The contemporary Illinois Central Gulf railroad displays several different faces, and the one most often thought of is the Chicago-Gulf of Mexico mainline carrier. Images of expedient freight trains and faster passenger trains come to mind, zipping up and down the "Main Line of Mid-America."
This is certainly what the "real" ICG (or, if you prefer, the Illinois Central as it was before the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio merger of 1972) is all about. There is, however, a quiet and largely forgotten face of the ICG which deserves attention. It's also a fine subject for the railroad modeler.
Illinois Central Gulf's Iowa Division, running west from Chicago, across northern Illinois and central Iowa to the Missouri River, is the forgotten face. Except for a relatively short but fascinating stretch in rugged northwest Illinois (rugged by Illinois norms, and not coincidentally, the focus for our model) the single-track line is a plain-Jane Granger railroad. Typically for a Granger, the region served by the ICG Iowa Division is pure farmland without equal; the scenery simple and timeless. An area where one IC passenger train was called the Land 0' Corn, and the City of New Orleans nothing more than good music by Guthrie, Nelson or Denver.
From East to West
From the small and largely unused Hawthorne Yard at the western edge of Chicago proper, the ICG Iowa Division heads west-northwest across the state of Illinois. Once beyond the suburban zone, it passes through generally level farm country and occasional small towns, each with at least one of the obligatory grain elevators. Rockford is the first city of any consequence on the line, and then it's just a quick dash westward to Freeport, where things begin to get interesting.
Freeport hosts a modest yard and a vestpocket engine facility, surprisingly complete with a turntable. The town is a division point; crews are changed there and although some trains roll through untouched, most are put into the yard and switched. Trains will also originate at Freeport. At the far east edge of town lies the sprawling complex of the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company, served by rail and one of the major industries on the line.
The next 68 miles of railroad - Freeport to the Mississippi River - is by far the most captivating part of the Iowa Division. It boasts hills and curves, picturesque country settings and serene river vistas. There is one tunnel, dozens of bridges and everything the railroad modeler could ask for.
A bit of history
Contrary to the normal historical pattern of railroad construction in northern Illinois, the line which eventually became the ICG Iowa Division was not built from Chicago westward. Nor was it originally intended to be an east-to-west railroad. The original charter of the Illinois Central, issued in 1851, called for a 705-mile line, entirely within the state of Illinois. It was to be a Y-shaped affair, reaching the extremities of the state: Chicago at the northeast, Dunleith (later, East Dubuque) at the northwest, and Cairo at the far south. The junction of the Y was, appropriately enough, named Centralia. In 1856, when this charter IC was completed, it was the longest railroad in the world. The future Iowa Division segment of this original IC, from Freeport to the Mississippi River town of Dunleith, was completed in 1854 (Freeport-Galena) and 1855 (Galena-Dunleith). This serpentine, 68-mile piece of railroad was the only part of the 1856 IC that was oriented in an east-to-west fashion, although at the time it was nothing more than the northwest end of a north-south carrier. In 1856, one could not travel directly from Chicago to Dunleith on the Illinois Central.
After its charter lines were done, the IC reached across the prairie frontier of Iowa. Through a series of leases and purchases of fledgling railroad companies - some not even in complete operation - the IC was extended west to the Missouri River at Sioux City, Iowa. Trackage was completed by 1870, and IC had total ownership of the line by 1887. Thus, in 1870, the Illinois Central Iowa Division was whole except for the section between Chicago and Freeport.
It remained until 1888 - late by Chicagoland railroad standards - for the IC to join the big city directly with Freeport. It was even later, in 1891, when the line built its own inner-city connections and was finally able to eliminate the last of several costly trackage-rights arrangements.
The year 1891 then, marks the actual completion of the IC Iowa Division. Almost one hundred years later, the railroad line which was almost an afterthought is still basically intact, and Illinois Central Gulf freight trains roll daily between Chicago and the Missouri River.
The Iowa Division today
The present-day Iowa Division hosts only ICG freight trains. The last of the Illinois Central varnish on the line, the Chicago-Sioux City Hawkeye, expired upon Amtrak's 1971 birth. Amtrak's attempt, the ill-fated Chicago-Dubuque Black Hawk, ran only from 1974 to 1981. Earlier, passengers could choose the previously-mentioned Land 0' Corn to Waterloo, Iowa, or many years ago, the aptly named Iowan to Sioux City.
