Jim Hipple called me over to his table at a local café a couple of months ago to ask if I had ever heard of the “dinky train” and then suggested it would make a good column. Jim and I both had parents who were schoolmates in the 1920s in Waterman, so we go way back.
This is how I get many good ideas, through tips that turn into columns, so I began my pursuit of the story. But it is not easy to chase down facts and people from something that happened in the 1940s, more than 70 years ago.
Jim knew some people who had ridden the train, and I began calling them. I also knew that the Shabbona-Lee-Rollo Historical Museum might have some history on it. Alice Lintereur and Carol Bend there were most helpful. They put me in touch with Mike Schafer who had written an article for their newsletter about this train eight years ago.
Mike was very cooperative and even brought me a photo of the one-car gas-electric train, called a motorcar, also known to him as the “puddle-jumper” or “doodlebug” because of its small size.
The motorcar Jim talked about ran on tracks from Rockford through Lee, Shabbona, Waterman and Hinckley to Aurora daily. Mike wrote in great detail about it and the many stops in towns as well as the fact there were two trains, the No. 41 that ran from Aurora to Rockford and the No. 42 that ran the route in reverse each day.
Towns along the tracks had a depot agent who handled the mail and freight, as well as selling tickets to passengers.
Now the local angle: Lee High School closed in 1946 and its students were sent to other nearby schools.
Ed Benner was one of those students from Lee and told me this story: He and schoolmates who played basketball, then played for the Waterman Wolverines. Since practice after school meant they would miss the bus that ran between the two towns, they boarded the No. 41 train to get back home. He recalls some of those classmates were Wayne Starnes, Jim Maakestad, Donald Rogde and Ron Oleson. (He was not sure of the correct spelling of their names.)
On one trip, he recalled, the “dinky train” was pulling a new Zephyr dome car up to Rockford. The boys talked the conductor into letting them ride in that car and sit up in the dome. It was a thrill and particularly exciting, he said, when they went under bridges where the dome barely slipped under the overhead structures.
Ed also told me he had two aunts from the Chicago area who often came to visit his family on the farm north of Lee. The aunts would take one train to Aurora, then board the dinky, and when it came to Lee, the engineer would not only stop at the depot, but take the the two ladies to a rural crossing north of town and drop them off on that country road.
Ed would wait there and drive them to the farm. I also talked to Marilyn Sjoholm and Mary Eakle who said they had ridden that train to go shopping in Aurora.
So that is the story of the one-car puddle-jumper that served those communities until 1949 when it was discontinued by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. Story ideas are always welcome.