After school let out for the following summer, I would grab my camera and head for Rondout, Ill. For a dime I could ride the North Shore Line’s Mundelein Branch local from Libertyville, where I lived, east to Rondout. Often I would be the only passenger, and they would stop just to let me off.
In Rondout I was in railroad Mecca. The Milwaukee Road main line from Chicago to Milwaukee, and beyond, ran through there, crossing and interchanging with the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern. Even then, the “J” was freight-only. Its only passenger train was an annual employee picnic train. Most of the J’s trains were powered by 2-8-2 Mikados.
The Milwaukee Road had everything. There was often a 2-8-0 Consolidation sitting out by the coaling tower, waiting for interchange work, and cars to set out on the rip track for the car knockers to work on. A single-track branch line left the main at Rondout and headed northwest through Libertyville to Fox Lake for the local commuter trains. Several name trains ran beyond: the Varsity to Madison, Wis., the Marquette to Mason City, Iowa, and the Sioux all the way to Rapid City, S.Dak., in the Black Hills. The name trains usually sported a Hudson, while the locals were short trains hauled by Ten-Wheelers or Atlantics. But the big thrill was when one of the Hiawathas came blasting through at perhaps 100 mph with a shrouded F7-class Hudson in the lead. I would snap them with my Brownie Special with ballast and dirt flying around me. Exciting!
The electrified North Shore Line ran parallel to Highway 176 but up on an embankment with bridges over both the Milwaukee and EJ&E. The interurban had a weigh-scale house and an interchange track that came down and connected with the two steam roads. On the North Shore, I’d see everything from freight trains to one-car locals to six-car Chicago expresses.
This was heady stuff for a young high-school student. Between trains I would talk with old Nick Mazar, the Milwaukee Road gateman for the Route 176 crossing. He was straight from the old country and drove an automobile called a Star. Whenever a Milwaukee train came through, he would mechanically lower the crossing gates and descend from his watchman’s shanty and stand in the road with a stop sign.
Those long summer days of steam-era train-watching are gone forever. But I still treasure them as my “Rondout Memories.”
First published in Fall 2003 Classic Trains magazine.