First, let me give full credit to the photographer of these pictures. They were taken by Mr. John Kohlberg, who sells on eBay some of his railroad photographs from many midwestern communities. He took these photos in Ramsey, IL in November 1991. Ramsey is a small village in my native Fayette County, Illinois, north of my hometown Vandalia; my Strobel great-grandparents and four of their ten children are buried in Ramsey (though my grandfather, number eight of the ten, is buried in Vandalia). Mr. Kohlberg’s original photos are sharper and better than my scans. I received his permission to post these and so please don’t download them yourself.
The photographs depict the Norfolk & Western railroad. He says that originally this was the NKP’s Cloverleaf District, St. Lous Division, 4th Subvision from Madison, IL to Charleston, IL, later acquired by the N&W. (The “Nickel Plate Road” was the New York, Chicago, and St. Louis Railroad, reporting mark NKP). The views were taken on the west end of Ramsey, east of the Illinois Central Interlocking Tower, and also from the stairwell of that tower. The line is abandoned.
I like to use eBay to find postcards and antiques related to Fayette County. Mr. Kohlberg’s photographs came up for bid as I did a “Ramsey” search. I purchased the photos not because I was familiar with those specific views (and I’ve not been to Ramsey for several years), but because that my heart was so warmed by them.
I grew up on a residential street traversed by the Illinois Central tracks. The railroad still operated when I was young; it rumbled across Fillmore Street, and sometimes you had to wait a while as it passed. The ICRR crossed Vandalia’s main street at a slight angle and sometimes halted downtown traffic as it rolled past the old debot, one of the town’s hotels, the grain elevators, and a lumber yard. The Pennsylvania Railroad also passed through Vandalia, but west and east. Those trains rushed through town much more quickly, stopping north-south traffic. I remember so many times when, as a little kid, we’d have to wait at the railroad tracks during a downtown errand, and I’d try to count the passing cars but either lose count or became motion-sick.
My dad was a truck driver who hauled gasoline and fuel oil to places around southern and central Illinois. Over the years he had two places where he parked his truck, one at Fifth and Johnson Streets and the other at Sixth and Main (Main is not Vandalia’s primary thoroughfare, in spite of its name, so a large truck parked beside white storage tanks were off the principal section of the downtown). The first place was along the Illinois Central tracks, where a wooden trestle carried Johnson Street above the ICRR tracks, and the second was near the intersection of the PRR and ICRR, where both current and exempt tracks lay across a small, gravel landscape, where tenacious grassy plants nevertheless persevered.
Sometimes I walked to downtown Vandalia along the ICRR. It was a stupid thing to do, but this was the 1960s and early 1970s, long before the headphones and music devices that have tragically contributed to the deaths of people walking along tracks, hit and killed on the trails. My only distraction was my own thoughts, and popular music like The Who’sWho’s Next or Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” in my mind. At a young age, when my friends and I played in the park beside the railroad tracks, we wondered if we might find hobos inside box cars that were occasionally parked along the ICRR. We had little idea of what a hobo was, but we imagined he’d be good natured, if ragged, and would befriend us and talk to us about life on the way. (Again, this was the 1960s, when we knew not to talk to strangers, but child abductions and the like weren’t in the news as they’d become much later.)
Once downtown—a kid walking on my own in our small, safe town—-I looked into the hazy, summer distance of the PRR tracks, and I sometimes became wistful and curious about the direction my life might take—as much as a young person can form such thoughts. I felt at home in our small town, but the railroads represented the world beyond our town: places to which to travel, the unknown to face as it came. The railroads also represented to me a kind of passing world because, although I’d no knowledge of the state of railroad business in America, I knew that passenger trains no longer stopped at Vandalia, and in fact such service had ceased when I was four or five years old. Vandalia had four or five hotels, though I only knew of the two that still operated as such; another had been converted to the First National Bank, and two others had long since become local businesses. I had a very basic idea that Vandalia’s hotels had once been busy, necessary places for travelers, salesmen, and the like who rode the trains. Vandalia had several bars and package stores. “Package” sounded like such a nice word, a word we used at Christmas. And although my parents didn’t drink, I eventually became nostalgic for old beer signs for Stag, Falstaff, Miller Hi-Life, and others. Somehow I associated these familiar beer signs with the railroad, not logically, but I suppose because of the ICRR to the business district. A lot of hometown landscapes and features became sentimentally mixed in my mind.
My parents and I would drive to other small towns in the area, visiting relatives, or shopping for antiques in small shops along U.S. 51 or U.S. 40 or the more distant U.S. 50. These towns, too, had railroads. Bored while visiting relatives, I might play in the yard and see the nearby railroad tracks, the lines that accompanied it, the untidy landscape that also followed the tracks along their course. As we traveled, I might see a rusty storage tank beside the tracks, or a railroad tower, or we might pass over a very bumpy railroad crossing, marked with the familiar Railroad Crossing “crossbucks” sign. (The really old railroad signs were “sawbucks” and cast iron. There were examples of those at a gasoline storage area just west of nearby Effingham, IL, and I thought they seemed so old upon the landscape, where old U.S. 40 and its motels, corn fields, and farmhouses paralleled the PRR.)
Once I grew up and no longer traveled with my parents, I still loved to pass through small towns and reflect upon their landscapes. Of course, I enjoyed railroad landscapes, and although I’m not a railroad buff as such I appreciate the history and become deeply nostalgic when I see a trains passing through a small town, or abandoned tracks crossing a village road and very old sidewalks, or storage tanks and towers, or tracks that pass by someone’s old small house, with its yard and clothesline and “stuff.”
Thus, Mr. Kohlberg’s photographs filled me with nostalgia, though I wasn’t familiar with those particular scenes in the village where my family once lived. But they’re familiar in that sense that I knew these kinds of landscapes from a young age. They’re typical of my small town Illinois “home places. ”
I wonder: what everyday landscapes move you deeply, even though they may be very plain and, to some people, unattractive? One of my best friends, for instance, is cheered by the urban landscapes of Queens. Another loves the hilly vistas of small town Pennsylvania, where old homes perch on steep hills or stand along the very street. What sights and topographies would remain dear to your thoughts when, as Annie Dillard writes in her memoir, everything else in your mind is fading away, because you so love them?