Jack Klasey: The James Whitcomb Riley stops at Kankakee

June 3, 2018

At 11:25 a.m. Monday, April 28, 1941, a streamlined steam locomotive pulling a seven-car train glided to a stop at Kankakee’s “Big Four” depot on Cypress Street. The James Whitcomb Riley, newest of the New York Central Railroad’s streamliner fleet, had arrived in Kankakee on its first scheduled run between Cincinnati and Chicago.

Climbing aboard the luxurious train in the few minutes before it departed for Chicago were local passengers Mr. and Mrs. R. Bramson, Annie Lou Richwine, and J. Herschbach. The Kankakee Republican News noted the arrival of the new streamliner in a short article on the front page. In addition to listing the Chicago-bound passengers, it reported that the return train, bound for Cincinnati, would stop at 6:30 p.m. to pick up four Kankakeeans who had reserved seats: Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Demarah, Charles Hook, and Rachel Brouillette.

During the 1940s, railroads were still the major means of long-distance travel. Railroads promoted luxurious, high-speed (for that time) service aboard named trains like the Twentieth Century Limited, the Empire Builder, the California Zephyr, and the City of New Orleans. Regional trains were often named for famous individuals, such as the Abraham Lincoln (connecting Chicago and Springfield), and the Hiawatha (on the Chicago/Minneapolis-St. Paul route).

The James Whitcomb Riley honored the Indianapolis-born “Hoosier Poet,” who was noted for his verses written in a rural dialect. Riley’s sentimental, often humorous poems such as “Little Orphant Annie” and “When the Frost is on the Punkin” were tremendously popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The U.S. Post Office commemorated him with a postage stamp in 1940.

On the inaugural trip of the train in 1941, there were seven cars behind the sleek, modern locomotive: a baggage car, four passenger cars manufactured in a new lightweight design, a dining car, and an observation car. After World War II, the railroad upgraded the train’s passenger, dining and observation cars. A New York Central promotional brochure extolled the “de luxe coach streamliner:”

“The James Whitcomb Riley, completely air conditioned, consists of new de luxe coaches with deep comfortable multiposture seats and broad scenic-view windows, a new coach observation lounge car, and new last word dining cars. The lighting is fluorescent. The Route of the Riley is the fast, scenic, smooth New York Central-Big Four Route pathway between the midwest metropolii of Cincinnati, Indianapolis, and Chicago.”

Passengers could enjoy a meal in the dining car, or (for a $1 extra charge) have the food delivered to their seats by one of the white-jacketed dining car waiters. The menu offered a charcoal-broiled sirloin steak dinner with french-fried potatoes and sliced tomatoes, a choice of appetizer, and coffee, tea, or milk, for $2.95. Other menu offerings included a salad bowl, several sandwiches, an omelet, grilled swordfish, and chopped beef patties on toast.

Trains traveling the Chicago-to-Cincinnati route covered a distance of 302 miles in 5 1/2 hours. According to the 1941 New York Central timetable, the Riley departed Chicago’s Central Station at 12th Street, east of Michigan Avenue, at 4:30 p.m. Traveling on Illinois Central tracks, it stopped at the 63rd Street (Woodlawn) station, then proceeded to the north edge of Kankakee, where it switched to the New York Central-Big Four tracks.

After a stop at the Kankakee depot on Cypress Street between Harrison and Chicago Avenues, the train traveled southeast through Aroma Park and St. Anne. Crossing into Indiana, the streamliner stopped at Lafayette and James Whitcomb Riley’s hometown of Indianapolis. The final stop, at 11 p.m., was Cincinnati’s Union Station.

The life of the James Whitcomb Riley spanned 36 years and three different operating agencies. From 1941 to 1968, it was a New York Central train. In 1968, the New York Central became the Penn Central, which operated the Riley until 1971. In that year, Amtrak came into existence as the national operating system for passenger train service. The train — with lengthened routes that included Washington, D.C., and Newport News, Va. — continued to operate as the James Whitcomb Riley but in 1972 was rerouted and no longer ran through Kankakee. In 1977, Amtrak renamed the train The Cardinal, since the cardinal was the state bird of all six states through which the route ran.