Berrien Street Model Railroad Club

excerpts from ŌGalesburg, Capital of the Burlington RailroadĶ by William A. Franckey

 

Hidden away, known to only to the now aging adults of Galesburg, Illinois was a miniature railroad located in the basement of a house on the corner of Berrien and Whitesboro Streets. The house still stands but the model train layout is long gone. The smell of small oiled electric motors hidden in the model locomotives that once filled this basement attraction linger no more. Very little remains, except in the hearts and minds of GalesburgÕs past. Three brick rooms were filled with wooden platforms set from wall to wall connected only by holes in the brick walls that afford sets of train tracks so that trains might pass to and from. The rooms were laid out in such a way that visitors would enter by outside basement steps and then be greeted with a room of model train tracks full with passenger and freight cars. The rolling stock was painted and detailed to represent the Burlington Railroad otherwise known as the ŌQ.Ķ The middle roomÕs train tracks were also positioned to allow groups of visitors but required the people operating the trains to crawl under the layout to an area where some of the train controls were located. From this middle room, one could linger or venture even deeper into the basement and see more trains and tracks. The current owners of the Berrien Street house know of the model railroad club and have pieced together stories of the club from curious people who have shown up from time to time.

 

Begun in 1926, George Donaldson received a Christmas gift from his wife. Only a model electric train, but it was the start of a hobby that really took off when Donaldson, a Burlington locomotive engineer picked up two complete train sets in 1938. Yet by DonaldsonÕs own accounts, it wasnÕt until 1945 when he really got going on the hobby.

 

He first built a table for his train layout but soon proved way too small. It was not long before the system filled the entire room and an adjoining one. Soon, more room was needed so, Donaldson bought his wife an automatic washer and dryer and expanded into the basementÕs clothes-drying room. Walls and even a fruit cupboard posed no barrier to the railroads operation. Tracks ran through openings in the brick walls and in the third room, it ran through Mrs. DonaldsonÕs fruit cupboard. Mrs. Donaldson had no objection to her husbandÕs hobby, as she was the secretary-treasurer of the club.

 

By the end of the 1950's, a dozen friends were needed to manage the operations of the Berrien Street Model Railroad Club and to fulfill the title of officers and railroad titles. The scale of the models was O-gauge, which ran on more than 500 feet of track. Donaldson had 12 diesel units, 14 steam type locomotives and about 150 cars, including seven stainless steel coaches. There were various levels of tracks, but the entire system was continuous and several trains could circle the three rooms for minutes before returning to their starting points.

 

By the early 60's, the system was still growing as different members of the club ran their engines and rolling stock in the basement. Hidden behind the homeÕs furnace was a small repair area devoted to maintaining the basementÕs railroad equipment. Donaldson on his layoverÕs in Chicago would make a point of visiting Marshall-Fields Department Store just after Christmas. If a piece of model equipment was found to be damaged by the Christmas rush, Donaldson would buy it for a reduced price and carry it back home to his basement workshop. The model railroad club was open to GalesburgÕs children groups. Cub scouts, boy scouts, even YMCA groups were at various times invited for demonstrations of the clubÕs operation. Donaldson allowed a nurses group to raise money for a hospital fund by selling tickets that admitted spectators to see the railroad in operation. When the Burlington Railroad presented the steam locomotive 3006 to Galesburg in 1961, Donaldson was one of the contributors who ensured its place at the depot.For George Donaldson, the love of railroading came easy. He had been interested in railroading ever since he used to ride a farm cultivator as a boy and pretend its levers were controls of a locomotive. He took great pride in his profession as an engineer. An old story on the Aurora Division was that Donaldson was one of the few engineers who was actually as good as he thought he was. Some of the BurlingtonÕs big steam locomotives were for a while equipped with back-pressure gauges in the cab in the locomotive. Most engineers did not use these gauges as they had learned how to measure a locomotiveÕs performance without this additional piece of hardware that indicated the cutoff and steam admission to the cylinders. For a hundred years, locomotive engineers listened to the sound of their locomotive as a measurement of effective management of the machinery. Some engineers were not sure quite how to use these back-pressure gauges. It was said that Donaldson would put his ear up against this gauge, mounted on the back-head of the boiler and listen closely at the different sounds of pressure to fine tune the locomotive while running at high speed.

 

George Donaldson hired out in June of 1925 and climbed the seniority list as a locomotive fireman to become the youngest seniority engineer on his division. He witnessed the first gas-electric and diesel-electric locomotives. He worked on what would now be considered small steam locomotives as well as the last years of steam, the big engines. These were heady days for the Burlington was developing the lightweight Zephyrs and the rumblings of World War Two was being felt. George Donaldson saw it all and knew it as only a railroad man could. After years at lesser runs, Donaldson 58 years old, was finally at the apex of his profession. For an Aurora Division engineman working out of Galesburg, there were the mainline passenger jobs one could aspire to, given enough seniority.

