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Growing up along the Burlington

In Brookfield, Ill., the railroad was "a big, noisy, but always friendly neighbor with fascinating stories to tell"
CBQEunit
An E unit leads a train through Berwyn, Ill., on a lazy day in August 1963. Such scenes were part of daily life along the Burlington’s triple-track main west of Chicago.
Larry Kostka
It didn’t matter how often you rode the trains, or even if you did at all. Growing up in the postwar era in Brookfield, Ill., along the main line of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy meant the railroad was part of your life. From rumbling late-night freights to transcontinental domeliners streaking through in the afternoon sunlight, the sounds and sights of the Burlington were indispensable dimensions of everyday life.

The Burlington was a lifeline for our suburban community. It took residents to and from the places they earned a living, and delivered the raw materials that supplied the factories that provided many of these jobs. The CB&Q brought fruit and vegetables from California, and meat and grain from the Great Plains. Its passenger fleet ran when buses and automobiles in those pre-snow-tire days could not.

The trains brought the latest news, good and bad: Part of a CB&Q commuter train conductor’s daily duties was throwing out bundles of the morning and afternoon papers — rushed out of pressrooms to waiting trains in Chicago Union Station and stacked in vestibules — onto suburban station platforms, where they would be picked up and distributed. From the box scores of afternoon Cubs and White Sox games (night games were much rarer then, and the Cubs didn’t even have lights) to the news of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executions, the evening paper at Paden’s drugstore, carried over from the depot across the street, kept us current.

Dress-up excursions to Chicago’s famed downtown “Loop” for serious shopping or a night on the town began at the ancient depot at the end of Grand Boulevard. So did many vacations; the Q was frequently the first leg for the start of extended journeys out west or trips to grandmother’s house up north. Once in a while it was a last link to life — such as the time a schoolmate lost a race with a commuter train, trying to beat it across the Salt Creek bridge.

Growing up along the Burlington was like having a big, noisy, but always friendly neighbor with fascinating stories to tell. It never ceased to entertain. You could bike a few blocks uptown to the tracks and watch an ever-changing parade of colors glide past. The sleek two-tone green of Northern Pacific’s
North Coast Limited and the orange and dark green of Great Northern’s Empire Builder that the CB&Q hauled to the Twin Cities. The endless strings of yellow reefers, dripping melting ice as they rolled by.  And, of course, the shiny silver fleet of Burlington’s own Zephyrs.

In the 1950s nearly five dozen passenger trains used that triple-track main line every day. Trying to catch glimpses of the passengers’ faces was a fascinating part of the low-priced, Burlington-sponsored trackside entertainment. For many of the riders peering out the car windows, it would be their first adventure heading to the great West or Northwest that lay beyond the plains of Illinois. So even at 70 mph for a couple of seconds, the anticipation on passengers’ faces shone through the windows.

The Burlington, like most railroads of the day, had socioeconomic power as well as locomotive power. Living north of the tracks meant higher status than south of them. The town’s more respected commercial enterprises, too, lay to the north. Curiously, though, there was no fire station on that side of the tracks. The nearest underpass was 10 to 15 minutes from the fire station, which was located half a block away from the often-blocked grade crossing at the depot. After much debate and a special election, a bare-bones fire house was built a few blocks north of the tracks.

Brookfield’s Burlington depot and its stationmaster were straight out of central casting. The building itself was a rickety, two-story, early Charles Addams structure that seemed most at home in a lightning storm. Upstairs was a little apartment for the agent, a gauze curtain blowing out of its lone dormer window overlooking the tracks. The stationmaster — who also functioned as ticket clerk and baggage handler — wore a black eyeshade and wire-rimmed glasses. He stood behind a small, barred ticket window, and was a combination travel agent and FedEx man of the day.

Taking the train downtown was invariably an adventure. In 1950, Burlington became the first U.S. railroad to employ bi-level “gallery” commuter coaches, and the prospect of having your very own seat in the upper level was thrilling. After steam, the typical commuter consist would be a classic silver E unit, with its rectangular “Burlington Route” herald under the headlight, pulling an old heavyweight coach followed by (or sometimes preceded by) one, two, or more of the stainless-steel, seemingly futuristic bi-levels. Rush-hour service was frequent, with some express trains into Union Station.

Arriving at that grand old station, with its Fred Harvey Iron Horse Restaurant and rows of shops and stately waiting room, was another part of the adventure. And until about 1953, you could get off a CB&Q train, walk up a ramp paralleling the tracks, and hop on a Chicago Transit Authority elevated train for the Loop (the Union Station “L” stop closed when the CTA rerouted its trains along the median strip of the then-new Congress Expressway).

Several decades later, what kind of imprint does the Burlington have?   With the 1969 demolition of its concourse, Union Station has moved from grand to utilitarian. The old Brookfield depot has long since been replaced by a one-story functional box. The commuter trains still run in force — busier and more frequently than ever — though as part of the public regional transportation network, not as Burlington, which itself is now part of BNSF Railway. The
Zephyrs, save Amtrak’s version of the California Zephyr and short-haul Illinois Zephyr, are no more, and the Southwest Chief has moved over from the Santa Fe. Cattle no longer get hauled into the city — the railroads have gotten out of the livestock business, and Chicago’s massive stockyards are history. Colorful freight cars from a hundred Class I railroads have largely given way to double-stack and unit coal trains.

Yet, on a quiet night, as an engine headlight approaches and a train rumbles through, the Burlington — as we’ll always think of it — seems a timeless lifeline into the future, as well as the past.

First published in Winter 2009 Classic Trains magazine.


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