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.
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:
Walking westward, I cross the Rock River on steel gratings next to the tracks.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Moving on, I notice the derelict state of the unused track. The wooden ties are slowly decaying, and the rail spikes are coming loose.
Sometimes the tracks simply 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:
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:
This past March, the Amtrak station was brought down. By the time of my walk, this was all that remained:
The sign that let travelers know they had arrived at their destination is still there:
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?
I couldn't help but peek inside. Apparently, the building's primary function now is to serve as a trash recepticle.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.