Champaign photographer's railroad tower images on display

With their creaky stairs, coal-fired furnaces and windows open to the elements, railroad towers offered few of the comforts of home.

Sometimes they didn't even have running water.

"At the Tuscola tower, the only running water was in the creek they had in back. The place was filthy dirty," recalls Rosalie Summers of Wapella, who is featured in several photographs by Ben Halpern that are on display through mid-July at the Illinois Terminal in downtown Champaign.

Summers worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, now the Canadian National Railway, for 30 years before retiring in 2003. She worked wherever the railroad wanted her – which was all over the state.

Summers worked in Clinton, Gibson City, Rantoul, Gilman, Tuscola, Effingham, Mattoon, Decatur and elsewhere.

Some of her most vivid memories are working in railroad towers like Tuscola, where workers had to use a porta-potty – and get permission from the dispatchers – to relieve themselves.

"And some of the men didn't even do that. They just used the windows," Summers says.

Rail towers were narrow buildings, two stories tall and always next to the railroad tracks. Workers switched tracks, handed out train orders and performed other duties for the railroad. Slowly, as the rail companies brought in computers and automatic switching systems, the towers fell by the wayside.

That can be seen in the series of 26 black-and-white photographs taken by Halpern, a Champaign resident who specializes in engineering and architectural photos. He took most of the images between 1988 and 1993, when the towers were in their last days.

"I would hope people can learn a little bit about the changes in both technology and operating procedures" taking place at railroads at the time, Halpern says. "The biggest difference between the era these photos represent and the modern era is that railroad workers were more visible. You could find them.

"Now they are in centralized locations that are no longer accessible to the general public," he adds. "There's been a shift from a labor-intensive industry to one that is much more dependent upon technology. Workers are still required, but they are doing very different jobs now. There are many more people behind the scenes now."

The Champaign tower is gone. Tuscola's is gone, too. The same for Gibson City and many other rail towers around the country: Gones-ville.

But the memories linger.

The towers "were one-person places. You were working on your own. They were mostly dirty places," Summers says.

The towers received minimal upkeep from the railroads over the years. Most were constructed in the 1890s into the 1920s. Nearly all were torn down in the early 1990s.

"When the wind blew strong, you could actually feel those (wooden) towers sway," Summers says. "I held on to the levers. I figured they weren't going anywhere."

Pulling the long steel levers activated a mechanical system that would put trains onto a sidetrack or back onto the main track. They could be very difficult to move into position.

"Gibson City, especially, was my hardest tower to work. Those levers were very hard to pull. You couldn't ease those levers into position. You had to really slam-dunk them in there to lock them into position," Summers says.

Larry Mitchell, who worked for the Illinois Central for 43 years in a number of capacities before retiring in 1997, was at the Tolono and Gibson City towers when they closed in the early 1990s. He also worked at many other towers and rail yards, including as the agent for the Champaign yard when he retired. That was his favorite position.

"The Tuscola tower wasn't too bad, except in the winter. The Champaign tower was the same way – snow would blow in through the windows and just lay there. In the winter, we had a chair that we would set over the furnace chair and wrap a blanket around it to create sort of a heat tunnel so we could warm up," Mitchell says.

The furnace was coal-fired, and Mitchell remembers one time when he had to go downstairs at the Champaign tower (which was burned down by an arsonist in the mid-1990s) to shovel coal into the furnace.

"I heard a snort and turned around and there was a bum in there sleeping by the furnace," Mitchell says. "I told him this was no motel and that if he wanted to stay, he was going to have to shovel coal in the furnace. He kept coal in that stove for eight hours that day, but he never came back. I guess I worked him too hard."

The towers were often isolated and in iffy locations – especially when downtown areas were in decline in the 1970s and '80s. Summers remembers being the most scared in Effingham, when a burglar was spotted trying to break into the depot. One of the duties of the tower worker was to drive a van to pick up dispatch papers and other documents dropped off at the depot.

"I thought maybe he was in the depot. And then I was afraid he would be hiding in the van or try to get into the tower. I just locked the door and I remember being scared by every little sound that night," she says.

Those are the sort of stories that Halpern finds fascinating and that helped stoke his interest in railroads and the people who work for them.

He plans to have more railroad photographs on exhibit at the Illinois Terminal this year.

With his photographs, "I want people to take a step back and look at some of the history involved with railroads – both nationally and locally," Halpern says. "I don't want us to forget the people who helped get the railroads going and running today.

"Railroads have a very, very visible footprint on the landscape, and when you understand what and who it takes to keep everything operating – that's what I find most interesting."

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