Mendota locomotive turns 100
Heritage Dinner planned Sept. 16 to mark occasion
By BRANDON LaCHANCE
MENDOTA – Once upon a time, Mendota was a player in the industrial revolution and the railroad tracks running through town were considered a key asset.
Time has changed and society, transportation, and Mendota has evolved. However, history will always tell the story of steam engines and how the method ruled, dominated the United States at one point in time.
Mendota has a piece of that history as the 4978 Chicago Burlington & Quincy Locomotive has been freshly painted for its 100th birthday in the month of September as a Heritage Dinner is planned from 5-7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16 at the Union Depot parking lot and the locomotive’s area.
“In 1923 when the CB&Q was built, this was the biggest thing in transportation modes in the country,” said Bryon Walters, who is part of the Mendota Museum & Historical Society Board. “It was huge, although 30 years later it was small to the larger ones built after. Back in the day, a train like CB&Q transported 100 train cars at a time all over the country.
“Manufactured in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, it was an American design. It burned coal, it heats up water, creates steam pressure, which moves the pistons, which moves the rods, which moves the wheels. It was pretty ingenious, pretty simple, but nevertheless very complicated to build and run.”
The beastly engine and tender are a showcase of the most popular models at the time.
CB&Q is a light Mikado design, which has a 2-8-2 wheel set up as two smaller wheels are in the front and back of the engine, while eight massive, 5-foot wheels, are in the middle.
The Mendota landmark, which is basically a museum in itself, can’t run as the internal parts such as pipes and mechanisms have been removed to make it a static display.
The locomotive doesn’t need to run to have a purpose.
“It’s a landmark and we’re proud of it. It shows the history of transportation in this country. It serviced a lot of Illinois as it was on the Galesburg district,” Walters said. “It served a lot of grain elevators and sand mines throughout the state and it actually traveled the system. We have photos of the locomotive in Colorado during a winter stormy night. It traveled all over the place, but Illinois was its home area. We want to show how steam ruled way back then. Now, we’re in diesel electric, which is a whole other thing all together. But, in its heyday, everything operated on steam.
“It’s very unique. You wonder the places this locomotive has seen, the people it has met, and the industries it has served. It would be great to go back in time, so we just gather pictures, stories, and information to preserve it the best we can so in 100 years from now when it celebrates its 200th birthday, we hope it’s still taken care of, maintained, and people appreciate it.”
The train came to Mendota from Ottawa in 1997.
Alan Russell, who spends a lot of time volunteering for the Historical Society, was aboard the locomotive when it came into town 26 years ago.
“It was a two-day trip going from Ottawa to Montgomery on the Fox River line. Then it came out on the main line the next day,” Russell said. “On the second day, we made a party of it and stopped at every town. We even stopped at the little sandwich shop that the crews used to stop at to get lunch. When we got to Mendota, we were met by a tremendous crowd. The whole area was packed. In fact, we had a guy, Dean Otterbach, had his truck with an air compressor on the back of it. He blew a whistle as we came into town.”
“It wouldn’t have happened without the LaSalle County Historical Society cooperation and Bill Greenwood’s influence and monetarily backing it. We had three local guys help with steam operations in Leo Muhlach, Steve Shutt, and Joe McCauley (whose license plate reads CBQ4978).”
Walters added that Douglas Plummer, from Aurora who was the fireman in the CB&Q as they had to take the voyages to make sure coal got into the firebox, may make it to the Heritage Dinner.
Russell also remembers flat cars being placed by the locomotive when it arrived in Mendota to make the photos of the engine and the tender look snazzy.
“Ottawa still owns it, but we have it under a 100-year lease (ending in 2097). It’ll be here,” Russell said. “When it was in Ottawa, no one ever really saw it. You could drive past it, but it was surrounded by a fence that you couldn’t get in. It’s not like here, where it’s in a fence for security, but we’re open all the time so you can see it during regular hours.”
The cost, difficulty of moving it, and it not being connected to the main railroad track anymore (since they cut the track to put the locomotive on its own line) means it definitely isn’t going anywhere.
The LaSalle County Historical Society is completely happy and excited about the location of 4978 CB&Q and the way Mendota takes care of the historical locomotive.
“We’re just excited that Mendota has taken such good care of it, preserved it, and promoted the locomotive as much as it has,” said Amanda Carter, who has been the LaSalle County Historical Society director since 2014. “It’s an awesome opportunity. The railroad is the heart of Mendota and having it here is such an excellent addition.
“We’re glad we’re involved in this and keeping the history alive.”
There is a DVD available at the Union Depot that tells the story of the 4978 CB&Q and how it made its journeys.