Seattle to Rochester

part 2: chicago shuttle

It was about 0015 on Wednesday, August 28, 1968. I was in the Milwaukee Road yard in Bensenville, south of O'Hare International Airport, having dismounted the hotshot freight called the Thunderhawk after a three-day ride from Seattle. Now I had to find out how to get from here to the Penn Central yard on the southeast side of Chicago, about 16 miles away as the crow flies. From there I hoped to ride to Pittsburgh. (Penn Central became part of Conrail in 1976.)

After a few minutes of walking next to my train I emerged from between the cuts into an open area. The lighting was typical of big freight yards: there was a general dull brightness produced by big floodlights mounted on poles and towers. Supplementing this was the localized lighting around small yard structures and buildings. Over to my left was a small yard building. Based on the human activity around it I surmised that it was a place where employees checked in and out, ate, washed up, and killed time. I headed straight for it.

Outside the building I asked some employees about trains bound for the Penn Central yard but they were of no help. Inside, all I got out of the workers was a feeling of apathy or ignorance. This reception was a bit perplexing. After so many instances of being treated well by yard employees and train crews on the West Coast, I couldn't understand why I was getting this type of response. Maybe it was the way of the Midwest. I went back outside to ponder my fate. Here my luck changed: a guy informed me that the Penn Central yard was 17 miles away and that I would have to wait until 0230 (2 hours) for a shuttle train headed in that direction. He pointed it out.


So I waited for the shuttle to leave and then rode it about 11 miles to its termination point of Western Avenue Yard, an intermediate Milwaukee Road yard three miles west of downtown Chicago. From here it was eight miles south to the Penn Central yard. At the time, however, I only knew that I was in a minor yard somewhere northwest of downtown and that the Penn Central yard was far away.

As I approached the doorway to get out of the car I ripped my left parka sleeve on a nail in the wall. Little tufts of down stuck out of the fabric. But that wasn't the end of my problems. Getting out of the boxcar was unusually difficult because the tracks were so close together. Once I got on the ground I found that the track spacing wouldn't allow me to walk between cuts. I had to scoot under strings of cars to get into the open. That was something I knew to be dangerous, so I paid attention to the sights and sounds to ensure that I wouldn't be surprised by sudden car movements. Then I walked a hundred yards to a small yard office in a brightly lit area. Inside, one of the men gave a vague reply to my inquiry about trains bound for the Penn Central yard. On his advice I talked to someone in a shack a little farther down the tracks. This time I got me the information I needed: there would be a shuttle train leaving for the Penn Central yard later in the morning. With this knowledge I returned to the office building and sat down on a simple wooden bench next to the entry sidewalk.

I put my bags down, leaned against the wall of the building, and began to wait. And wait. And wait. The sun rose. Railroad employees came and went, walking right past me. No one objected to my presence. But I got tired of waiting and decided to try my luck with city buses. After getting directions to a pay phone, I walked a block or two to a gas station with the intention of telephoning the city bus company for information on bus schedules. The man at the station advised me to ride the shuttle train to avoid the tough neighborhoods near the Penn Central yard. One thing I couldn't handle was physical threats to my person, so I decided to take the guy's advice. After thanking him for the information I returned to the yard office building and reclaimed my spot on the bench. Not long after that a man entering the building told me to go inside and look at my face in the bathroom mirror. When I did, I almost fainted: it was super filthy from my three-day ride from Seattle. Maybe that's why I had received such cool receptions.

I got permission to wash up inside. With soap and water I became a new man. Then: back to the bench to wait for my shuttle train. While I watched people come and go and observed local yard action, a man wearing a sport coat and slacks entered the building. I thought it odd that he didn't hassle me at all. A while later he came back out and loitered on the sidewalk just outside the door, not more than fifteen feet from me. He leaned on the sidewalk railing and greeted people as they entered and left the building. I thought to myself that it's cool that an administrative worker pays no attention to me. My mind was about to be blown. As he stood there with his back to me, he shifted his position to get more comfortable. When he pulled his coat back to rest his hand on his hip, a revolver in a holster came into view. A few minutes later I saw a set of handcuffs on his belt. The guy was a railroad cop! This benign neglect made up for the apathetic atmosphere at Bensenville.


At 1030 a switchman told me to get my gear and follow him if I still wanted a ride. He walked away toward the caboose of a train sitting nearby and I followed him. When I started walking past the caboose to look for a car, he told me to hop in the caboose. Did I hear him correctly? Did he just tell me to get into the caboose? Could I be so lucky? Not one to argue, I climbed the steps and entered. Another crew member told me to get comfortable on one of the bunks. After telling them about my adventure, I got so comfortable that I fell asleep. Only once during the ride did I wake up: I have a vague recollection of sunlight streaming down into a cut beneath the streets of downtown Chicago, possibly near a passenger station.

The next thing I knew, some one woke me up with the news that we had reached the Penn Central yard. This was just north of Garfield Boulevard and three miles west of Lake Michigan (at the time I didn't know the street names and didn't care). The men in the caboose told me that the cars on a particular track were going to Pittsburgh. They pointed out that any of the several empty baggage cars would give me a good ride and would be the safest cars to be on in this area because of the rough neighborhood next to the yard. As soon as the shuttle train stopped I bid my chauffeurs adieu, walked to the best-looking baggage car and hopped in.