattoon, Ill., on March 10, 2014.

I don’t remember when my first visit to the Illinois Central passenger station in Mattoon, Ill., occurred. It probably was the Sunday morning when my mother dropped my dad off at the station to catch the City of New Orleans to Carbondale, Ill., where he attended a one-day seminar.

I remember standing on the platform when the colorful streamliner came to a halt. My dad got a seat at a window facing the station and I waved at him as the train departed. I was probably 8 years old then, maybe slightly younger.

I was 13 when I boarded my first IC train at this station in May 1966 for a day trip aboard the Seminole to the Museum of Science and Industry. I would ride the IC to and from this station 10 times between 1966 and 1968.

My next trip from this station occurred in November 1972 and was my first trip aboard Amtrak. It was a day trip on the Panama Limited to Chicago to visit the Museum of Science and Industry.

Over the next decade, I boarded or disembarked from numerous Amtrak trains here. I really should someday count how many trips that was.

In August 1983, I moved away from Mattoon. Although I would get back there on occasion to visit my dad and stepmother, seldom did I take the train. I drove.

Another decade later that changed. I had moved to Cleveland and in April 1994 began a ritual that would play out over the next 20 years.

At the conclusion of the spring semester, I would take Amtrak from Cleveland to Chicago and connect to the Illini to reach Mattoon. Almost always these trips occurred in mid May or early June. In some years, I’d make another trip by train to Mattoon, usually in August.

I always looked forward to those trips. During the Chicago layovers I’d railfan on one of the busy freight lines served by Metra – the BNSF raceway being my favorite – or conduct research at the Chicago Public Library.

Much can change in 20 years. The Burlington Northern became Burlington Northern Santa Fe and then just BNSF. The Chicago & North Western merged into Union Pacific. The Soo Line became part of Canadian Pacific. And the Illinois Central was swallowed up by Canadian National.

Back in 1994, Amtrak’s Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited still had Heritage Fleet coaches and dome cars pulled by F40PH locomotives.

Aside from dining cars serving the Lake Shore, and baggage cars on both trains, the Heritage Fleet equipment is gone. F40s have given way to P42s.

Interestingly, the equipment on the Illini remains Horizon coaches just as it was when I began the ritual of taking Amtrak to visit my dad. However, the exterior livery and seat upholstery have changed.

Some changes had a tremendous upside. In October 2006, Amtrak introduced the Saluki, a state-funded Chicago-Carbondale service.

Scheduled to leave Mattoon at 9:31 a.m. for Chicago, it had a far more convenient schedule for me than the previous 5:23 a.m. scheduled departure of the City of New Orleans. Sure the City afforded me more layover time in Chicago and I liked having breakfast in the diner. But, man, it was early when I had to get up to go catch it.

I made countless memories during my trips to and from Mattoon over the past 20 years. I met a lot of interesting people in the dining car of the City. During one of those trips I had the best French toast that I’ve ever eaten.

I  knew that someday this ritual, like all of our life rituals, would end. I just always hoped it wouldn’t be soon.

The winds of change began blowing harder in February 2013 when my stepmother died. My dad was 87 and becoming frail. He had never had to live by himself. He got by all right for a year but my sister convinced him to move to Arizona to live with her.

Last March, I got in one more trip on Amtrak that I knew would be my last trip by train to see my dad in Mattoon.

It was a bittersweet experience that I made sure to document. As usual, there was quite a crowd waiting to board No. 390 in Mattoon on the morning that I departed.

The IC opened this station on Jan. 21, 1918. Thousands of trains and passengers have passed through its doors since then. Presidential candidates have given speeches. In April 1970, Steve Goodman got off here, having just completed the journey that would provide the impetus for him to finish a song about the train they call the City of New Orleans.

Many of the passengers on this March day were younger and probably students are nearby Eastern Illinois University in Charleston. More than likely, they have no memories and little knowledge of the Illinois Central Railroad. They’ve probably never seen photographs of the orange and chocolate brown trains that the IC once ran here that zipped along at speeds up to 100 mph between Mattoon and Champaign.

For most, if not all, of those passengers, it was just another trip. For me, it was the end of an era.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

The waiting room of the former IC station looks much as it did in IC days. However, back then all of the benches were perpendicular to the ticket office at left.

The waiting room of the station looks much as it did in IC days. However, back then all of the benches were perpendicular to the ticket office at left.

My dad is the man in the middle of the bench wearing gloves and carrying a cain.

My dad is the man in the middle of the bench wearing gloves and holding a cane.

The City of Mattoon purchased the IC station a few years ago and the local historical society worked with a preservation group to renovate it and restore it to its early 20th century appearance. The historical society now has offices in this depot and plans to open a museum.

The City of Mattoon purchased the IC station a few years ago and the local historical society worked with a preservation group to renovate it and restore it to its early 20th century appearance. The historical society now has offices in this depot and plans to open a museum.

Gathering on the platform to await the arrival of the train. If you attended Eastern Illinois University in nearby Charleston and rode Amtrak to and from school, you would have stood on this platform.

Gathering on the platform to await the arrival of the train. If you attended Eastern Illinois University in nearby Charleston and rode Amtrak to and from school, you would have stood on this platform.

The northbound Saluki approaches the Mattoon station. It would depart five minutes late, but arrive at Chicago Union Station 22 minutes early on this day.

The northbound Saluki approaches the Mattoon station. It would depart five minutes late, but arrive at Chicago Union Station 22 minutes early on this day.

Aboard the Saluki later that morning. This train always seems to be full or nearly full whenever I've ridden it.

Aboard the Saluki later that morning. This train always seems to be full or nearly full whenever I’ve ridden it.

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