March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
You probably haven’t seen it, but it’s out by the tracks of the Chicago & North Western
DeKalb, Illinois, our nearest city, is the site of Northern Illinois University. Some twenty-five thousand young people, mostly urban, from Chicago and environs, make Northern their home. The school publishes a quality daily newspaper called Northern Star. Staff photographers roam the community and fill vacant spots in the paper with artistic shots. Not long ago one such photo ran with the title “Grain Elevator Spanning Northwestern Tracks Clues DeKalb’s Rural Origins.” Actually the photograph showed the abandoned coal chute on the east edge of the city.
The picture brought a flood of memories back to haunt me, along with the realization that a generation had reached maturity since the demise of steam trains, and the youth of today did not recognize the essentials that kept a steam locomotive running.
The concrete monster that is this particular chute straddles the two main tracks of the North Western Railroad. Unused for many years, it still stands because removal would disrupt the busy traffic on the two transcontinental lines that run beneath it. This coal chute entered my life in 1937. It was the Depression. My parents and I had been living on a farm outside DeKalb when it became obvious the landlord would prefer a tenant who could pay rent. This was also the time of the great drought.
With little money and no employment, our next residence was catch-as-catch-can. My father heard of an available house for rent on a street by the railroad, near the coal chute on the east edge of town. The rent was twenty-one dollars a month, and we were happy to get it. I had started high school, and my father and mother both sought work in any form.
For the benefit of a modern generation, I should define the coal chute. Steam locomotives needed water and fuel to make them go. Periodically, along rail lines, wells were sunk and coal-storage facilities erected. The hungry and thirsty locomotives could stop there and replenish.
Our coal chute had been made of wood until it burned down in 1927, when the huge concrete structure now straddling the tracks was erected. It served its last steam engine in 1956, but in its prime thirty or forty trains a day sought service there. It was known as the “family coal chute” because it was operated by a family named Burdick. The father, Frank, started around 1920 and was later joined by his sons, Ted and Roy. Each worked eight hours a day, seven days a week from 1933 on.
When a train was ready to receive its coal, a giant empty bucket would travel down from the chute to pick up an eighteen-thousand-pound load of coal. This was hoisted back up to the bin, and the train took its position under the chute. The coal was then dumped into the tender.
Passenger trains were light enough to jockey into place beneath the chute by moving the whole train. The freights were too long and heavy, and in order to clear the town’s main street crossings, the engineer would take his train east about a mile, uncouple and move on a side track in reverse until he got to the chute. Obviously all this movement involved a lot of huffing and puffing and whistle tooting. Although the noise rendered our home one of the less desirable residences in DeKalb, I can’t recall that it ever disturbed our sleep. However, there was a mad dash to remove laundry from the clothesline if a wind shift to the north carried the soot our way.
Remember, this was the Great Depression. Whole families were on the move. The trains that stopped at the coal chute were loaded with transients—even the passenger trains. People rode the rods on planks and stood on the couplings between coaches. These transients were not hoboes, but whole families, men, women, children, and pets. One day the DeKalb Daily Chronicle said that more than four hundred people were counted riding on a single freight train as it passed through the business district of the city.
Most of these people were hungry, and when the trains stopped for fuel and water, many would come begging for food. My folks were not on welfare, but my father had only occasional work, so our own meals were very sparse. However, we shared when we could.
During this time I got part interest in a paper route, delivering the Daily Chronicle. The route ran along Main Street from the business district to the east edge of town, about one and a half miles. One hundred and three customers bringing in three cents each per week was like finding a gold mine. The fly in the ointment was that the carriers had to purchase the papers first, then collect from the customers at week’s end. Because of the hard times, many customers developed deafness on Friday when you knocked on their doors. Ultimately a good week was when you realized a whole dollar of profit.
From this princely stipend I purchased a small Univex camera for fifty cents. It took 00 film, and some of the photographs accompanying this story were taken with it. The oil painting of the transients cooking in the snow seen here was made for me in recent years from a black-and-white picture I also took in 1938.
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.