Tunnel Hill State Trail

Illinois

At a Glance

Name: Tunnel Hill State Trail
Length: 55.3 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Johnson, Pulaski, Saline, Williamson
Surfaces: Concrete, Crushed Stone
State: Illinois

A Brief History

The Tunnel Hill State Trail is named for the railroad tunnel in the small Illinois town where it is located. The corridor was originally built during the early 1870s by a predecessor system that eventually became part of the massive New York Central (NYC). The NYC boasted a network of nearly 11,000 miles during its peak years of operation, stretching from Chicago and St. Louis to New York and Boston. It was one of the largest systems east of the Mississippi River rivaled only by the Pennsylvania Railroad. The trail spans the southern portion of NYC’s most southerly line, which grew into a profitable coal branch. “Black diamonds” remained a lucrative source of freight into the 1970s until new environmental laws softened demand. It was eventually abandoned during the late 1980s and later converted into today’s trail.

The history of rail service along this corridor began when the Cairo & Vincennes Railroad (C&V) was organized on March 6, 1867. It was completed between its namesake cities—157 miles—on December 26, 1872. The line had one tunnel about 800 feet long and located at the small community of Tunnel Hill about 10 miles northeast of Vienna (it was later shortened to about 500 feet after a collapse in 1929). In 1890, the C&V would come under the control of the newly created Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St Louis Railway (CCC&StL), more commonly referred to as the “Big Four Route.” The line was a large, early railroad serving the Midwest and was formed through the merger of several smaller carriers. It eventually grew into a system of nearly 2,400 miles, linking Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Chicago, Indianapolis, and St. Louis. According to Mike Schafer’s “Classic American Railroads,” from the Big Four’s earliest days it was under the direction of the Vanderbilt family, which controlled the New York Central, although the NYC did not formally lease the property until 1930.

Soon after it opened, the C&V route offered lucrative volumes of coal—rich veins of high-sulfur, bituminous coal were located in the southern region of Illinois. According to Joseph Schwieterman’s book “When The Railroad Leaves Town: Eastern United States,” short branches were also constructed from the main line to serve numerous mines owned by Big Creek Coal, Harrisburg Coal, O’Gara Coal, and other companies. Coal remained the dominant source of freight throughout the years, and the route grew in importance when the CCC&StL pushed its tracks north of Danville, Illinois, to East Chicago through subsidiary Chicago, Indiana & Southern. The new line opened on January 21, 1906, and provided direct service between Chicago and Cairo, earning it the nickname the “Egyptian Line” (for the southern terminus at Cairo, Illinois).

It also had a passenger train called the “Egyptian.” According to Craig Sanders’ book “Limiteds, Locals, and Expresses in Indiana, 1838-1971,” service along the Chicago–Danville portion began shortly after it opened with a through-sleeper operating to Cairo. The name “Egyptian” first appeared on the September 26, 1926, timetable. While the train continued to operate only between Chicago and Danville, it now offered through-sleepers and coaches to Cairo. Finally, the Egyptian began running the entire route in 1934 during the overnight hours. It remained on this schedule until June 22, 1941, when it was cutback to Harrisburg, about 70 miles north of Cairo. Passenger trains across the country struggled to remain relevant after World War II, with the rise in automobile usage and improved highways. As a result, less prominent, non-flagship trains such as the Egyptian were the first to go. The train made its last run on April 28, 1957.

During 1968, the New York Central merged with the Pennsylvania Railroad to form the Penn Central Transportation Company (PC). Despite the resounding failure of this new conglomerate, the coal generated on the Egyptian Line remained strong through the early 1970s. Scheiterman notes in his book that even through 1973, the Cairo line generated a healthy 600 carloads of freight every week. When the PC went bankrupt in 1970, later giving way to newly created Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail) in 1976, the old Cairo line was initially included as part of its system. Around this time, however, demand for southern Illinois coal greatly decreased when companies attempted to meet new federal regulations under the Clean Air Act. This made high-sulfur coal less desirable in favor of low-sulfur varieties, which burned cleaner with fewer pollutants. In 1982, Conrail sold the Cairo line to Norfolk Southern, and the new owner attempted to revitalize the line’s former coal business. Unfortunately, this never materialized, and NS abandoned the line in 1988.

Railroad attractions in Illinois include the Amboy Railroad Museum in Amboy; Chicago Great Western Railway Depot Museum in Elizabeth; Chicago History Museum (1601 North Clark Street); Depot Railroad Museum in Rossville; Fox River Trolley Museum in South Elgin; Galesburg Railroad Museum in Galesburg; Historic Greenup Depot in Greenup; Historic Pullman Foundation in Chicago (11141 South Cottage Grove Avenue); Illinois Railway Museum in Union; Kankakee Railroad Museum in Kankakee; Monticello Railway Museum in Monticello; Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago (57th Street and Lake Shore Drive); Rochelle Railroad Park in Rochelle (popular train-watching location); Silver Creek & Stephenson Railroad in Freeport; Union Depot Railroad Museum in Mendota; and the Wheels O’ Time Museum in Dunlap.

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