By the time that the doors to the Oregon depot were finally closed to the train-traveling public in 1971, its presence had affected many lives over the course of its 58 years of service. Some lives were of travelers, some were of employees, and some were of ordinary citizens of the community. The information and stories included here provide only a narrow glimpse into those 58 years.
CONNECTING PEOPLE WITH THE OREGON DEPOT
Among the most revered travelers who passed through the depot were the many soldiers who began their long journeys, going off to distant wars; the lucky ones returned to the Oregon depot after the war years were over. During wartimes, military supplies as well as soldiers passed continuously through Oregon.
Some of the most frequent travelers to the area were those whose positions in life were such that they could maintain summer homes in or around Oregon. Included in this group was former congressman and presidential contender Frank O. Lowden who served as Governor of Illinois for the 1917-1921 term. Former congressman Medill McCormick, and Chicago Daily News publisher Walter A. Strong also had homes in the area.
Over the years, a broad spectrum of other celebrities passed through the Oregon depot: members of the Eagles’ Nest Art Colony, including sculptor Lorado Taft who designed and erected his concrete statue of Chief Black Hawk on the nearby east bank of the Rock River, and author Hamlin Garland; author W. Somerset Maugham; sculptor Leonard Crunelle; illustrator and author Dwight Perkins; poet and playwright Percy Mackaye; early editor of Poetry magazine Harriet Monroe; first female reporter for the Chicago Tribune Ella Peattie; naturalists and authors, American Donald Culross Peattie, and Englishman Ernest Thompson Seton; first American Nobel laureate in physics, Professor Albert A. Michelson, and renowned archaeologist and head of Egyptology and Oriental History, Professor James Henry Breasted, both of the University of Chicago; former mayor of Chicago Carter Harrison; and former congressman Robert Hitt who had served as a secretary to Abraham Lincoln.
According to a story told to Bob Rees by former depot cashier, Harold Nance, on one of the trains making an Oregon stop, Ernest Hemingway was seen at a vestibule window just as you might expect…in his bathrobe and smoking a cigarette. Harold told of another time when Judy Garland passed through; she was in a room at one end of the car, and her traveling companion was in a room at the opposite end, apparently because of a lovers’ spat. The telegraph always kept everyone along the line informed when celebrities were on board, and at those times the railroad made extra effort to be on schedule.
The bustling Oregon depot required operation 24 hours a day, so there were three men who shared responsibilities on rotating shifts of eight hours each: Roy Sharick on first trick, Ed Miller on second trick, and Bob Robertson on third trick. R.I. Short was the agent at the freight house, and Harold Nance was the cashier. Other depot employees included Milard Wilson, Virgil Butcher, Steve and Pat Beard, Russ Hansen, and Dick Lee. Hank Fruit and Oscar Knarr worked as dinky switch engineers. According to Sharick, there were two local men who filled the tender of the dinky with coal on weekends, using shovels and a small conveyor.
The depot served as more than just a stop for the traveling public. The telegraph was housed there, and citizens would commonly gather inside to await the results of national elections. For years the depot was Oregon’s primary link to the rest of the world.
My personal recollections of the Oregon depot began in 1949 when I moved to Oregon. I was 14 years old and had a fascination with railroading. The depot was a great place to hang out because there was usually something going on. There was fishing under the railroad bridge, where you could usually catch some good-sized catfish and there was a great swimming hole under the second set of bridges to the east. I can remember of what remained of a hobo encampment between the two bridges and there was a coffee can to heat coffee and a frying pan hung on a tree. Many times I would see men there and also walking the tracks with their water bottles and bundles. When not in use, the dinky was kept behind the sewer plant, which is now the sand sucker park, and it was always great fun to climb aboard the 4-6-2 Pacific type locomotive. I would sit in the engineer’s seat with my hand on the throttle and daydream of what could be.
~ Bob Rees
Jim Patrick ~ tells of loading his bicycle onto the caboose and riding to Mt Morris for 10 cents. He would then ride his bike home because it was down hill all the way to Oregon.
Jim Cratty ~ tells of being in the Oregon depot when the news came that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. He later left for military service and the Korean War through the Oregon depot.
