Rockford, Illinois, USA
February 05
I'm a regular middle aged guy, living in a regular middle class neighborhood, in a regular middle-sized community in the middle of America. I am an expatriate Texan transplanted to the Midwest, and wondering how I got here, and where I'm headed.

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MAY 8, 2011 4:03PM

A Walk along Urban Train Tracks

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I was bored.  It was a cloudy, blustery spring day, far colder than the calendar would suggest.  It was the kind of day best spent indoors.  Nevertheless, I was suffering from a near terminal case of cabin fever.  I needed to get out and do something.  Then the wild idea hit me.  Why not take a walk along the old train tracks that run through the heart of town?  Something different, something adventurous, maybe even a little dangerous.  Sounds like fun…

Like many cities dating back to the mid-1800's, Rockford owes much of its growth to the railroads.  In fact, most of the earliest settlers of the city arrived here by train by a simple accident of history -- it was here that the Chicago-Galena Railroad tracks came to an end.  The absence of a bridge over the Rock River forced the city's earliest settlers to deboard here.  Rather than risk the dangerous trek further west on foot, they simply stayed and built a small Midwestern city.  

I decided to begin my rail exploration at the point where those early settlers deboarded.  It is an area undergoing the difficult transition to a post-industrial society.  Parts of this city are flourishing.  Not surprisingly, the part of town that grew up along the rail lines, by tracks that are now mostly derelict, are not flourishing at all.  That is what would make this an adventurous experience.  I would be in the midst of 21st century urban decay.


tracks east of rock river


 In 1850, the tracks came to an end where I stood to take the photo above.  The Rock River is about 200 feet in front of me.  A few feet behind me is the First Street bridge, which serves the dual purpose of carrying automobiles across the tracks, and providing shelter and storage for the homeless:


tracks clothing under street bridge



Walking westward, I cross the Rock River on steel gratings next to the tracks.  

tracks rock river bridge


As you can see from the photo above, there is a low water dam below the bridge.  When you stand directly over it, the water's turmoil is impressive:


tracks foot on bridge


On the west bank of the river sit two old memorials to Rockford's manufacturing legacy, the old Amerock tower (on the right) and the Tapco building next to it.  Both buildings were built in the early 20th century.


tracks amerock tower


Hundreds of workers once flocked to these buildings each day, producing hardware and tools that were shipped to stores and manufacturing facilities across the nation and the world.  Sadly, these buildings have been sitting vacant for years.  They have decayed into ugly eyesores, standing in stark contrast to the landscaped waterfront adjacent to them.  Recently, there has been an effort to have these buildings added to the National Historical Register.  I am a big proponent of historical preservation, but there are some buildings that simply need to be demolished.  I'm not sure these aesthetically unappealing buildings need to be preserved.

It has been many years since the Tapco parking lot has been used for the purpose for which it was built.  Notice the tunnel in the background that enabled workers to cross beneath the train tracks to get to their jobs.


tracks tapco parking lot



tracks tapco tunnel


Not all of the businesses along the tracks are closed.  Even those that are still operating, however, no longer look toward the tracks for the shipment of supplies and inventory.  Note how the old loading docks of the building below have been bricked up.  It has been a long time since this company shipped anything by rail.


tracks old warehouse



Moving on, I notice the derelict state of the unused track.  The wooden ties are slowly decaying, and the rail spikes are coming loose.


tracks derelict track



Sometimes the tracks simply disappear.


tracks disappear


Rockford was served by passenger rail service until 1981.  Like many of the buildings along these rails, the passenger train station fell into a state of disrepair, and it was finally torn down in the mid-20th century.   Here is a photo of Rockford's old passenger station from the early part of that century:


tracks old station


This is a station that had character.  Too bad there was little impetus for historical preservation 60 years ago.  It was replaced with a much smaller building that eventually became the city's Amtrak station.  The new building may have been adequate from a functional standpoint, but it was sorely lacking aesthetically.  Once Amtrak ceased operations in Rockford, that station, too, fell into a state of dangerous disrepair.

