Bureau Junction

Bureau Junction
Chicago bound Peoria Rocket pulls into Bureau Junction station. Photo by ?.

This is a postcard that I ran across while reorganizing the hall closet. I’m not sure of the photo date, though my guess is sometime in the 1940s though maybe it could be as early as 1937 or as late as the very early 1950s. The Rock Island Railroad was fairly aggressive about changing from steam locomotives to diesel-electric, especially on passenger trains as early as 1937. The process was interrupted by World War II, but the Rock Island’s steam locomotives were all retired by 1954. There is a coaling tower and water tower in the background (behind the baggage carts).

The photo is of Bureau Junction, Illinois, where the old Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railroad threw off a branch line to Peoria, Illinois. The photo looks southward down the Peoria branch, and the arriving train (note the blur) is probably the Peoria Rocket. (The Peoria Rocket made it’s first run in September of 1937, diesel-electric powered.) You’ll note a fellow standing beside the locomotive. He’s handing up train orders on a long pole to a crew member in the locomotive cab. On the near right, you’ll note a fellow standing next to a small shack. The shack was for a crossing guard, something that was common before automatic crossing gates and lights. I don’t know if the fellow alongside the shack is the guard but if you look closely, he’s wearing quite the hat. The Rock Island’s double track mainline is on the other side of the station, and it curves away west. For a while, there was also an interurban trolley line that entered Bureau Junction paralleling the Rock Island mainline. Even mainline passenger trains would stop at Bureau Junction as it was a transfer point for passengers for the Peoria branch and for the interurban. After the trolley line was abandoned, buses would arrive before train arrivals and depart after.

Bureau Junction was also the departure point for the Illinois — Mississippi Canal (aka Hennepin Canal) that provided a short cut between the Illinois River and the Mississippi River. Most folks no longer remember that the canal ever existed, but it was completed in December of 1907 and remained in operation until 1951. It still exists, mostly, as a small waterway and as an Illinois state park.

Incidentally, the photo makes Bureau Junction look Illinois flat, but the town is in the Illinois River valley. The Rock Island mainline wiggled more than a little both west and most especially east of Bureau Junction as a result. It is flatter, though, than I remembered it.

Even though it was multimodal transportation hub, Bureau Junction at its peak was always a small and mostly sleepy town:¬†maximum census no more than 700 in the 1920s but less than half that now. The Rock Island went belly up in 1980 and its assets were sold to cover its debts. The lines through Bureau Junction were acquired by a new railroad, Iowa Interstate. Much of the Rock Island’s network is still operated by one railroad or another. Some of them, including Iowa Interstate, still play off the old Rock Island brand.

This is how the same location looked in 1993. The view is almost opposite from the postcard, looking north along the Peoria branch to where it joins the mainline. Most of the tracks have been removed. The red Ford Escort is approximately where the crossing guard’s shack stood. The station remains though there is no passenger service. From rail fan videos, I can tell you that in 2018 the derelict signal bridge has been long since removed and the tracks are in much better condition.

Bureau Junction 1993
Bureau Junction in 1993. Photo by Roman

My mother’s parents retired to Bureau Junction. Grandpa had worked for the Rock Island as, I’m told, a coal-chute operator though I’m unclear what he did after the Rock Island retired their steam locomotives. Grandma and Grandpa’s house was just across the street from the Rock Island mainline. The time I spent there is basically why I became a trainspotter. It’s also probably how I came to possess the old postcard. When I was last in Bureau Junction for a nostalgic visit in 1993, their old house was still standing. It was probably one of the better houses in that town. Bureau Junction, alas, is a small village version of Detroit. (I’m sure the natives would object to the comparison, but it is.)

Bureau Junction 1993
Grandparents’ home in 1993, decades after they had passed away. Grandpa built the garage (lower left) when he was 70. There had been another house next door. I have no clue when that came down. Photo by Roman
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