- Historic Sites
A National Monument To The Great Depression
You probably haven’t seen it, but it’s out by the tracks of the Chicago & North Western
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
Besides the images recorded on film, there are other images of the life by the coal chute that are engraved just as indelibly, in my memory. The American Steel and Wire Company had had a large mill in DeKalb. This was closed in the late thirties, and some of the longtime employees were offered jobs in the company’s other mills in Joliet or Waukegan. Fathers of nearby families took these jobs, but they got only two or three days of work each week. Naturally, with their away-from-home expenses, this was not sufficient to fund the families at home adequately. A regular duty of children from these families on returning home from school each evening was to take a sack and trudge around the coal-chute, hoping for stray pieces of coal to use for cooking and heating. I can still see a small blonde-headed girl crossing our yard each night on her way to the coal chute, pulling a dilapidated wagon containing a pail and basket. This regardless of weather.
While the freight trains were uncoupling near the coal chute, many transients got off and walked around DeKalb, seeking employment. Finding none, they would return, planning to catch the next train to another town. When eastbound trains failed to stop at the chute, they would attempt to board the train on the move. Numerous casualties occurred.
One afternoon an eighteen-year-old farmboy from Iowa was the victim. His severed feet lay between the rails, and my mother knelt beside him as he gave her his widowed mother’s address and begged her to reach her. The city ambulance came and bore him away. In those days the hospital would not start treatment until someone assumed responsibility for payment. The boy’s mother had no phone and lived far from town. Later it fell to my mother to write the Iowa mother and tell her how her son had died—and to receive her pathetic reply.
But I have less bitter memories involving the coal chute. When the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor, I enlisted at the Rockford post office and left for basic training in California. By train we recrossed the country on a southern route to our combat outfit in North Carolina. From there we came home on furlough, under the coal chute, past our home to the DeKalb station.
When we left North Carolina for the war in the Pacific, we again crossed the country to the West Coast, and our train stopped at the coal chute, by the house where I had lived. By now my parents had moved and a family named Quarnstrom lived in the house. Their three small children, one boy and two girls, carrying very large accordions, made a mad dash up the railroad embankment to play music alongside the troop trains. Before the war ended, they became an institution, successfully evading red tape and railroad regulations.
Since, legally speaking, anyone not employed by the railroad was a trespasser when setting foot on railroad property, the children were warned by the coal chute operators when railroad detectives were in the vicinity. On those days their parents allowed them to go swimming in the city park or indulge in other childhood activities. On other days, however, when they were out of school, they would watch for the passenger trains and then run up to the coaches with their accordions.
As the war wore on, nurses on hospital trains started moving injured servicemen to the south side of the coaches so they could see the small musicians as the trains neared the coal chute. Later the rules were bent even further, and the three children, Mae, Carol, and Dean, were taken aboard and allowed to play through the coaches as the train moved on downtown, where they were left off to trudge home, lugging their heavy accordions along with bracelets made of strange materials in faraway places, foreign coins, American money, and quantities of other goodies.
Three years and fifteen islands later my train again passed eastbound beneath the coal chute, taking me to my discharge center. I struggled with the impulse to leave the standing train and rush to see my parents, but conscience prevailed. Three days later my final train ride brought me to the DeKalb station with my discharge papers in my barracks bag.