Chris Myers ~ tells of seeing the dinky used as a pusher to help freights up the sand plant hill on the way to Polo. He said the cab would glow bright red in the night as the fireman would stoke the boiler.
Dick Little ~ shared these memories in an early 2002 interview with Nancy Lloyd of the local VFW:
“I think it was in 1943. The war was on and I’d heard there was a great demand for workers in the cannery over in Rochelle. We were all done thrashing and things were kinda slow on the farm. I wanted to go over there and work. My dad said, “There’s plenty of work here. There’s thistle here and there.” Hell, I didn’t think that was a very good reason to stay home. The war was on and things were pretty critical. The thistles were there fifty years before and probably will be there fifty years later. I wanted to go over there to Rochelle. So, I rode with the milkman into Oregon and then I took the train over to Rochelle. When I got to Rochelle, I went over to the employment office. I thought I’d get a job right away, but I sat there until 10:00 that night. The man said, “You’re really interested in getting a job.” Hell, that’s what I came here for! “Well, there won’t be anything here tonight,” he said. “Why don’t you just go home?” I can’t go home, I’m here. “You could go over to the place the Jamaicans stay.” So, I went over there. They’d hired a bunch of Jamaicans to pick the sweet corn by hand and they were singing and a hollering and having a great time. And here I was. A sixteen year old kid, first time away from the farm and never been this far away from home before. So, I spent the night and went back to the employment office in the morning and got a job. I stayed there two weeks. School was starting and I knew my dad would be after me then. In fact, my mother had told me later that my dad had said be had a notion to get the sheriff and go over to Rochelle and get that kid. Anyway, I went home with a ton of money. My dad said “I suppose your use to getting paid now.” So, he paid me three dollars a week. So, that was my first experience with the Depot and the train.”
“I enlisted in the United States Army Air Force and I was suppose to go into Chicago for my physical. I went down to the Depot and there was an older guy, Tom Leddy. He was in the service, but home on furlough. After I explained why I was at the Depot, we got on the train. “Dick, do you want to go into the club bar and have a drink?” So, here I am, seventeen years old, sitting in the club bar and having a couple of drinks and nobody thought any thing of it. We got into Chicago and I went into the place to get the physical. I tell you I never saw so many naked men in my life. I passed. I don’t remember the ride home because the ride going was so exciting.”
“The Depot, when you think about it, was the hub of transportation and commerce for years and years. All the salesmen and whiskey drummers and everybody came on the train to do their routes. This doesn’t have anything to do with the Depot, but the freight house – every nitpicking little thing, from a wheel barrel to a bag of flour and everything else for the whole town came in there and was loaded off. Bill Himert’s father hauled it up town.”
Ed Dvorak (11/2/20-7/24/02) ~ shared his memories of the Depot in another early 2002 interview with Nancy Lloyd:
“When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time around there. There was a lot of passenger train traffic at that time. East of the Depot they had flower gardens and they also had a catwalk by the water tower for the steam engines. Along the main line they had a big catwalk and if the station manager wanted to give the engineer a message, why they had a loop on this big post and the engineer, as the train went by, would stick his arm out and collect it on his arm.”
“West of that was a freight house and I used to carry a half crate of eggs down there to ship to my Aunt in Chicago. Back in those days, there were a lot of guys ‘running’, riding the rail, you know, transients, hoboes, and bums — whatever you want to call them. But they, for the most part, were pretty smart, quite educated. I remember having conversations with them and I was impressed, but I don’t remember any of the conversations now. They had a stockyard over there, they had a big V Smith Manufacturing there then, and they’d have to pull the trains in and then back them out. Didn’t have a turntable at that time. This was in 1930-36, during the depression. They had a push, handcart there when I was a kid and we used to ride on that, not on the main line, but on the siding tracks.”
“Early 1942, maybe February, I entered the service, but saw no difference. Later on, the Zephyr started to deteriorate; you could tell when you’d ride on the train.”
“The last time I went to the Depot, we went (had flown) to California and couldn’t land in Chicago because of a bad snowstorm. Had to go back to Kansas City and rode the old milk stop train all night- rackety bang, rackety bang and snowing all night. We had to catch the Zephyr in Aurora and that was the last time.”