Historical Highlight: Thanks Ray
When I heard we lost our friend Ray Diven, my mind instantly recalled stories he had shared with me, like this one that fits our topic here. I can still hear Ray’s distinct voice saying “You know, that Rock Island Railroad didn’t always run along 69 highway like that. It used to run on the east side, and I’ve heard there’s still an old railroad bridge out there somewhere.” If you knew Ray, you know the distinct voice I’m talking about.
That stretch of railroad right of way, along what is now highway 69 is commonly known. You can still see tunnels under it like the one near the salvage yard north of town and of course the famous one between Winston and Altamont. The idea that the tracks had originally been somewhere else made me curious. I had to find the original route.
Another history fan, David Baldwin explained how the tracks had originally crossed what is now highway 69 just south of EE Highway. They winded around through the trees about 1000 feet east of where 69 is now until they made it to Mabel. David explained that when the tracks were laid in about 1871 there was no incentive to make them straight since the builders were getting paid by the mile. In 1896 Rock Island straightened the track and abandoned the first alignment. After all these years a Google Earth satellite photo still shows changes in the ground where the original tracks were.
Ray had mentioned an old bridge. It seemed unlikely that any bridge built in 1871 and abandoned in 1896 would still be in place. Out of curiosity Sandy and I took a nice day and started exploring, and what do you know, just north of town in the middle of a field, in a nasty area where only thorn bushes grow and only snakes, ticks and foolish bunny rabbits venture, there sat what was left of an old 1871 Rock Island Railroad bridge. It’s not very big, but it’s there. The big surprise was that there was still some track on it. Ray was right all along.
The property owner knew something was there but didn’t know of its origin. He was generous enough to donate a piece of the track to the museum. It now sits on display for the community to enjoy. This piece of track was in place when the James Gang road those rails in the days before the robbery near Winston. Hidden from view for over a century it’s now a part of local history we can all see and enjoy. Had Ray not mentioned it, this original route may have been forgotten, the bridge would have continued to deteriorate into the landscape and this piece of historic track would have rusted into oblivion. Now each time I show the track to visitors, I quietly say to myself “Thanks Ray”.