Here is a photo of what the Amtrak station looked like a few months ago:


rockford amtrak station


This past March, the Amtrak station was brought down.  By the time of my walk, this was all that remained:


tracks amtrak remains



The sign that let travelers know they had arrived at their destination is still there:


tracks amtrak sign


A little past the old Amtrak station you come upon an old, decrepit maintenance shack.  I wonder how long it has been since it was used?


tracks maintenance hut exterior


I couldn't help but peek inside.  Apparently, the building's primary function now is to serve as a trash recepticle. 


tracks maintenance hut interior


Garbage and litter are found all along train tracks.  I noticed all kinds of metal and plastic refuse, much of it very small.  How long will this detritus of 20th century industrial waste remain before it finally, once again, becomes part of the earth?


tracks litter


So far, one might think that the old rails are good for nothing but garbage and decay.  That is not entirely true.  The crushed rocks that compose the ballast are often beautiful, with multiple shades of red, gray, white, brown, and purple.

tracks ballast beauty


On a couple of occasions I came across a few train cars sitting on the rails.  I wonder how long they have been there?  Why were they left there in the first place?


tracks train cars


Notice the ladder on the corner of the car?  If you had been in my place, wouldn't you have wanted to climb that ladder and peek into the car?  I did.  It was a little anti-climactic.


tracks inside train car


For much of its course in this part of town, the track runs along a man-made ridge above the flood plain of the river.  I peered down into the valley and noticed this tent home.  Again, it struck me how the most unfortunate members of our society seem to gravitate to the rails.  Here they find refuge away from prying, predatory, and judgemental eyes.


tracks homeless tent


One of my favorite restaurants in town closed last year.  It was a small, inexpensive, family-owned establishment called Cafe Greco.  Like so much of this part of town, this old building now sits empty, and it is in danger of falling into the same state of neglect as so many other buildings in this area.


tracks cafe greco


As you can see, the building is located very close to the tracks, and the building that housed it has a storied past.  During the prohibition era, it was a speakeasy.  A tunnel led from the building's basement over a hundred feet to the other side of the train tracks.  Bootleggers would bring contraband booze by train to this spot and use the tunnel to smuggle it into the speakeasy.  I have long wanted to see if I could find the opening to the smuggler's tunnel.  Maybe I did.  As I pushed through thick brambles, vines, and scrubby bushes on a steep embankment next to the track, I found a large hole.  The opening was about 20 inches wide, but it could have been much wider long ago.  Sure, it's probably just a racoon den, but who knows?  Did bootleg booze once pass through this hole? 


tracks tunnel opening



By now, I had been exploring these tracks for well over an hour.  I decided it was time to head back.  When I got to the old Amtrak yard, I noticed the back side of a well-known Rockford landmark, the Tinker Swiss Cottage.  It is the beige colored building in the background.


tracks tinker from station


This building was built as a private residence in the 1850's after its owner visited Switzerland and fell in love with that country's chalet architecture.  Eventually, the family sold their home to the city of Rockford.  The building is now a museum highlighting the lifestyle of 19th century elites.  It is a beautiful building both inside and out.  Its presence provides a stark contrast to the industrial decay that surrounds it.


tracks tinker swiss cottage



Finally, my walk neared its end.  I wondered what this downtrodden area will look like in 10, 20, or 50 years.  Will the decay continue unabated?  There is talk of building a new train station with federal and state aid to bring Amtrak back to Rockford.  This would be the pivotal aspect of an urban renewal effort that has been making slow progress in other areas nearby.  I hope the effort to bring back passenger rail service works.  I think it would do a great deal to bring new life to a neighborhood that sorely needs it.  It would be very costly, but the cost of doing nothing is surely just as high.  Inner city decay is dangerous to the health of the entire metropolitan area.  Few population centers thrive on suburbs alone.  

I stopped to take one last look at the bridge over the Rock River, and then headed home. 


tracks dam and bridge


















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A splendid and well-documented walk. Thanks for having me along.
This was really fun. You sure covered a lot of ground in a very short time! A LOT of stories come flowing at each of your stops. That maintenance shack---I wonder what that was like in the winter when the Rock was frozen over.. . .
Steve, thanks for this informative and fascinating walk along the old tracks! The rail lines in my region are primarily for commuters going into the city and they have been spared a similar outcome, plus billions of dollars have been spent over the past few decades to add new rail cars and to keep the tracks in good shape.

The old New York Central rail line near me that was converted to a bike path did have some similarities to the Rockford line, but now that has been spruced up since its conversion to this new use.
Stacey, thanks for coming.

Roger, I think it was very cold. In fact, it was very cold last weekend when I was there.

John, the rails that remain active, especially those that carry passenger traffic, will foster healthy business activity. That's why I think it is so important to bring Amtrak back to this community. The line would run from Dubuque, IA, to Chicago. Hopefully, it will also take passengers to O'Hare. That would do wonders for this run down part of town, and would likely even increase the population, as this little city would be able to attract more commuters who work in the Chicago area.
Steve, I loved this. I really wish I could have walked alongside you. We need to do something together at some point. I think though that I would have been overcome with sadness, though you've hidden yours somewhat, by what's been lost. It certainly makes me think of all the current leaders who try to do something now on behalf of our grandchildren, and how often they are ignored and excoriated.

