Century-old railroad tower to close in Joliet

Thursday, April 30, 2015
Century-old railroad tower to close in Joliet
The Union Depot Tower, a symbol of railroad history, is reaching the end of the line this week in Joliet.

JOLIET, Ill. (WLS) -- A symbol of railroad history is reaching the end of the line this week in Joliet.

The Union Depot Tower once controlled switches and signals along the rails but new technology is replacing the old levers.

The guardian of a busy rail junction, it has witnessed them passing of millions of trains over the years. For this tower has stood here for a century.

"Thousands of tons of goods have served the United States going through this crossing," said Meg Reile of Metra. "Metra for the past 30 years has been the gatekeeper here."

Climb up this spiral stairwell and you find tower man Jim McCormick at work. Behind him a line of pull levers that once controlled switches and signals. And a floor below, a sea of wires - the relays that send signals to engineers to either hold, or come on through.

"I like this place. This is the best tower," McCormick said.

McCormick has worked here for the past 15 years and once figured he would either retire or die working this tower. That will not be so. After his shift ends Friday, the railroad life of Union Depot tower will come to an end.

"The towers are going. They are antiquated. It's time for them to leave," McCormick said. "Central dispatch, it's cheaper. I guess more efficient for the railroads to operate that way."

What began here with the telegraph now ends with the computer and train dispatch from far away. Metra trains now stop at a new platform just east of the crossing.

Since Metra's Rock Island trains no longer pull into the depot here, there's no longer a need for them to go through this interlocker, and no longer a need for the tower.

There are reminders in the tower of a by-gone era, of the great name trains that once passed here - the Superchief, the Golden State, the Rockets. Though no longer a working tower, U-D will continue to stand with plans to convert a portion of it into a rail museum.

"It's an important part of our history so the idea is it would not be forgotten. It's also a very important part of the history of Joliet.

The tower was built by the Rock Island Lines. Its name - faded by time - is still here. It's railroad life, like the tower's is now over, but not lost to memory.

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