 

During 1964 Donaldson held a regular passenger assignment between Galesburg and Chicago. The job he held required him to work as engineer on the Denver Zephyr Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday. This was a good run, as the train would depart Galesburg for Chicago in the mornings. One of the young train buffs that George befriended was Edward M. DeRouin who lived in Chicago. Many days would be spent by the teenager in Chicago Union Station, watching the incoming and departing passenger trains. DeRouinÕs fascination with those trains and their crews would lead DeRouin to later become a writer/publisher of train books but in 1964, he was to be found in ChicagoÕs depot as Donaldson arrived with an inbound Zephyr. Donaldson found time to talk to DeRouin as he and his fireman, would spend the day in Chicago waiting to take the Kansas City Zephyr back to Galesburg at night. Donaldson invited DeRouin to Galesburg for an open house of the model railroad club that was to be held the next weekend. That night, Ed DeRouin went to sleep at his home and awoke the next morning to a radio report that the Burlington Railroad had experienced a serious train wreck.

 

On September 27, 1964, at 10:45 P M, Donaldson and his fireman George A. Lincoln of Galesburg, were in the lead cab of a string of diesel-electric passenger locomotives. The passenger train was accelerating away from the Aurora Depot three minutes late, rounding a curve that would become straight track through the small town of Montgomery, Illinois. In the cool night air, the roar of the diesel engines were straining to lift the stainless steel coaches with their passengers to faster and faster speeds.

 

The headlight displayed brightly to the front with the oscillating Mars Light also sweeping back and forth across the tracks. Both Donaldson and Lincoln observed the green signal as their train accelerated underneath. In the distance, about a mile away immediately west of Aurora, sat Montgomery Interlocking Tower. This was a small two story wood shanty where a railroad employee controlled sets of track switches of the mainline tracks. A double set of mainline tracks ran through Montgomery where a third set of tracks connected with the 11th subdivision Ottawa/Streator branch line.

 

On this night a Rock Island Railroad passenger train, the ŌGolden StateĶ had pulled up into the town and was waiting on the sidetrack to ŌmeetĶ the fast westbound Zephyr before proceeding east. The Rock Island Railroad had a bridge wash out and was forced to detour their trains on the Burlington branch line that connected with the mainline tracks at Montgomery.

 

Both the engineer and fireman in the cab of the Burlington locomotives could see the stopped passenger train on an adjacent track, waiting to meet them. Donaldson was blowing the whistle two longs, a short, a long for the fast approaching road crossing just east of the tower and switches. In the dark, the signals for the westbound ZephyrÕs track displayed a green, proceed indication. For the first, second and probably third second, Donaldson and Lincoln couldnÕt believe their eyes. Even though their signal displayed a high green for straight safe passage of their train, the switches were lined into the stopped Rock Island passenger train. Donaldson instinctively slammed the trainÕs brake handle into the full emergency position, but at 52 miles per hour Donaldson and Lincoln could do nothing more in the shocking dark.

 

Railroad men on the ground watching the Burlington passenger train later testified that everything seemed normal except that the speeding train passed the interlocking station with the brakes heavily applied. Chris Stathis, a Montgomery fireman and amateur railroad buff, watched the grinding crash occur. At the back of MontgomeryÕs fire station, the local firefighter was standing in the dark to watch the Burlington passenger train roar through town. ŌI was watching as the train came barreling out, Stathis said, I saw its lights coming and then there was the crash, like a great roar of thunder. The Rock Island engine jumped about 20 feet in the air and came down in a cloud of dust on top of the Burlington. It was unbelievable.Ķ Many passengers in the coaches of the Rock Island train were sitting and relaxing. Some were reading. All of a sudden there was a terrific bang.

 

 Passengers in both trains suffered injuries with 37 being treated in an Aurora Hospital. Newspapers reported that fireman Lincoln lived for a short time but Donaldson did not survive the impact. Luckily, two of the four head-end crew members on the stopped Rock Island passenger train managed to escape death. The news of a ghastly head-on collision was relayed across the system but not with more impact than to the railroad families in Aurora and Galesburg. The disruption of the mainline caused many train delays and detouring of equipment. All that some families knew was that their railroad men were overdue. The engine crew on the fast Burlington train never returned home and DonaldsonÕs Berrien Street Model Railroad Club died in that clasp of thunder.

 

The mechanical track switching levers in Montgomery Tower could be manually operated in such a way as to present a proceed signal indicating the track was lined straight, to a moving train when, in fact, the train tracks were aligned to an unintended diverging route. The ICC report of September 27, 1964 stated: 5. The accident was caused by the failure to maintain the Montgomery Interlocking in a safe condition for train movements.

 

One year after the death of George Donaldson, scores of friends attended an open house held at his home. A crew of family and friends that Donaldson had picked and trained operated his famous Berrien Street model railroad for the last time. Afterwards the train layout was disassembled and the model locomotives and train cars were dispersed. Years later, some of DonaldsonÕs equipment came to be stored in a family memberÕs home, just down the street from the wreck site in Montgomery. Today, DonaldsonÕs Galesburg home still stands and in the basement, holes intended for model trains remain in the brick walls.