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Tales of the Rails The Illinois Central and Santa Fe Railroads in Minonk, Illinois

Submitted by Paul Vallow - October 22, 2017

Harry G. and the crossing gate

My father always called World War 2 the "the big one". When it was over, thousands of soldiers became civilians again, eager to get back to work and their families. My classmate's dad, Harry G., was one of the World War 2 veterans. He was hired by the Illinois Central Railroad as a crewman in charge of switching moves when freight cars were set out or picked up commonly called a brakeman. He was on the Amboy District of the railroad, which ran from Freeport, Il to Clinton, Il.

The Illinois Central crossed the Santa Fe here at Minonk at a crossing located on Seventh St, between Chestnut and Oak St. Since the Illinois Central was first through Minonk, the Santa Fe trains had to give the Illinois Central trains preference at the crossover. This was done by having two large wooden swing arms facing East and West across the Santa Fe track. When a Santa Fe train needed to go over the crossover, they would unlock the swing arms and turn them across the Illinois Central main to display a red flag by day and a red lantern by night. After the Santa Fe train cleared the crossover, a crew member would move the swing arms to normal position of stop for the Santa Fe and clear for the Illinois Central. This system worked well until one night when the swing arm would not properly lock in its normal position after a Santa Fe train used it. The conductor called the Santa Fe station agent and informed him of the problem.

At this time, the weather was cold, snowing and very gusty winds. Harry G. was the head end brakeman on a southbound freight train with about fifty cars and a steam locomotive. Harry's steam locomotive had just cleared the eighth street crossing when a high gust of wind blew the improperly secured swing arm, the red lantern on it across the Illinois Central track. A red signal means one thing on the railroad: STOP. The engineer put the train into emergency brake application, but it was too late. The next sound heard was the locomotive hitting the crossing gate and wood flying everywhere. No damage was done to the locomotive or train, but the swing arm and lantern were destroyed in the accident. The Illinois Central trainmaster ruled the accident an act of God due to wind and weather conditions. The Santa Fe agreed to pay for a new swing arm and lantern. All ended well.

Many years later I was going through old records at the Illinois Central depot and came across a copy of the accident report. Since Harry G. still lived in town and had not worked for the Illinois Central for many years, I thought he might like looking at the report. He read the report carefully and began to smile. He told me the report was correct except for one thing. He and the other locomotive crew members had fallen asleep after crossing the GM&O crossing at Wenona, Illinois. The cab of the steam locomotive was toasty warm, the track was level so little coal was needed to keep up steam and they had been on duty for twelve hours. When they hit the swing arm at Minonk, they woke up quickly. Heaven knows how far they would have traveled if not for hitting the swing arm gate at Minonk.