Seeing Things, Saying Things

Musings About Writing, Photography and Teaching

Mattoon and Charleston Area Railroads

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Summary: Railroads were instrumental in the development of Mattoon and Charleston, twin cities located in Coles County in east-central Illinois. The railroads enabled both cities to become regional centers for agriculture, industry and commerce. Mattoon owes its existence to the coming of the railroads and is named for the chief engineer of the Terre Haute & Alton Railroad (later part of the New York Central System).

The Illinois Central and New York Central railroads maintained shops, yards and offices in Mattoon while the Nickel Plate Road had shops, offices and a yard in Charleston. In the early 20th century, the railroads were the major source of employment in both cities. Dozens of passenger trains stopped at the local stations.

The phasing out of steam locomotives in the 1950s led to the closing of the shops in both cities. Railroad consolidation that began in the 1960s would lead to the abandonment of routes and greatly diminish the importance of the railroads to the economies of Mattoon and Charleston.

Although the focus of this book is on Mattoon and Charleston, there is also coverage of the operations of the Baltimore & Ohio, Chicago & Eastern Illinois, Wabash, and Pennsylvania railroads in Altamont, Arcola, Arthur, Decatur, Effingham, Marshall, Oakland, Pana, Paris, St. Elmo, Shelbyville, Tolono, Tuscola, Villa Grove and Windsor. A separate chapter is devoted to the railroads of Effingham. The coverage includes the predecessors and successors to the major legacy railroads.

Published by: Arcadia Publishing (2008)

Chapter Titles: (1) Railroads Transform a Region; (2) Electric Railway Operations; (3) Illinois Central Railroad; (4) New York Central System; (5) Nickel Plate Road; (6) Effingham Railroads; (7) Other Area Railroads; (8) This Was a Railroad Town

Photographs from: Lawrence Baggerly, Paul Burgess, Bob Bennett, Mark Camp, Donald Cleveland, Thomas French, John Fuller, Glenn Hite, Dwight Long, Sheldon Lustig, James McMullen, Robert Oliphant, Steve Patterson, Jeff Pletcher, Richard Record Jr., Edward Ribinskas, Nancy Easter-Shick, Lloyd Stagner, Marty Surdyk, David Tiffany, Leland Warren and Jay Williams. Additional photographs are from the collections of the Denver Public Library Otto Perry Collection, Mattoon Public Library, and the Coles County Historical Society.

Backstory: Not long after my book Akron Railroads was released, my father suggested that I do a  similar book on Mattoon, my hometown in Illinois. Dad still lived there at the time. I don’t recall what I said in response, but I was probably noncommittal. Writing a book is a lot of work  and I wanted to let some time go by before tackling another book project.

It didn’t take long, though, before I was actively thinking about what it would take to write a railroad history book about Mattoon. I probably would have to expand the focus to include Charleston, 10 miles east of Mattoon. The two cities have long shared a community of interest.

I looked through my photograph collection and determined that I had enough images to fill about a fifth of the book. That made the idea of doing a book about Mattoon and Charleston seem viable.

All of my railroad history books have some connection with my life. With the Indiana book, it was that I lived in that state for many years. With the Amtrak book it was a long-time interest in Amtrak history and that I had ridden its trains so many times. The Canton and Akron books involved communities near where I live now. I have friends in those cities.

But the Mattoon book would be different. Mattoon was where I had grown up and where my passion for railroads had blossomed. As a child, I could see the Illinois Central Railroad tracks from my backyard. I frequently heard train horns at all hours of the day. I had met men in Mattoon who worked for the railroad, including a former neighbor.

As much as I knew and remembered about the railroads of Mattoon and Charleston, it was a challenge to research a book about a place that I had left in 1983. Furthermore, Mattoon is far enough away from where I live now that getting out there is not easy.

Fortunately, my dad got caught up in the project, approaching people he knew who might have photographs that I could use. It was disappointing when some who told him they could help never followed through. Those who did provide photographs, though, were most useful, particularly Nancy Easter-Shick of Charleston. Ms. Easter-Shick is a historian who self-published a book on Charleston history several years ago. Her contributions, one of which ended up being the cover image, constitute most of the photographs of Charleston’s railroad operations.

The Mattoon Public Library and Coles County Historical Society had many useful images. One nice thing about working with small town organizations is that they are happy to see their holdings published. In urban areas, they tend to see their archives as another revenue stream. Some of the fees they charge are astounding.

I might have been able to find even more photographs and information if I was in Mattoon. I never was able to find any photographs of Illinois Central or New York Central passenger trains at the Mattoon stations. I still regret that and consider it a significant omission. But that is how it is with these projects. You do the best you can with the material that you have.

I later traveled to Mattoon to do a book signing for the Waldenbooks store in Mattoon. I saw some folks I had not seen in years and had a lot of nice conversations with others. It was easily the most enjoyable book signing that I’ve ever done. To paraphrase the line from Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, there’s no place better to write about than home.


Written by csanders429

March 3, 2009 at 8:06 pm

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