The choice mercies of a yesterday, the fond memories that surface from the depths of times past. These are special moments that go ever forward. Included here are just a few of such memories from the summer of 2002. The location is Central Illinois along the BNSF mains that radiate from the Chicago hub, the subject is Milwaukee's own 261, a 1944 Alco returned to service in 1993.
The Milwaukee Road 261 was born as a coal-fired 4-8-4 Northern in the midst of World War. A few siblings of 261 were oil burners that spent their years running the 'gap' out in Eastern Washington and the Idaho Panhandle. This bridged the two electrified components of the Milwaukee's Western Extension. The 261 was held closer to the Midwest. She shares similarities to another classic Northern locomotive design: The Rock Island's R67. Both shared the same running gear designs, allegedly due to war time design and manufacturing limitations.
In the picture above and below, 261 is highballing the old CB+Q mainline just past Galva, IL. The pictures recall the Saturday of the last weekend in June. This is always the traditional "Galesburg Railroad Days" Festival weekend and the 261 was playing an active role that year. It was corn growing weather that weekend with high heat and high humidity. Legend has it that you can actually hear the corn 'creak' as it sprouts up in that hot summer sun. Doubtless, the temperature inside the cab of the 4-8-4 was breathtaking.
On Sunday, the 261 left from Chicago and headed out along the old C+I line. Below the 261 has just cleared Waterman, IL as she approaches one of the classic searchlight signals still in use in 2002. The photographs are just a standard "wedge" composition but the big skies and lines of the 4-8-4 feel right at home on former CB+Q rails.
After being turned, the 261 and train head back to the Union Station in Chicago. It was fitting that the big Northern started and ended the days there on home rails. Unlike prior outings, the passenger cars are nearly a matched set of classic Milwaukee Road passenger colors. Across the system of yesteryear, these colors spanned thousands of miles through the Midwest and underwire to the West Coast.
Truly, the restored 261 running without diesel help, was a rare highlight but details from that summer day caught several other elements that are becoming increasingly uncommon. The target style signals have been replaced across the BNSF system and are now a rare find. Likewise, the lineside poles that supported them and provided the old information link along the railroad are vanished as well. For decades these elements defined the presence of a railroad just as much as track and ballast. Over the past decade they have become difficult to find and their presence out across the old C+I line adds a classic feel to the day.
Even the last train of the weekend is difficult to reproduce. The red and silver of the locomotives is almost new and fresh by today's standards. Likewise, the "War Pumpkin" paint on the second unit has yet to fade to the now typical pastel tones.
These aren't exactly the "old days" or the "glory days" of railroading. Still, the passing of years brings them into focus as old days in their own right. They are choice mercies, worth reflecting upon when the shadows of night linger just a bit too long. One can never go back again, but fortunately we can take the memories of hot summer days and corn growing weather ahead.