Weeds overtake the Illinois Central's Johnston City District in near Carbondale, Illinois, in 1988. The rails would come out a few years later.
I was driving to a friend’s house in Mississippi some time back, when I noticed the old railroad tracks paralleling the highway. I was driving a different route than I had taken before, and had no idea whose tracks they were or any of the history behind them. All I knew was that they were weed-choked and rusty. This line was obviously not much of a going concern. That got me thinking.
Most people don’t pay much attention to an old set of railroad tracks. Even railfans don’t pay much attention beyond the raw data; that line used to be part of this system or that system and at one time ran between points A and B. But even we don’t think much past that. It’s just a set of rusty old rails; no big deal.
Except that at one time, it was a big deal.
At one time, the hopes and dreams of businessmen and communities were tied to those rails. Celebrations marked the last spikes, the first trains, to run over those rails. They were signs of progress and a link to the ever expanding world so many of the locals had never seen and probably never would. It was more than just a railroad; it was a link to the greater whole that was a growing nation. There was an excitement in that which, while we may try to imagine, we will never really be able to fully comprehend in this age of 24 hour news cycles, jetliners, cell phones and the internet.
I look at those two rusty rails and I think back to that earlier time when an army of men laid down the right of way that promised so much for the future. They were to be the lifeline of a community; of a region. Maybe for a time they were, and maybe they never fully lived up to those expectations. But today, that bright future hoped for so long ago is all in the past.
Maybe those rails will once again be of some use, but probably not. Most likely the rails will be removed one day and the right of way plowed under for farming or development. For a time the scar will be visible, but one day the signs of what was will vanish to all but those possessing the knowledge of what was and the will to search for it. But for now they remain as a link to another time, tenuous though that link may be.
It’s sad, in a way. After all, there is such a temptation to look back to those times through rose-colored glasses. In our frenetic high-tech world where we seem to be constantly under assault by noise and information, it seems romantic to think of days gone by as a quieter, gentler, and quaint time. Perhaps too there seems from this distant vantage point an optimism for the future that is missing today. Then too there is the melancholy for something that is past its prime and outlived its usefulness.
But wouldn’t it have been something to have been there? To see the fanfare that there would have been for what now is something we barely notice?
I sigh and dismiss such thoughts as I drive. If I remember, I’ll look on the map and see if I can figure out what line that is. Maybe it’s connected to a line where the trains are actually running.
Copyright 2010 - Mary Rae McPherson