The Hawkeye is late

The U of I online digital library can be viewed at https://digital.lib.uiowa.edu. The photo is part of the John P. Vander Maas Railroadiana.

By Robert E. Oliver

This photo is from the University of Iowa’s online digital library.

There’s no mention of the photographer’s name, and no record of the date the photo was taken; just the simple inscription: ” IC no. 11 crossing C&NW.”

For an Illinois Central fan, though, that’s enough. There’s just one problem with this photo. If, indeed, this is train No. 11, the westbound Hawkeye, it’s late. Very, very late, and that rarely happened.

A 1924 Illinois Central brochure proclaimed: The Hawkeye Limited covered the 510 miles from Sioux City to Chicago in “only 14 hours, 35 mins.” Operation of the Limited required nine steam locomotives; two baggage cars; two mail-storage cars; two mail-baggage cars; two railway Post Office cars (in which mail was sorted by postal clerks en route); seven coaches; four chair cars (like coaches but with more luxurious seats); one dining car; three cafe cars, and 12 sleeping cars.

Altogether the train represented an investment of $1.554 million, a large sum in those years. It took 73 men, not counting Pullman porters, who were employed by The Pullman Company, to staff the Limited between Chicago and Sioux City, and vice-versa, daily. From inception, it was the pride of Illinois Central’s Western Lines. That the Hawkeye ran on time could be taken for granted; it was a matter of pride.

In practice, separate trains originated in Sioux City, Sioux Falls, S.D., and Omaha. At Cherokee, the Sioux City and Sioux Falls sections were combined, and at Fort Dodge, cars from Omaha joined the train. East of there, the now-12-car train was hauled by one of the Illinois Central’s huge “mountain” type steam locomotives, regularly reaching 80 mph on the superbly-maintained track.

Throughout its history, the Hawkeye left its terminals at supper time, and arrived at the opposite terminals at 8 a.m. the next morning. The schedule allowed passengers an opportunity to eat one of IC’s famous table d’hote dinners in the dining car, get a good night’s sleep as the heavy Pullmans gently rocked over the darkened prairies, then enjoy a hearty breakfast prior to arrival.

No one lost weight when traveling Illinois Central.

So much for the glorious past. Now, what about this photo? There’s no question the location is Webster City. The signal tower was close to Prospect Street where the two railroads crossed. Today, C&NW is owned by Union Pacific, the former Illinois Central by Canadian National. The tower was razed sometime in the early 1960s.

From the earliest days of American railroads, when one line wished to cross another at grade, the second railroad bore 100% of the expense of the crossing itself, including perpetual maintenance. It was also responsible for keeping the crossing safe, as such crossings offered an ideal place for accidents.

From about 1880, this meant an interlocked signal. In simple terms, when the signal was green for one railroad, an electrical device ensured only a red (stop) signal could be displayed for the other railroad. There was no possibility of a human error. This, along with the universal air brake, is one of the innovations that launched the giant Westinghouse Electric Company.

The tower at Webster City was of standard C&NW design, and manned by C&NW employees 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The rods in the foreground ran to track switches controlled from the tower. Known as “armstrong” plants, such equipment took a strong arm to operate the pneumatic devices that could throw a switch a thousand feet distant from the tower.

The locomotive in the photo is a model E-9, built by Electro-Motive Division of General Motors, LaGrange, Illinois. It had twin V-12 1,200-horsepower diesel engines, developing a total of 2,400 hp. It was streamlined to reduce wind resistance and present a modern appearance. They accelerated quickly, and could maintain high speeds over long stretches. They were the greyhounds of Illinois Central’s fleet, the perfect locomotive for its fast passenger schedules.

IC took delivery of its first E-9s in 1954, so the photo was taken after that date.

The only other car visible in the photo is an Illinois Central express refrigerator car. Such cars carried highly perishable cargo: fresh meat from western Iowa’s “cattle belt,” fresh strawberries in season, butter, eggs or fresh-cut flowers. Most of this traffic was eastbound to Chicago, so it’s a good bet this refrigerator car is empty, returning westward for another load.

The westbound Hawkeye, when on time, made its westbound stop in Webster City at 3.23 a.m. Clearly, with the sun shining in the photo, the proud train is hours late.

The Hawkeye was regularly assigned two locomotives to ensure it could maintain schedule. Did one break down this day? Was only one locomotive available when the train left Chicago, causing it to fall further and further behind schedule along the line?

Now, imagine the engineer in his cab, waiting for the towerman to give him a green signal, and his conductor’s “all aboard,” meaning all mail and express had been loaded, passengers have boarded, and it’s safe to proceed. Then … he will unleash the powerful prime movers under his steady hand, and quickly get his train up to maximum allowable speed.

He has to.

The Hawkeye is late.

The U of I online digital library can be viewed at https://digital.lib.uiowa.edu. The photo is part of the John P. Vander Maas Railroadiana.


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