Chapter VI: Chicago Northwestern Railroad

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Maple Park was on the main line of the Chicago Northwestern Railroad which ran from Chicago to Council Bluffs. The Union Pacific connects with the Northwestern at Council Bluffs, and extends on West to the West Coast cities. Technically, it was called the Galena Division of the railroad, presumably named after the town of Galena, Illinois, although the railroad does not run to Galena.

All the freight and passenger trains going to and from Chicago and the West Coast cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle) ran through Maple Park. In the summertime, the railroad always brought in a number of men to work on the tracks—the section crew. They lived in railroad cars stationed on one of the switch tracks in the town. They were generally Mexicans and Italians—no Negroes. Many of them could speak little or no English. One or two of the men spoke enough English to make his wants known in the store. They cooked their own meals, and we also did a lot of business with them during the summertime. It was an opportunity to sell them out-of-date merchandise.

We sold them work shoes, overalls, shirts, underwear, and lots of canned goods. We charged them pretty good prices. We had to extend credit to them and depend on getting paid when the railroad paid them. However, I doubt that we ever lost any money in extending them credit, as they were fundamentally honest men. It was my first experience with the foreign-born. It took a little patience to understand them when they came into the store.

We called the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad passenger freight station the “Depot.” The depot was a great gathering place for the kids to watch the trains and to listen to the “click-clack” of the telegraph keys that seemed to be operating most of the time, although the messages might be for some other station. The station agent sent and received Western Union messages as well as messages to the train crew. He had to know the Morse Code.

We used the trains a lot, with my father going to Chicago to buy from the wholesale stores such as John V Farwell & Sons, Dry Goods; Carson, Pirie, Scott & Company wholesale; Butler Brothers, wholesale; Rice & Hutchins shoes; Selz shoes; and many others, all of which are out of business now.

Cattle, hogs and sheep were shipped into Chicago stockyards on the Northwestern Railroad. Along the switch tracks there were a number of cattle pens, and I can remember cattle being driven on the road through the town into the cattle pens. They would be driven through a chute to the cattle car. There was always a lot of bellowing and noise when the cattle were forced into the cattle cars.

In addition to the cattle that came into Chicago by freight trains, there were, of course, also pigs, who were loaded into cars. When they were loaded, you could hear the pigs squeal several blocks away.

We had a number of men in the town who were in the livestock business, and I believe represented livestock companies in the Chicago stockyards. I can remember the calves were also slaughtered, prepared for market, and then shipped by express car into Chicago.

Going to Chicago in the morning, there was a milk train, which was truly, properly called, as it hauled milk to Chicago from all the so-called milk factories which were operated along the line. This train came through Maple Park around three or four in the morning, and carried some passengers. The passenger train to Chicago in the morning came through around 8:30. The exact time changed over the years. Later in the afternoon, around 6 PM, there was another passenger train going to Chicago. There were always two trains coming from Chicago that stopped at Maple Park, one in the morning at around 8:30, and another in the evening around 7:00 o’clock. So the town was well supplied with passenger service from the railroad.

My father had lots of friends with the Northwestern railroad, and sometimes he would take a later train leaving Chicago around 11 o’clock. This would be a passenger train bound for the West Coast, and was not supposed to make stops in small towns such as Maple Park. However, the train would stop for him. I can remember seeing the evening show with my father in Chicago, and we sometimes would have to leave the show early so we could catch the train that we called the “midnight train.” I can remember catching an earlier train that had a dining service car, and our family ate in The Diner. This was my first experience both with colored people, as the waiters were all colored, and with having this “fast” and unscheduled stop at Maple Park. I am sure the engineer of the train was never very happy when he had to stop the train to let off one or two passengers.

The passenger agent, the freight agent, the express agent, and telegrapher was all one man with a helper. His name was Tom Burns.

The Station Agent was a very busy man. He had to operate the telegraph, which mostly carried messages to the various trains. I am sure they were very few telegrams for the local people. In addition, he sold the tickets to the passengers, handled the express shipments (which were carried on passenger trains), and also the freight shipments. In addition, he had to throw on the mail sacks, when the train stopped for passengers. When two trains arrived at same time, one going West and one going East on opposite sides of the platform, he was really busy. There was generally someone standing around the depot, either as a prospective passenger or otherwise, who would be called upon to help him. When I was going to school in DeKalb and taking the train, I frequently was the one selected to throw on a mailbag, or to give a message to one of the trainmen.

Frequently, someone would arrive at the depot a few minutes before the arrival of the train, and want something shipped by express. This would require the weighing of the article, issuing receipts, and placing the article on the cart which had to be pulled up next to the car on the train handling the express. Our good friend, Tom Burns, would frequently bawl out the man, particularly when just at that time the telegraph key got busy. If the telegraph message involved a freight train, he would have to signal in some way to have the freight train slow up so the message could be delivered.
There was a man employed by the railroad to lower the gates of the crossing in the town when the trains pass by. Somehow or other he was called the “bullfrog.” He operated out of a little building along the tracks and, as I recall it, there was some kind of a pumping device which raised and lowered the gates. How the gates were handled during the nighttime is something I don’t remember. At any rate, I don’t recall anyone ever being hit by a train.

The local passenger trains always had a “butcher” on the train that went up and down the aisle with a basket selling fruit, candy, chewing gum and sometimes sandwiches. The so-called “train butcher” has long since gone. It would be interesting to know how he got his name.

The brakeman on the train would call out the name of the next stop on the train, and on arrival would, of course, call it out again. It is understandable in a way that many people have a nostalgic interest in these old trains and steam locomotives.

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