The cover picture on the June 1987 issue of “The Hoosier Line”, showing the 3 diesel units struggling northbound with train 72 on the long grade between Borden and Pekin, Indiana, opened a floodgate of memories in the mind of this old Hoosier boy. I grew up on the Monon, and spent several memorable weekends in Borden visiting my Dad, Roy Lane, while he relieved the regular agent, Bill Davis, who always took his vacation during the “Strawberry Rush.” Dad was the Relief Agent on the “South End”, and his family (my Mother, Brother Richard and myself) often visited him on weekends wherever he happened to be “relieving”, places like Cloverdale, Greencastle, Ellettsville, Roachdale, Gosport, Salem and finally Borden. But it was the latter when my excitement reached its peak for this (then) junior high youngster.
Unless one could have been there during the period (late 1920’s early 1930’s) and witnessed the hectic, beehive of activity during that seasonal Strawberry Rush, it is difficult to visualize. For those who don’t know, Borden then (and probably still is) a tiny town nestled in a beautiful valley in Southern Indiana’s “Knob Country”, which for reasons known only to the local natives and Mother Nature, produces some of the finest strawberries grown anywhere. For a two to three week period in late spring, these local Hill People would drive down to the depot in every conceivable type of vehicle. I’ve seen horse or mule drawn wagons with two different size wheels arrive loaded with crates of those luscious berries. Then they would sell them to various fruit brokers who would then ship them via Railway Express “reefers” (spotted earlier by the local) to Chicago for distribution to markets in the major cities. During the day I watched in awe while as many as six to eight of those refers were iced and loaded on a nearby siding, waiting for the arrival at about 10:00 pm of northbound No. 4, the night passenger train that ran from Louisville to Chicago, which arrived about 10:00 pm. I was allowed to stay up (we lived in the Hotel right across the tracks from the depot.) and watch the action as No. 4’s engine, usually one of those handsome, powerful Pacific’s of the 440 or 450 class (occasionally double headed, if tonnage required) uncoupled from the train and pick up the refers and couple back onto the head end. Then came the unforgettable sight and sound of the slowly increasing “stack music” as the engineer coaxed his throttle for that long pull up the grade to Pekin, which strawberries ahead of several passenger coaches, bound for an early arrival in the Windy City.
I do not remember the exact percentage of the grade, but I do know that it was one of the Monon’s steepest, and about five to six miles long. During that era, a “helper” engine was assigned to Borden on a twenty four hour a day basis for use as a “pusher” on all northbound freights, regular and extras alike. The engine on duty at that time was 517, one of the older class “Mikes.” Road freight engine on that division then were mostly the heavier “Mikes” of the 550 and 560 classes, plus a few of the newer 570’s. The usual procedure was for the pusher to be stationed at the far south end of the passing track, then after the caboose of the northbound freight slowly cleared the switch, the pusher would back out onto the main, and couple to the caboose then it was highball for the climb to Pekin. After clearing the hill, the pusher would uncouple and back down to Borden. How often that occurred in a 24 hour period, I have no idea. I’ve heard them go by many times in the night. I know that all northbound freights, except locals, required help on that grade.
Several times between pushes, 517, sat idle on the Hostler’s track, down near the furniture factory, (Borden’s only industry) steam hissing, pumps throbbing, this youngster would climb up into the cab, afraid to touch anything, and breaking all safety rules, but never once caught. Then I would sit in the engineer’s seat and DREAM! At times it was difficult to resist the temptation to reach up and pull the whistle cord, but knowing if I did all hell would break loose. At may age (BG, before girls) sitting in that cab, listening to the sounds, savoring the smells of a living steam locomotive was, believe me, the ultimate thrill!
One other “Borden Incident” which stand out clearly in my mind. We lived in Orleans then, up the track maybe 25 or 30 miles north, and whenever visiting Dad we would ride the northbound morning Bloomington-Louisville “Milk Run” to Borden. In those days if I remember correctly, the automatic block signals ended at Salem, so from there to New Albany, trains ran strictly by timetable and Dispatcher’s orders. On this particular trip, while stopping in Pekin, this youngster’s ear, which were always “tuned in” to anything said by the crew, overheard the Conductor remark to his brakeman, “We can make it to Borden for No. 6.” So away we went down that long hill. I will venture to guess that never before nor since has any train gone from Pekin to Borden in less than it took us that morning. As most readers know, No. 6 was one of the better passenger trains the Monon operated in those days. Complete with diner and observation car from Louisville to Chicago. The companion to No. 5 running in the opposite direction. Both made the trip across the Hoosier State in something under eight hours, including several stops. So, when No. 6 came through Borden every morning, its speed was always in the 50 – 60 mile per hour range, making a running start for the climb to Pekin. So with No. 6 arrival time rapidly approaching, we went right past the Borden Depot, into the passing track and into the clear barely minutes before No. 6 came roaring by. I doubt if many passengers aboard that morning were aware of the “close” call. After we had calmly backed up to the Borden Depot and disembarked, business went on as usual. Dad later told me the local had orders to wait at Pekin for No. 6.
Yes, those were the glorious days of American Railroading, and those of us old enough to remember how it was “up and down the Monon” can relive those pleasant memories, secure in the knowledge that although those days are gone forever, hopefully publications like “The Hoosier Line”, along with others will keep them alive for future generations.
By Jack Lane, originally appearing in The Hoosier Line, Volume 8, Number 4.
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