Eisenberg: Trees and trains combine for ghost sign stories
By Paul Eisenberg Citizen Journalistfirstname.lastname@example.org July 26, 2012 1:52PM
The rail line in Chicago Heights hasn’t been known as the Chicago and Eastern Illinois for more than 40 years, but that venerable rail company’s name lives on at the bridge that carries its former tracks over Joe Orr Road. | Supplied Photo
Updated: August 30, 2012 6:07AM
Deep in the forest now known as Jurgensen Woods, northeast of Cottage Grove Avenue and Glenwood Lansing Road, there’s an ancient oak on the north side of North Creek. It’s not the largest tree in the woods, and probably not the oldest, but it is one of the most special trees in the region.
Centuries ago, someone turned that oak into a trail marker by keeping it consistently bent so that it eventually grew in to the shape of the letter L. It was one way Native Americans would mark routes and to this day, that tree and its counterparts throughout the eastern United States are called “trail trees.”
And because it’s a vestige of a time before European settlement, it’s a good bet that this particular trail tree holds the record for the oldest street sign in our area.
Trail trees were bent to point the way to a village or valuable resource. Originally, the North Creek tree probably pointed the way to the next trail tree, and so on, until the resource or destination was located.
But our regional trail tree is the only one of its kind remaining, at least that has been found, so nobody knows what it was pointing out. We have some clues though.
Early settlers found what they thought were mounded defenses or the foundations of an ancient, abandoned village when they first arrived in the Thornton area. And before it was repeatedly torn up for the initial construction and then reconstruction of the interchange between Interstates 80, 94 and Illinois 394, an archeological expedition found lots of artifacts in that vicinity.
A team from the Field Museum excavated an area along Butterfield Creek in Flossmoor and found evidence of an old hunting settlement dating back several centuries. The trail tree could have been pointing out any one or even all of those things, or perhaps it was some other long-forgotten area asset enjoyed by ancient south suburbanites.
Though it’s just a tree, the Jurgensen Woods trail tree is just one more example of what Geoffrey Baer called “ghost signs” in his WTTW special “Hidden Chicago.” In that show, Baer showcased signs that have outlived the businesses, buildings or areas they were meant to point out.
Baer didn’t make it this far south, but we have plenty of ghost signs of our own. As an ancient street sign of sorts, the trail tree qualifies, but there are more recent examples as well.
I’ve written about a few orphan signs in this space before, including examples in the former downtown Chicago Heights area along Halsted Street. But others pop up in unlikely spots, such as the railroad bridge over Joe Orr Road between Halsted and State streets. Rusting away almost unnoticed are three letters and an ampersand that harken back more than four decades.
On the old metal bridge contains old metal letters “C&EI,” which stands for Chicago and Eastern Illinois. Headquartered in Chicago Heights, and the main rail line through town for much of the city’s history, the C&EI started life as the Chicago, Danville and Vincennes Railroad, linking those towns in the 1870s before being merged late in that decade with two other rail companies.
For nearly 100 years, the rail company survived. While other nearby rail lines and routes were more famous — some even celebrated in song, such as the Illinois Central’s “City of New Orleans” — the C&EI made do with the “Whippoorwill,” a Chicago to Evansville, Ind. streamliner.
The letters on the rail bridge on Joe Orr Road date back to at least 1971, when the C&EI was taken over by Missouri Pacific, which was in turn acquired by CSX and Union Pacific, which runs the line these days. And thus, like the trail tree just a mile or two away, it’s become a ghost sign, still delivering on a long-dead intent.
In researching the above information, I did come across one interesting, albeit tragic, link between the City of New Orleans and Whippoorwill trains.
One of the coach passenger cars originally commissioned for the Whippoorwill was sold in the 1960s to the Illinois Central, and was part of the City of New Orleans train that derailed outside of Mt. Vernon, Ill. in June 1972, killing 11 people and becoming the nation’s worst rail disaster in a decade, at the time.
Happily, another element of the original Whippoorwill — its baggage car — had a happier fate. After being sold to the Shedd Aquarium and being used as a fish transport for decades, it was retired and is now on display at the Monticello Railway Museum in downstate Illinois.
Do you have a favorite ghost sign? Let me know about it at the email address above.