A Visit to the Fox River Branch by Harold Krewer

It’s a crisp October evening in northern Illinois. The last rays of sunlight are hovering just above the tree line, adding a golden glow to the bonfire of color on the trees. Actually, a bonfire would feel good right about now….there’s a bit of a nip in the air thanks to a northwest wind. Your mind wanders back to the radio broadcast of the World Series you listed to earlier today, and you wonder if the heavily-favored Cleveland Indians, already down 3 games to none, will ever beat the New York Giants.


Except for the sounds of the wind in the trees and the gently flowing Fox River, all is quiet…but not for long. In the distance, the rhythm of internal combustion engines is heard. You nod and cock your ear to the south to listen, knowing that the real show is about to begin.


Growing ever louder and more strained, it becomes obvious that whatever task is at hand is taking everything they’ve got. Man, you say to yourself, he’s gotta have a big train today. Before long, the beam of an oscillating headlight appears, painting a swath of light across the sky and off the trees. Just as the ground under your feet begins to shake, the four locomotives (“motors” the railroad men call ‘em) of CB&Q Train 86 appear. The Engineer has them working all-out, straining to lift the heavy train behind them out of the Fox River valley.


Those cars trailing behind are destined for point far beyond here, carrying the raw materials needed to keep the nation’s industrial machine working. There are many different commodities on today’s train, but the overwhelming number of cars are carrying sand. Not just any sand, but high-grade silica sand, used for glassmaking, foundry casting and abrasive additives. Like run-of-the-mill sand though, silica sand is dense and heavy, and that is why the four Electro-Motive Division (EMD) F3’s on today’s train are struggling mightily to move it north.


Your vantage point is near a loose rail joint, and as the train passes you hear (and feel) each wheel slap that rail joint down, only to have it pop back up for more: thump-thump, thump-thump; thump-thump, thump-thump. As more of the train passes you, you note the cadence of this seemingly merciless beating is picking up, indicating Train 86 has won today’s battle against gravity.


After what seems like forever, the “waycar” (what they call cabooses on the CB&Q) shoots past, with a friendly wave from the cupola. As the twin red marker lights disappear around the curve and into the trees, the sounds of the river and the trees reclaim their prominence, not to be upstaged again until the morning, when southbound Train 85 will begin the cycle anew...