Today, however, it's all freight, and traffic flow varies. Depending on the season, track maintenance programs or the state of the national economy, anywhere from four to ten trains will traverse the line in a given 24-hour period. Naturally, a large percentage of the traffic is agricultural products, and the remainder is general merchandise and coal.
Locomotion for most trains is provided by two or three four-axle EMD units, with longer and heavier movements drawing six-axle engines. These are unit grain trains, most often rolling at harvest time (or when grain prices rise), and unit coal trains which the ICG regularly receives from the Union Pacific at Omaha.
Foreign motive power is rare on the line, but ICG provides its own locomotive variety show. The railroad has been slow to repaint its engines - both from pre-merger paint and also from post-merger color scheme changes. As a result, seven different paint schemes are currently found on the ICG. Any and all of these are seen on the Iowa Division. ICG is also notorious for its seemingly endless parade of rebuilt locomotives. The following unusual species roam systemwide - SW1300, SW14, GP8, GP10, GPll, GP26, SD20 - and if you turn your back on the railroad for a day or two, there will probably be a couple more. What all this means to the Iowa Division train-watcher is that finding an EMD unit on the point of the next train is the only safe bet. The model designation and paint scheme are anybody's guess.
The line visits the historic lead-mining town of Galena with a flourish, sweeping through on a grand S-curve parallel to and then crossing the Galena River. It also reaches the micro-hamlet of Waddams Grove and remote Council Hill, the latter hidden deep in the rolling JoDaviess County countryside.
For a few miles, the right-of-way is within a stone's throw of the Wisconsin border, and at another point it passes very close to Charles Mound, the highest elevation in Illinois (a towering 1235 feet, but we must remember this is the Prairie State, not Colorado).
Speed restrictions exist, due to both the healthy grades and the sharp curves. As is often the case, the hills which the railroad must conquer are an asset to the modeler and a liability to the prototype. To the proverbial flying crow, it's only about 50 miles from Freeport to Dubuque. IC required 68 miles for the trek so it could avoid even steeper grades. The rugged region, - Illinois' JoDaviess County - hosts only one other railroad at present (Burlington Northern, ex-Chicago, Burlington & Quincy) and it sneaks through the edge of the area, never leaving the level shoulder of the Mississippi River. Another line (the Chicago Great Western) which, literally, dared to go directly through the hills (via a long, curved tunnel on a grade) is now nothing more than an elusive memory.
Once the Iowa Division is beyond Galena, it descends quickly to river level and emerges from the wooded countryside at an isolated place known as Portage Junction. From there it's twelve miles of parallel running with the BN and the Mississippi until East Dubuque. Surprisingly, it is at East Dubuque, not back in the rolling hills, where the Granger encounters its tunnel.
The bore is 835 feet of sharply curved right-of-way cut from the solid rock of a high Mississippi palisade. The unused, joint ICG/BN station is near the east portal, and the ICG crosses the BN at grade as it leaves the west end of the tunnel. Then immediately, the tracks are embraced by a 1760-foot truss bridge spanning the river, a massive structure on concrete piers with a center-swing segment to permit passage of the occasional tugboat and barge.
When the line enters Iowa it bends southward, again parallel to the river but running in the opposite direction it did on the east bank. It passes the station (open, but there are no passengers), a small freight yard and industrial trackage, as well as the neighboring Soo-Milwaukee System (ex-Milwaukee Road).
Just south of town the line dives westward through a creek valley to make its escape from the Mississippi depths. The right-of-way twists and turns as it gains elevation, and then it settles into an almost perfect westward progression across the gently rolling landscape of the Hawkeye State. The "main" line goes to Sioux City, and secondary routes find Omaha and Sioux Falls, S.D., along with branch lines to other points.
Many railroad towns in Iowa have picturesque (if not downright bizarre) names, and the ICG Iowa Division visits several of them. On your way to the Missouri River you can see Farley, Peosta and Rugg--each with its own grain elevator, of course. If the exotic locales aren't suitable, perhaps you'll settle for the pure Iowan titles such as Cedar Falls and Fort Dodge. ICG rails can take you to either place. In any case, the Iowa Division in Iowa is genuine Granger railroading from one end of the state to the other.
Editor's Note: The second installment of this article will feature a detailed look at modeling the ICG Iowa Division, complete with two track plans. Don't miss it!