Coast to Coast - part 4

chicago to kansas city

Rode in the boxcar of a Norfolk and Western freight train from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Chicago. The south side of Gary, Indiana was surprisingly attractive and vibrant. At the N&W yard in Chicago I had stashed my gear in a grassy area and filled my water bottle near the deserted roundhouse. Time of arrival in Chicago: after sunset on Sunday, June 20.

I retrieved my gear and walked to nearby Torrance Avenue to catch a Chicago Transit Authority bus for a ride to Santa Fe's Corwith Yard. During the ride from Fort Wayne I had decided to take a Santa Fe freight to California. From Calumet Yard in the southeast corner of Chicago, it was about 17 miles by bus to Corwith, located about three miles northeast of Midway Airport. While waiting for a northbound bus I watched red-hot ingots being moved about by crane in the steel mill: cool. The bus didn't show, so I walked up to 103rd Street and caught a different bus. The CTA route map that I had obtained in advance was very helpful.

The ride to Corwith involved two or three bus transfers. Along the way I went into a neighborhood restaurant and had a sandwich. People gave me weird looks. No wonder: I was an odd sight with my gear and somewhat unkempt appearance. Somewhere else on the route I was able to fill my water bag at fire hydrant, but the details of that act have been lost to the passage of time. Later I alighted from a bus on Archer Avenue, close to the south end of the yard. It was about 2330. Standing above the street intersection was a billboard with a picture of Santa Fe's "Super C," a premier intermodal freight train of the day.

So - how to get into the yard? My first exploration, on streets along the eastern side of the yard, was of no use because that area was all COFC and TOFC; there was no way I was going to walk into a well-lighted, well-patrolled area. Back to my starting point to regroup, where I considered the only other option: the west side approach.

A side street led to the yard. The railroad had posted "no trespassing" signs all over the place; this frightened me enough to force a retreat to the billboard intersection. Behind the billboard, on an elevated track, cars were being switched back and forth. I wanted to gain access to that action, but how to do it? Once or twice a railroad vehicle, possibly driven by a bull, drove to or from the yard.

Finally determination overcame fear and off I went to try again. The paved road along the west boundary of the yard served a large commercial area of warehouses, offices, etc., but traffic was practically non-existent at this late hour. There were places to hide if the need arose. On the infrequent occasions that I saw headlights in either direction, I took cover somewhere and stayed out of sight until the vehicle had gone by. Any set of headlights could belong to a railroad cop on the prowl: Santa Fe was noted for protecting its property.

One time a policeman or security guard drove by and stopped to inspect a nearby warehouse. I stayed hidden in weeds while he looked around; another car or two went by. When the coast was clear I left the weeds, crossed the road, and entered the yard tracks. No one had seen me.

I headed for the far (north) end of the yard because there was no activity where I was. I wanted to get deep into the yard as quickly as possible to become concealed. After crossing a few tracks, I left my gear at a weighing table and asked a few switchmen about westbound trains. One guy told me: "Last track over, but watch out for bulls."

Between me and "the last track" was about 15 tracks, filled with freight cars. Crossing them with the gear weighing me down drained me of all my strength. A guy who was oiling axles told me that the last track had a train bound for Kansas City and the track before it had a California train due to depart around 0500. Hot diggety dog! I hitched my star to the California train and looked for an empty car. I found a pregnant grain car, climbed aboard the porch, dropped my gear, and got inside the cubbyhole. My only concern at this point was that someone would see my stuff on the porch and call the bull, but there was little I could do about it. I dozed off.

Monday, June 21

A sudden motion and noise woke me up: the train had just started moving. It was light out, cold, and overcast - a new day. My watch said 0600. I was under way again.

Slowly the train rolled down the yard track. A railroad employee noticed me in the cubbyhole. For an instant our eyes met, then it was over. I just sat there, all cramped up, hoping that he did not feel like reporting me. Outside the yard the tracks ran on a large curving bridge over an expressway, then straightened out and ran parallel to the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The engineer highballed southwest toward Joliet.

Here I got out on the porch to take in the scenery. The porch was dirty. The sky was gray. There was a hint of rain. Facing me was a black, dirty tank car. The combination of these elements dragged my spirit down. The run to Joliet was a surprise in that it was industry all the way, including a refinery. I had expected some farms but there were none. High tension wires were everywhere; it seemed like the power center of the nation. At least the ship canal was attractive in places.

The train zoomed down the double- and triple-track main line without let-up. Our speed was an impressive transportation achievement, but it drove me crazy. The physical challenge of riding a freight train requires occasional stops to stretch one's legs. This ride denied me that requirement with a vengeance! I was a prisoner on a train.

After passing Joliet the weather improved, but the scenery got worse: boring, flat farmland. The overcast sky faded away and I was treated to a sunny, warm day. It stayed that way all the way to Kansas City. Excellent! Galesburg and Fort Madison were hot and bright - they might as well have been desert towns. There was a crew change in Fort Madison at about 1100.

All along the line I saw yellow and blue colors on the Santa Fe locomotives, and there were many of them. I couldn't believe the pace of travel. It was inhuman. One would expect a stop now and then for a meet, but with double track all the way - and good scheduling by dispatchers - there was no need to stop for anything but crew changes. The welded rail and nicely-maintained ballast made the ride baby-skin smooth.

My plan had been to take the Santa Fe all the way to southern California, thinking that it would be nice to travel through the Southwest. What I had not counted on was the blistering pace on Santa Fe. The relentless motion did me in: I decided to get off the Santa Fe at the first opportunity, which turned out to be in Kansas City. The new plan was to head due west through Colorado to central California.

The dirt was a problem too: the wheels of the tank car behind me were throwing drops of rail grease up onto the porch, pelting me and my pack cover with tiny black grease dots. Did I say how much I disliked this ride?

Finally the train glided into Kansas City in the late afternoon (1800?) and stopped. From the looks of the buildings nearby I guessed that this was near the city center. I was on the ground in an instant. It was a religious experience to touch terra firma, but being stationary for the first time in hours was a bit disorienting. My train moved on, probably to the Santa Fe yard, revealing an expanse of several tracks and a big train station beyond. I was in a wide ravine about two stories below street level.