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  • Burlington's "IC Tower" and interlocking at Mendota, Ill.

    A westbound Burlington Northern freight thunders past IC tower - and through the light of flashbulbs - as it crosses the Illinois Central Gulf tracks at Mendota, Ill. The Burlington-owned installation was more distinctive than most Midwestern towers, especially in later years when it acquired a pronounced lean. - Photo: Randy Olson
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    A nostalgic look at a typical railroad junction


       Certain railroad location names naturally summon remembrances of one kind or another when reference is made of them. Mention of MO tower in the Bronx, N.Y., recalls New York Central's exalted Great Steel Fleet as well as the hundreds of plain-Jane commuter locals which also occupied the plant throughout the day. And Zoo interlocking in Philadelphia? Why, that conjures up visions of Tuscan Red limiteds hauled by Loewy-styled GG1 's on "The Standard Railroad of the World," of course.

       Specify "IC tower," though, and one is liable to name at least a dozen locations in a handful of states which might qualify before Mendota, Ill., enters the conversation. In fact, this small expanse of real estate-the topic of this issue's Lineside - actually belonged to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (Burlington Northern after March 1970) though the installation was referred to as Mendota tower by many people, CB&Q timetables, publications and employees commonly referred to it as IC tower. Mendota tower actually refers to another installation which once stood some five miles east of IC tower.

       The plant located in this north western La Salle County municipality protected the intersection of the Burlington, Illinois Central (since 1972, Illinois Central Gulf) and Milwaukee Road. Mendota lies approximately 82 miles southwest of Chicago on Burlington's Chicago-Galesburg (Ill.)-Omaha-Kansas City main. The ICG line through here is IC's original mainline, dating from the 1850's, stretching from Galena in northwestern Illinois to Centralia in the southern part of the state. The route became a secondary line when IC reached Chicago later in the 1800's. The now-abandoned Milwaukee line was that road's Janesville (Wis.)-Ladd (Ill.) branch.

       Unfortunately, IC tower succumbed to the bulldozer's blade early in 1980. Since then, track alignment has changed somewhat (in fact, there were changes made well before the tower was demolished), but the crossing still exists, albeit without the Milwaukee Road. And the plant is still a moderately busy location at which to study and photograph trains.

    For years a typical occurrence at Mendota - now just a memory - a CB&Q freight heads west behind a Chinese Red GP20 and two high-nose SD24's in similar paint. It's January of 1967, and Burlington Northern is only a little more than three years away. - Photo: Mike Schafer
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    In July of 1975, a BN freight bangs across the diamonds at IC Tower. Leading the charge is F45 No. 6623, whose Cascade Green and white postmerger paint scheme perfectly matches the livery applied to the tower.

    A southbound Milwaukee Road Janesville-Ladd local passes IC Tower during February of 1977. Considering the abbreviated consist, it is no surprise this line did not survive the 1980 Milwaukee embargo. Note the switch rodding in the foreground, part of the 72-lever operation at the interlocking. - Two photos: Mike Schafer
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    Above and below: The most famous visitor at Mendota was surely the Q's California Zephyr. Seen here in January of 1967, eastbound No. 18 rolls through the broad curve at the tower as it slows for the station stop beyond. Three silver Burlington E7's-led by No. 9929B - are arranged elephant style, the common Q practice. - Two photos: Mike Shafer
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    Left: Southbound on the Gruber, an IC manifest freight hits the CB&Q with a vengeance. Traffic on this IC line dwindled to an out-one-day, back the-next pattern, and now the trackage lies unused. Note the array of rodding emanating from the base of the tower. - Photo: Mike Shafer

    Below: As a northbound ICG freight rolls through the plant during February of 1979, we get a good view of the "back" of the tower. Note how this end of the building has a canti levered second floor and also see how one double switch rod crosses under the BN tracks. A manual interlocking will always be surrounded by a maze of rodding for the track switches. - Photo: Randy Olson
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    Past Operations

