This past Saturday (August 5, 2017) marked the inaugural run for the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation’s Rail Rangers program on the South Shore Line between Chicago, Illinois and South Bend, Indiana. Dozens of passengers turned out to listen to the new series of live on board educational programs that cover a wide variety of topics, including the downtown and south side neighborhoods of Chicago, the historic steel mill region of Northwest Indiana, the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and the “breadbasket” agricultural region of western La Porte and St. Joseph Counties.
Things got underway with the departure of South Shore Line Train #503 at 8:40am Central Time from Millennium Station. Even though the APRHF Rail Rangers have been involved with dozens of private rail excursions out of Chicago over the past two years, this was the first time that our guides have done a program departing Millennium Station. All other programs have been out of Union Station, which is located about two miles away across the Loop. The original station on the site was constructed by the Illinois Central Railroad in 1856 and was known as ‘Great Central Station’. It changed names to Randolph Street Station, and finally Millennium Station (in 2005). South Shore Line trains operate out of the first level; the second level of platforms below is used by Metra Electric commuter service to University Park, Illinois. South Shore and Metra Electric trains share stations and trackage for the first 14.5 miles of the South Shore’s trip to South Bend, Indiana (until Kensington/115th Street). No long-distance passenger trains use Chicago’s Millennium Station.
At the conductor’s request, our interpretive guides set up the program in the third car back from the front of the train going eastbound (which became the sixth car back going westbound). One of the benefits of doing programs on the South Shore’s eight-car train sets is that one car can easily be designated for narration. Those who want to hear the program can have a seat and enjoy learning about the surrounding landscape. Those who want a more quiet experience and/or don’t care to learn about what is out their window have the ability to move to one of the other cars on the train. Aboard for the first run were APRHF Vice-President/Rail Rangers Executive Director Robert Tabern, APRHF Secretary/Rail Rangers Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern, and Rail Rangers Lead Interpretive Guide Robert Neil. Nearly 80 passengers were in attendance in the Rail Rangers Car both ways to hear the program — several traveled just to hear the narration since the program was advertised in media around Northwest Indiana and South Bend during the week prior.
While passing through the south side of Chicago, Interpretive Guides pointed out various major landmarks like the Field Museum, Soldier Field, McCormick Place, and the Museum of Science and Industry. All are with-in easy walking distance of the tracks used by the South Shore Line. One of the “lesser known” attractions that caught the attention of a lot of passengers was live narration about Woods Oak Cemetery, located just west of the South Shore Line tracks near 67th Street. More than 4,000 Confederate Civil War Prisoners of War are buried here. They died while being held between 1863 and 1865 at Chicago’s Camp Douglas. It was considered the “Andersonville of the North” and was the largest Prisoner of War Camp operated by the Union Army. Even several life-long Chicagoans on the train admitted that they didn’t know about Camp Douglas or that thousands of Confederate soldiers are buried in a mass grave on the south side of Chicago.
Both rail enthusiasts and those who knew little about railroad history alike enjoyed passing by Pullman National Monument. The South Shore Line travels right by the clock tower and administration building of the old Pullman Factory. George Pullman set up shop here in the late 1800′s to make sleeping cars. The area morphed into a “company town” with its distinctive row houses. The area became a national monument in 2015, with the National Park Service planning a major restoration in the coming years.
After stopping at Hegewisch (the last station stop in Illinois), passengers began passing through the steel mill and industrial area of Northwest Indiana. Cities along the way include Hammond, East Chicago, and Gary. One highlight was passing through a field of fuel storage tanks. Interpretive Guide Robert Neil explained to everyone that if you added up the capacity from all of the tanks, it would equal 1.3 million gallons. Inside was fuel, jet fuel, and ethanol. Pipelines connect the storage tanks to places as far away as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and far Southwestern Illinois. Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern explained how iron ore pellets are brought down from Northern Minnesota on Great Lakes barges to the steel mills in Gary, which sits on the southernmost point on Lake Michigan. Meanwhile, Executive Director Robert Tabern played a clip of the song ‘Gary, Indiana’ from the musical ‘The Music Man’ for everyone over the PA system when we stopped at Gary’s Metro Center station. Gary was also the birthplace of pop singer Micheal Jackson.