This is a beautiful poignant story Steve. And through the sadness, there are other things you're showing...a pride in the history, an ability to find beauty, and honesty, that perhaps is the most precious. Enjoyed the photos very much as well. Thanks, friend.
Barry, yes it's sad to see the decay, but fortunately, the situation is not terminal. It can be reversed. I have seen cities rise to the occasion -- Ft. Worth, Memphis, and from what I have heard Providence, for example, all went through serious urban decline in the 60's and 70's and overcame it. My city has made some headway already by revitalizing downtown with new parks, outdoor markets and entertainment in the summer. That has attracted small businesses and increase pedestrian flow to an area that was sorely needing it. I believe a re-introduction of passenger rail service would do the same for the area I walked. So yes, it's sad, but there is hope.

And yes, I would like to take a walk or trip with you sometime!
Now that was an interesting walk. I wish that grand old train station could have survived. When I lived in NH, a few similarly grand stations from the late 1800s and early 1900s were likewise relegated to history's trash can. What a waste!

That ballast shot is really beautiful.

I share your wish for the restoration of Amtrak service to Rockford. I'd also love to see service to Madison and Galena.

Thanks for taking us along on your journey!
bikepsycho, if service is restored as it is planned, Galena would be one of the stops. It would end in Dubuque. Thanks for joining me on the journey.
"Rockford. Last stop. Everyone off."
"What? There's no bridge?"
"Nope. Off the train. We didn't call this place 'Rockford' for nothing. Now go ford that river."

The branches of the American character -- when reaching the end of the line: the pioneer pushes on; the entrepreneur sets up shop and sells supplies to the pioneer. Which is the wiser course?
Julie, thanks! Glad you stopped by.

Stim, the reason those first settlers took the train to Rockford is also interesting. They were newly arrived Swedes, intending to remain among Chicago's already existing Swedish community. The pastor of the Chicago Swedish congregation met them at the train station and told them to stay on the train and get out of Chicago due to a cholera epidemic there. They asked where they should go, and the pastor told them to simply ride west as far as possible. That's what they did. They arrived at the Rock River and started building a community. Soon, Rockford became a magnet for additional Swedish immigrants, and a city was born.
you may well be the leading voice

in your community, as well as leading

scoundrel; one favorite phrase used

in reaction to similar work (exposure)

in our community is 'nay-sayer';

any new golf-courses for Rockford?
ume, I wouldn't say I'm the leading voice in the community, but I do like to make my voice heard every now and then. As for golf, that's a sport that I do not partake in, although this city has been recognized for its quality courses by Golf magazine (at least I think that's the publication). I doubt if very many people are aware of that. As for "nay-sayers", we have our share of them around here, too.
Thanks for taking us on this nostalgic and really poignant walk. You have a great eye and a real historical perspective no matter where you wander.
As a student of history, have you read much Spengler? He talks about the life and death of cultures and cities as having "life cycles" like living organisms. It helps to understand this process.

My great great grandfather was a stationmaster in a small town in Mi. He worked there for 61 years. When I went the first time the slab of cement the station was built upon was still there, but the second time even it was gone and in its place was a beautiful garden, an even greater tribute, I thought.
You took me on a great journey, and I learned so much. Thanks for sharing.
Lea and Erica, thank you for accompanying me on my walk!

Ben Sen, gosh I haven't looked at any Spengler since college. My father-in-law was also a lifelong railroad man. I must agree with you, a garden as a replacement for the old rails is a nice tribute.
Next winter, beware of ice hogs.
Great essay. I've always wanted to do a walk-the tracks post and see where it took me. Fascinating stuff.
You and XJS, absolutely! And let's not forget about those summertime Riverhawks.

ghost, I suspected you would appreciate this. I wish I had your skills with a camera.
Nice photos, but sad the state of our railways. R
Steve, this is a lovely informative walk. It takes me back to boyhood years when we wondered our rural tracks for entire days, finding various treasures and other sad exapmples of decay.

In Chicago, when you walk the tracks, security intercepts you quickly and asks you to leave, but in the smaller areas, the mysteries are still open. Thanks for such a splendid piece!
Gary, I was surprised that no one ever approached me and told me to leave. I did probably break a "no trespassing law" or two, especially around the old passenger station yard. Of course, a minor "no trespassing" violation adds to the adventure!
Thank you for seeing. And sharing. The world around us is vast.
According to the pics this was an enthralling adventure following the train tracks. I myself just love walking and discovering new places to see. Keep posting!

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