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Reflections: When Kendall residents enjoyed commuter rail service

The CB&Q Railroad's gas motor car, nicknamed "The Dinky," pulls out of the Oswego Depot on a southbound run in 1942. The cars provided passenger rail service to towns up and down the Fox River Branch Line until the early 1950s.
The CB&Q Railroad's gas motor car, nicknamed "The Dinky," pulls out of the Oswego Depot on a southbound run in 1942. The cars provided passenger rail service to towns up and down the Fox River Branch Line until the early 1950s.

Starting in January 1871, and lasting for the next 81 years, Kendall County towns along the Fox River had direct access to passenger rail service.

Since 1952, however, anyone who wants to get from here to there has to rely on their own autos, even though the idea of commuter rail service is occasionally discussed.

Kendall County, at least the northern part of it, got its first rail connection when the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad pushed its tracks west of the Fox River in the early 1850s.

The line, however, did not run through the county’s established towns, bypassing both Oswego and Yorkville. Residents who wanted to board passenger trains had to travel a couple of miles from the two towns to do it. Plano, of course, was served because it was built as a railroad town in the first place.

It wasn’t until 1870 that Oswego, Yorkville, Millington and Millbrook got their own direct rail link following completion of the Ottawa, Oswego & Fox River Valley Rail Road running 66 miles from Streator along the Fox River through Ottawa to Yorkville and on to Aurora.

Nicknamed the Fox River Branch after it was acquired by the CB&Q, the line offered freight and passenger service to the towns dotted along the southern reaches of the Fox River. Passenger trains made morning and afternoon rounds, allowing residents to easily travel to the wider world. And it allowed the wider world to travel here, too.

For instance, Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president, Schuyler Colfax, occasionally visited friends in Oswego. As the Sept. 19, 1872, Kendall County Record reported from Oswego: “Vice President Schuyler Colfax arrived here last week Tuesday on the 1 o’clock train for a visit and immediately repaired to the house of Mr. Sutherland. Hardly anyone outside of the Sutherlands knew of his presence until after he had gone; he wanted his visit to be a strictly private one, and such it was.”

While two trains a day to and from Chicago was OK, it wasn’t really convenient for commuting for jobs, school or shopping.

But in 1900, an interurban trolley line that eventually became the Aurora, Elgin & Chicago was built, linking downtown Aurora with downtown Yorkville via Oswego.

Trolley cars made the Aurora-to-­Yorkville run hourly, finally creating a true commuter system allowing Yorkville and Oswego residents to work and shop in the bigger stores in Aurora and, in the days before Oswego had a four-year high school, allowed students to commute to East Aurora and West Aurora high schools.

For two decades, trolley and railroad passenger service made it easy for local residents to travel virtually anywhere in the United States by rail.

But by the 1920s, the U.S. was undergoing a transportation revolution. Not only were motor vehicles, from autos to trucks to buses, being constantly improved, but so were the roads on which they traveled. And unlike the tracks trains and trolleys traveled on, roads and their necessary bridges were built and maintained by tax dollars. As a result, passenger rail service was at a financial disadvantage.

Interurban trollies were first to be killed off by motor vehicles. By the early 1920s, interurban lines were failing one by one until it was the turn of the AE&C.

On Aug. 9, 1924, the Record reported: “Through an order from the Illinois Commerce Commission, the interurban line from the [Fox River] park south of Montgomery to Yorkville will be discontinued as soon as buses are provided to take care of the traffic. This permission comes after a long battle with the commission and a period of wretched service by the street car company at this end of the line.”

The bus service started on Feb. 1, 1926, charging a 40-cent fare from downtown Yorkville to downtown Aurora. Within a couple of years, the bus line was bought out by the CB&Q.

Meanwhile, the railroad, which had discontinued regular passenger trains on the Fox River Branch, introduced passenger service by what they officially called a passenger motor car and that the residents living along the line nicknamed “The Dinky.” The Dinky used a gasoline engine to power an electrical generator that, in turn, powered the car’s wheels.

While service was not nearly as handy as the old interurban service had been, it did provide regular passenger service up and down the Fox River Branch line. Each car, 78 feet in length, had a passenger section, along with a baggage section for light freight, and most interestingly, a small railway post office. Mail was collected from each post office along the route, sorted while the car was traveling, and either delivered at the next stop along the way or carried on to the collecting office at either end of the route.

The big drawback with the gas-electric cars was the gasoline that powered their engines. That problem was starkly illustrated on a warm April afternoon in 1943 when miscommunication resulted in a head-on collision between the northbound Dinky and a southbound steam engine near present-day Boulder Hill.

Motorman F.E. Bishop along with baggage man Chalmers Kerchner and the car’s two post office employees, mail clerk Paul Chrysler and Assistant Chief Clerk John G. Gall of the U.S. Railway Mail Service, all riding in the front of the car, were killed as the car’s 160-gallon fuel tank burst, spewing flaming gasoline everywhere. Subsequently, one additional person died, high school student Harold Alderman.

In August 1950, the CB&Q announced it was reducing its Dinky service to just one round trip per day. And then on Feb. 2, 1952, the last passenger motor car up the Fox River Branch made one last stop at Oswego and Yorkville, ending a tradition of passenger rail service that began in 1870. Despite periodic rumors that commuter rail service will be extended into Kendall County, it seems unlikely that will happen anytime soon.

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