Brief Encounter With The Age of Steam

By Craig Sanders
Although I was born in the early 1950s when there were many steam locomotives still in active service, I have no recollections of ever having seen one in service. By the time I was old enough to become aware of the world around me and to remember what I was seeing, steam engines had given way to diesels in my hometown of Mattoon, Illinois. My only memory of the waning days of steam locomotives dates to the very early 1960s and it didn’t even involve a working steam locomotive.

In those days my grandparents would drive up from St. Louis about every other month, always arriving on Saturday afternoon and leaving 24 hours later. My sister, grandfather and I had a Sunday morning ritual of “going to the trains.” As long as I can remember I have been fascinated by trains. My grandfather knew this and he would take my sister and I for a walk to the tracks of an Illinois Central Railroad branch line to Peoria and the New York Central mainline to St. Louis.

We would set out about 10 a.m. and walk four blocks along 30th street until it ended at the IC tracks. We would cross the tracks and enter the abandoned shops area of the former Peoria, Decatur & Evansville. The NYC mainline and of its freight tracks bordered this area to the north. So it provided a good vantage point to see trains on both railroads. Usually, we would hang around long enough to see one of the NYC’s two passenger trains that were due through Mattoon in late morning.

In the late 19th century, Mattoon had lured the PD&E headquarters and shops, in part because the city was at the halfway point of the financially strapped railroad. A shops building that had serviced steam locomotives still stood, but had been vacant and abandoned for many years.

There were still several tracks leading into the shops, but it was clear from the rust on the rails and weeds between the ties that they were no longer used. About the only track that was still used on this property was an interchange track between the IC and NYC.

Just to the east of the abandoned shops building was a roundhouse that IC still used to maintain diesel locomotives. The three of us would walk over to the roundhouse and sometimes we’d see a diesel riding the turntable.

In those days no one said anything about you being on railroad property. We never attempted to go onto the turntable or into the roundhouse. We watched from a respectful and safe distance. The railroaders mostly ignored us if they noticed us at all.

On one of these outings, we were surprised to discover a steam locomotive sitting on a yard track just to the west of the roundhouse. It was a small engine, probably a switcher. I knew nothing then about wheel arrangements or roster numbers of anything like that. It was pointed west.

We climbed up into the cab to take a look around. Our visit was a little shorter than I had wanted it to be because some wasps had congregated in there and they were none too happy to have visitors.

My memories of this locomotive are sketchy. I was about 8, maybe 9 years old. I had no doubt seen pictures of steam locomotives, so I didn’t consider it unusual to see one. Still, even then, it was a novelty. All the trains I had seen were pulled by diesels, not steam engines.

We walked around the steamer to look it over, but I don’t remember much about what we saw. For some reason what stands out most in my mind were the rolled up side curtains that the crew would have pulled shut in inclement weather. They were beaten and worn, probably not unlike the locomotive itself.

It’s still a mystery as to why this steam locomotive was sitting there. The former PD&E division of the IC was among the earliest to receive diesel locomotives, a good decade earlier. The IC in this area was all diesel by the mid 1950s. Steam’s last stand on the IC was in 1960 in Kentucky.

My guess is that the steamer was en route to being scrapped or maybe it was going to a museum or city park. Perhaps this locomotive had been stored someplace on the IC in Illinois and the company had finally decided to dispose of it. Whatever the reason why it was there, one thing is clear. The railroad no longer needed or wanted it.

A quick look at the book Illinois Central Steam Finale by Lloyd E. Stagner and Stephen A. Lee, provides some hint as to why that locomotive may have been in Mattoon on that day. On March 1, 1960, there were two steam locomtives still assigned to the Illinois Division, an 0-8-0 and a 2-8-0.

The authors write that the last 43 steam locomotives on the IC were retired in 1961, although some were not scrapped until 1962. Most were scrapped at Paducah.

It has been nearly 50 years since that day. The IC roundhouse was abandoned and torn down when I was in the fourth grade. The PD&E shops were demolished a few years later. The area that hosted the PD&E shops and roundhouse remains largely undeveloped to this day, a large open area that stands as a monument of sorts to a bygone era when Mattoon was a railroad town. Even the Illinois Central is gone, swallowed by Canadian National.

I’ve seen operating steam locomotives many times in the intervening years. But those were on steam-powered excursions, on tourist railroads or on static display in a museum. They are nice to see, but they largely exist for entertainment purposes.

As I read the articles in the Spring 2010 issue of Classic Trains about how it has been half a century since steam died on mainline railroads in the United States, I thought back to seeing that IC steamer and realized that that was closest that I can remember coming to experiencing the age of steam.

No, that locomotive wasn’t in steam, but it just had a feel to it that no steam locomotive in a museum, on a tourist railroad on in mainline excursion service can have. It is the difference between seeing a statue of a war hero and having met or seen one in the flesh. There was an authenticity to that moment that I can’t have in a museum. Knowing this today makes me treasure that fleeting moment all the more.

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