Railroad was still king in 1904 as it had been for about fifty years when it first sectioned off the dwindling wilderness in Northwest Illinois. In the 1850’s railroads changed the direction of the Midwest’s history, bringing in new horizons. Crossroad hamlets or mill site villages, even sizeable towns either died if railroads were routed away from them, or prospered when they arrived to carry out crops and livestock or bring in market goods. They were king if there were depots, a destination! Railroads were still expanding at the turn-of-the century ... 1900. New techniques were popping up. Competition was responsible for much of the development. Rivals tried to outdo the other. That’s why Ebner came into existence.
Ebner wasn’t a railroad town like many of the marketplaces in the Midwest. It was a switching tower helping to expedite train traffic. Ebner, two miles south of Thomson never developed a village around it, not even a few houses such as at Kittredge, a watering stop halfway between Lanark and Shannon. It was a two story tower at the end of the “Ashdale Cut-Off.”
The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul Railroad straight out from Chicago was so busy with mainline traffic that it came to be realized that a cut-off could handle some of the engines going back and forth from/to Savanna. A steep grade east of its yards slowed traffic, too.
Ashdale, a couple miles west of Lanark, was chosen then as a location for tracks to be built southwestward through Argo Fay to Ebner where another switch tower could take care of the excess movement. (See PDQ Me - 8/26 & 9/2, 1987 - Ashdale/Thomson Railroad). At “Fay” as it was called in reference, there was a milk factory that benefitted by the cut-off, sending out, bringing in products for its business.
The lines of the Northern Illinois Railroad came through what became Thomson in 1865, from Savanna to Fulton and East Clinton. Bluffville, a frontier settlement dwindled to the east when the railroad inspired the village of Thomson. Many of its residents moved to the new railroad market. Besides the towns developing in Carroll County railroad switch towers were added to be vocabulary such as Kittredge, Ashdale, Plum River Tower and then Ebner. It was a source of pride.
Plum River Tower was later called Ayres Junction, just south of Savanna.
The attached map pictures those locations plus others to the east. R.M. Clark is shown as artist of the map. The source of it and the Ebner Tower are not listed in the material from the Lanark Public Library but we give thanks for their existence and information from George Lanning and R. Milton Clark.
By about 1900 the Milwaukee realized that the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, later the Burlington Northern, was a rival to contend with and built up Ebner at the end of the Ashdale Cut-Off. The CB&Q had arrived through in 1886. It crossed the Milwaukee three miles south of Savanna at Plum River Tower, Ayres Junction. Its line paralleled the Milwaukee laying to the west, southward.
The Ashdale Cut-Off, four miles west of Lanark, went fourteen miles southwest through Fay to Ebner, greatly relieving traffic into and out of Savanna for the CMSt.P. In 1904, too, the CB&Q built a Cut-Off from Ebner to Lass allowing that line to by-pass the busy points at Fulton and East Clinton.
Description gives that “Ebner was an interlocking plant, Style A machine with a 48 lever frame. Only 35 working levers, three of which were for the Milwaukee train order signals and 13 spares. Thirty-two levers controlled signals and switches of the CB&Q and the crossing. Retired trainmen and railroad hobbyists will understand all that and the following, “There were split point details installed on the Milwaukee tracks and “Wharton” style details from the CB&Q. The “home” signals were connected to the interlocking plant by pipe while “dwarf” and other signals were connected by wire except for Milwaukee’s distance signals which were power operated. Later the CB&Q installed distance power signals to replace the wire connected units. The entire interlocking plant unit cost only $15,490.17.” !!
The Ebner Tower, as you can see, was an impressive two-story structure, a monument to the railroad industry, designed and constructed by the CMStP. It was built in November of 1904 between the 4th and 23rd. The General Railway Signal Co. was contracted with to install the interlocking plant described above.
Ebner Tower became a familiar landmark along the ever busy present day Rt. 84 and to train personnel on the mainline of both roads it served.
Automobiles, however, were beginning to eat into transport by rail. They could go to the destination objective, anytime, any hour and sight see along the way. Rails, too, took on passengers still and freight. But then came the Depression in the 1930’s that saw more cutbacks and economic disasters. The Milwaukee company obtained trackage rights from the CB&Q between Ayres Junction and Ebner in 1934 thus abandoning their own tracks, cutting the workforce, need of equipment and other expenses for that segment.
Modern techniques came into use as the twentieth century advanced. Where switches had to be changed by manpower now they were power operated. Machinery and technology replaced man. Many ways to cut costs were explored.
That section of the Ashdale Cut-Off was closed between Ashdale and “Fay” in 1952 from “Fay” to Ebner was kept open probably because of the milk factory. It was, however, converted to a sidetrack until closed in 1964.
The CB&Q closed their “old line” from Ebner to Fulton and East Clinton in the late 1950’s. Would Ebner be next?
Class L32-8-2 were the largest steam locomotives through Ebner. They were rated at 3,950 tons in either direction. The slightly smaller L-2 was rated for 3,500 tons.
This may be meaningful to railroaders but is foreign to me and some others!!! In the days of steam powered locomotives Ebner was an important coaling and water stop but as changes occurred in rail transportation the need for manned interlocking plants ceased so Ebner was closed—December 20, 1966. Thus ended a vital and romantic chapter in county history, a hundred years long. Ebner was removed in April of 1967.
Some memories of those days can be seen, however, at the Thomson Depot Museum alongside the present day railroad tracks in downtown Thomson. It is the only surviving depot left in Carroll County. And although it was moved one hundred feet to the east from its original site, it is a great housing of railroad days gone by and area memorabilia. Some furniture from the depots’ heyday can be seen as if it were yesterday. The building was constructed in the late 1880’s when the Burlington line completed its tracks from Savanna to Fulton in 1886.
The depot is typical of many small town facilities throughout the nation, its setting reminiscent of yesterdays not found in most places. The Museum was created by a lot of sentimental volunteers whose attention to detail can be felt in the displays. The Depot Museum is open Saturdays, May through October, if the brochure is correct. Check for yourself. It’s worth the visit.
Of the seven communities in Carroll County, four of them were developed by railroad companies so it is proper that that fact is commemorated by Thomson. Today engines and cars speed through impersonally and many of us don’t give them much attention when, in fact, they originate in all sorts of places from all over the nation. Once upon a time engines and trains were known by number and style by young and old; the section gangs (usually bachelors!) gave a certain accent to town life and there was a definite pride in having a depot and all the far distances it carried with it. The train’s whistle sounding in the distance added to the story.