The next section of the journey includes passing through the very heart of the Indiana Dunes National Lakehore, a unit of the National Park Service. The park was created in 1966 after the Port of Indiana was built, destroying a large area of sand dunes – some of which were upto 200 feet high. The National Park Service maintains a visitor center, trails, campgrounds, and even horse trails. Four stops on the South Shore Line are in or adjacent to the National Lakeshore, meaning people can use the South Shore to get to the park without having to deal with busy traffic on I-80, I-90, or I-94. Several beaches on Lake Michigan are even with-in walking distance of the train line.
APRHF Vice President and Rail Rangers Executive Director Robert Tabern says, “The APRHF and the Rail Rangers are looking forward to working with the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the National Park Service in the future to enhance and further promote our new onboard educational programs on the South Shore Line. We have already signed an agreement that our interpretive programs are officially part of the Indiana Dunes Volunteer-Guided program schedule. All of our volunteer hours will be given to the park… this helps them get more funding for programs and things that need to be done in the park. We have a meeting down in Indiana with park management on October 22nd to figure out how we can even better collaborate on this. The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore has wanted to have onboard guides on the South Shore Line for many years, but it wasn’t until the APRHF got involved that we were able to bring all sides together to make something like this to happen.”
You may remember that the APRHF previously worked with the National Park Service between 2012 and 2015 when both organizations co-sponsored a Trails & Rails program on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, MO. When Trails & Rails decided to terminate the Chicago-based Trails & Rails program through Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri, the APRHF Rail Rangers was formed to focus on private rail excursions. The Rail Rangers expanded to public rail programs in November 2016 with the start-up of programs on the then-Iowa Pacific operated Hoosier State train between Lafayette, Indiana and Chicago. When Amtrak took the route back over in March 2017, the Rail Rangers set their focus on partnering with the South Shore Line. After six month of research and paperwork, the first program launched August 5th.
Tabern says, ” Things are a little different in this renewed partnership with the National Park Service. The South Shore has been amazing to work with every step of the way. When we were under the Trails & Rails umbrella, we had to work with Amtrak officials. With the Rail Rangers program on the South Shore, we are going to be working directly one-on-one with the staff at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to promote our program and better educate our guides about the park they are doing programs about. When we did Trails & Rails, we worked remotely with some ranger 1,000 miles away in Texas. That just didn’t work for us. Also, Rail Rangers and the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation Board of Directors will be maintaining day-to-day operational control over the programs on the South Shore. Amtrak and the National Park Service had the controlling interest in the APRHF-sponsored Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief and the ability to end the program. We won’t be giving that up this time around with the Rail Rangers on the South Shore based on what happened with Trails & Rails two years ago.”
After leaving the Indiana Dunes, the train passes through Michigan City and rural farm landscapes before reaching South Bend. Some of the sites mentioned to passengers include the former Monon Route used for Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral Train, a boarding school that the current Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court attended, a lake that has fresh water jellyfish, and new natural gas power plant being built, and a bog containing insect-eating plants.
The first eastbound program ended at 12:10pm Eastern Time when the train rolled into the South Bend Airport South Shore Line station. After a 55-minute break, a similar program (except presented in reverse) was given to westbound passengers on Train #506 between South Bend and Chicago. Crowds were even bigger for the run back to Chicago, with many passengers attending a music festival that evening at Grant Park in Chicago.
If you missed the inaugural run of the Rail Rangers on the South Shore, don’t worry! More programs will be presented two to three Saturdays per month. Upcoming dates include August 26, September 9, September 23, October 7, October 21, and October 28. Additional dates in November 2017, December 2017, and January 2018 will be announced soon. For more information about the APRHF Rail Rangers and our new program on the South Shore Line, contact Executive Director Robert Tabern and our team of Interpretive Guides by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.