Touch of the Bessemer in East Central Illinois

Ed Ribinskas has been telling the story this week on this site of a June 2014 outing during which he and I photographed trains on the former Bessmer & Lake Erie.

Today as was true at the time of that outing, the B&LE is a paper railroad, a subsidiary of Canadian National. But railroads find it advantageous for various reasons to keep alive the “identities” of companies that have long since become fallen flags.

At the time of our 2014 outing, motive power consists wearing B&LE colors and markings were in their twilight years, soon to be replaced by other CN motive power.

Little did we know that day that the new power coming to the former B&LE would be SD70s built for the Illinois Central and still wearing the IC “death star” livery.

Let’s zoom ahead six years. Not only are the all Bessemer locomotive consists a thing of the past on the ex-B&LE line but so for the most part are those of IC SD70s.

Interestingly, many of those IC units have gone back to where they began life, working on the former Mainline of Mid America between Chicago and New Orleans.

It was on the former IC that I found last Sunday in Onarga, Illinois, a vestige of the B&LE in the form of hopper cars with B&LE reporting marks. They were in the consist of a southbound train on the Chicago Subdivision.

It is as though it was destined that in my railroad photography travels the B&LE and IC would become intertwined.

I’ve yet to see a former Bessemer locomotive on the former IC still in Bessmer colors and markings. I don’t know how many ex-Bessmer units are left on the CN roster let alone are still painted in their original orange livery.

I found it uncanny how much Ed remembered from our 2014 outing. Most of the memories he cited I’d long since forgotten.

I remember getting the Lake Shore Limited and the eastbound CSX stack train with the BNSF motive power. I also remembered that we were in Lake City, Pennsylvania, when we caught those trains.

I keep my digital images in separate filing systems on separate hard drives. One system organizes photographs by subject matter and the other is organized by date.

Looking at the images for June 18, 2014, jogged my memory. We did, as Ed said, catch a CSX and NS train in Conneaut, but about the time the CSX train came it started raining.

My folder shows we caught three CSX trains in Lake City before Amtrak showed up. After it passed we checked out the Bessemer branch from Albion to Wallace Junction near Girard, Pennsylvania. The rails didn’t show much sign of use.

We then made our way back to Conneaut, but my folder doesn’t show any images made of a train there. As I read Ed’s story I couldn’t figure out where the southbound and northbound trains passed if it wasn’t just south of KO Road.

As a point of information, the control point at KO Road that some railfans continue to describe as KO is now known by CN as Sandy. There are two main tracks between Sandy (milepost 91.5) and Karen (milepost 93.6)

The tracks come together north of KO Road and then the Greenville Subdvision diverges a short distance south of the grade crossing of KO Road.

It was not uncommon for meets to occur just south of KO Road where the Greenville Subdivision diverges from the Bessemer Sub. Marty Surdyk and I caught a meet there back in April 2007.

In looking at a CN timetable for the Bessemer Subdivision it seems the northbound could have met the southbound at Karen and we failed to see it, or they met at MD, a siding of 9,640 feet between mileposts 104.8 and 102.6 between Hartstown and Conneautville.

That is located in an area in which it can be challenging to chase a train. You can go back there and get an image but chances are you won’t see that train again.

In looking at my master photograph folder from that day, I found that we did see the northbound at KO Road. The head end must have been past us already when we arrived, but I have a few images of the rear of the train going through the signal bridge. The meet likely occurred at Karen.

The former B&LE is a nice piece of railroad that I enjoyed documenting over the years. Like so many other rail lines it took many trips there to learn the territory and I haven’t covered all of it or learned all of it.

You have to be patient, persistent and, as Ed’s story suggests, get a little lucky.

I’m told that the operating pattern of the Bessemer Sub has changed in the past year. Trains now arrive in Conneaut in the afternoon and may not depart until after dark.

That might mean having to go south to find a northbound train and chasing it to Conneaut rather than waiting in Conneaut for something to go south as I did most of the time.

But if you can make it work, the rewards can be immense.

Article and Photograph by Craig Sanders

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