One Day in May the Railroad Went Away

A former Pennsylvania Railroad cabin car bears witness to the removal of a former New York Central route. West of Terre Haute at least, the Pennsy won one. It was a different story east of there where the Central survived.

A former Pennsylvania Railroad cabin car bears witness to the removal of a former New York Central route. West of Terre Haute at least, the Pennsy won one. It was a different story east of there where the Central survived.

It was a mostly sunny spring day. My recollection is that it was late afternoon when I drove out on Illinois Route 16 west of Mattoon, Ill., to look for a Conrail rail train.

The line had been abandoned more than a year earlier, but by law Conrail had to wait at least 120 days in case someone wanted to buy it. There had been talk of that, but nothing materialized.

On this day the rails were being removed to be sent somewhere to be refurbished and, eventually, reused.

My mission was to make a few photographs to document the rail removal.

This day had been years in the making. It began when Penn Central decided it didn’t need two routes between Terre Haute and St. Louis.

PC had expected to abandon or dramatically downgrade the former New York Central route, but that didn’t happen.

Even with a mandate to rationalize the rail network that it inherited from PC, it took Conrail seven years to finish the job.

I didn’t spend much time at the site where the workers were pulling up the rails.

I didn’t have the documentary mindset that I have now. Back then, making photographs was a sometime thing.

How I wish today that I had done more to document the abandonment of a rail line that had played a significant role in my life.

It was over these rails that I made my first railroad journey in the 1950s aboard an NYC passenger train to St. Louis.

I saw these rails often as I went about my life activities while growing up and later working in Mattoon.

As a reporter for the Mattoon Journal Gazette I had written about the process that led to the ex-NYC being abandoned between Paris and Pana, Ill.

But when the rail train came through Mattoon to pick up the rail, I was at home. I made no effort to go see, let alone photograph, the rail removal operation in my hometown.

I must have figured that the photographs that I made the day before west of town were a good enough record.

Today you would hardly know there had been a railroad here. Farmers have claimed the right of way and extended their fields.

The only traces of the railroad are a few small concrete bridges left behind and linear empty space in the towns where the rails had been.

Shown are a few of the better images that I made on that 1983 day. They were scanned from the original color print film negatives.

For the most part, I consider these images to be nothing special. Most of them are not composed well.

And yet they are very special because they show something that happened once and won’t happen again. They have historical significance.

Regardless of the quality of these images, I’m very pleased that I made them.

Article and Photographs by Craig Sanders

The lead locomotive of the last train to travel over the rails of the former New York Central mainline west of my hometown of Mattoon, Ill. For the record, the direction of travel was east.

The lead locomotive of the last train to travel over the rails of the former New York Central mainline west of my hometown of Mattoon, Ill. For the record, the direction of travel was east.

After getting fixed up, these rails will be put down again elsewhere on the  Conrail system.

After getting fixed up, these rails will be put down again elsewhere on the Conrail system.

Just another day of picking up rail on just another Conrail abandonment. A lot of those occurred during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Just another day of picking up rail on just another Conrail abandonment. A lot of those occurred during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

A side portrait of No. 1921, the trailing unit in the rail train.

A side portrait of No. 1921, the trailing unit in the rail train.

It would have been appropriate had the lead locomotive been 1855, the year that these rails reached Mattoon from the east.

It would have been appropriate had the lead locomotive been 1855, the year that these rails reached Mattoon from the east.

All that was left behind was some ballast, ties and tie plates. Crews will be back later to pick that up. Today the ex-NYC right of way is part of a farm field and you might not know that a railroad once ran here that hosted the Central's finest passenger trains between New York and St. Louis.

All that was left behind was some ballast, ties and tie plates. Crews will be back later to pick that up. Today the ex-NYC right of way is part of a farm field and you might not know that a railroad once ran here that hosted the Central’s finest passenger trains between New York and St. Louis.

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