    • Chicago, Burlington & Quincy:The"Q" has always provided the most activity at the installation. Mergers, declining economic conditions and a series of recessions have served to cause an overall drop in the number of train movements through Mendota. In the not-too-distant past, 30-40 regular daily movements plus occasional extras called upon Mendota, including a veritable fleet of local trains which worked the east-west main as well as the various CB&Q branches which radiated from the area. Passenger operations ranged from local runs with archaic-yet-quaint gas-electric "doodle bugs," to the mainline runs. There were the famous (notably the Zephyr fleet) and not-so-famous: The varnish was clad in stainless steel as well as Pullman green.
    • Illinois Central: IC/ICG employees call this line the "Gruber," and as a secondary main line, the Gruber stretched from East Junction at Free port, Ill., to Branch Junction at Centralia. IC's present north-south mainline connecting Chicago on Lake Michigan and Cairo, Ill., on the Ohio River was once known as the "Chicago branch" before it became the principal route, overshadowing the "old main line" to Mendota, Freeport and Galena. Though fragmented and disconnected in several places - and at press time, abandoned, pending a possible sale - the Gruber once fielded as many as 10-15 movements per day when it was a Chicago bypass for traffic out of Iowa destined to New Orleans ports.
    • The Milwaukee Road: The undisputed underdog in Mendota surely was the vestigal CMStP&P. Milwaukee operated through the plant via their Janesville-Ladd secondary line. Ladd, not too distant from Mendota, was at one time an important mining town (zinc, coal) and a point at which several railroads interchanged (New York Central, Burlington, Milwaukee and La Salle & Bureau County). The site was also the location of Milwaukee's system coal mine; most of the Milwaukee's coal needs were supplied from this source.

       Milwaukee had some interesting and unusual traffic patterns, which included such movements as Jones & Laughlin Steel Co.'s unit coil steel trains operating in conjunction with the NYC out of Hennepin, Ill., and several small-scale unit coal trains originating at Ladd. In addition, such exotica as orange-and-maroon F-units and Fairbanks-Morse H16-44's were regulars on this line.

    Physical plant and current operations

       The tower was a distinctive structure whose appearance and form were unlikely to be confused with many other "standardized" installations. In later years, the tower's slight lean gave it even more character.

       Located in the southeast quadrant of its plant (see diagram), the building consisted of two stories of frame and board-and-batten construction and houses a '72-1ever mechanical-interlocking machine. At one time, both IC and MILW crossed the CB&Q with separate diamonds: During later years, MILW crossed the Burlington using the IC diamonds via trackage rights through the plant. All three carriers possessed modest-size interchange yards near the crossing. Also nearby were station buildings of all three railroads, some of which remain standing and in use. Incidentally, rail passenger service is still provided to Mendota by Amtrak, whose Illinois Zephyr calls daily at the BN/Amtrak station just north of the ICG-BN diamonds. The IZs big-sister companion, the combined California Zephyr/Desert Wind/Pioneer, merely slows for the crossing on its jaunt through Mendota.

       In the final days of the tower's existence, successor companies Burlington Northern and Illinois Central Gulf represented the only operators. Milwaukee Road has not operated through Mendota since the massive February 25, 1980, embargo, when nearly half its lines ceased service.

       Today, there are 25-30 regular daily train movements for BN, the only rail visitor in town. As mentioned, the ICG trackage lies unused, with a possible future sale to a shortline operator.


       The end for IC tower came somewhat unexpectedly and swiftly (the railroad had planned to tear it down for a number of years, but nobody seemed to know exactly when). During the winter of 1979-1980, preparations were made to install a remote, automatic electronic interlocking machine. ICG fought the move to automate the plant because of fears that its back-up moves through the cossing would be unsafe (ICG's lower-quadrant semaphore home signals were manually operated from the tower). This did not dissuade BN from deactivating the manual machine and putting the "black box," which was actually silver, in place. Shortly after the remote interocking went into service, Mendota became yet another statistic and memory, manifested in the misty eyes of loyal northern Illinois railfan/modelers. To add insult to injury, the broad S-curve, which so characterized the "Q" at Mendota was realigned. The new alignment put the track right over the site of the tower which once served as a sentinal to tht like of such trains as the Fast Mail, Exposition Flyer and California Zephyr.

    The author would like to extend his gratitude to R. B. Olson, Mike Schafer and Denny Malone, BN conductor Chicago-Burlington, Iowa, without whose assistance this feature would have been much more difficult to prepare. - J.E.H.

    Article Details

    • Original Author JAMES E. HUMBERT
    • Source Prototype Modeler
    • Publication Date June 1986

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