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Illinois hunting and fishing

Ex-engineer lobbies for bike trail

December 07, 2009 at 12:36 PM

The (Champaign) News Gazette

FITHIAN (AP) — Tom Harrold can’t wait to zip along the right of way he once drove as an engineer for the Peoria & Eastern Railway more than 50 years ago.

Now, however, he wants to quietly ride his trusty old Schwinn, not pilot a noisy, coal- and steam-belching behemoth racing from Peoria to Indianapolis.

“I’ve just got a feeling for that old roadbed,” said Harrold, who at 92 years old, rides his bike about 6 miles a day. “I ran up and down it for years with an engine, and now I’d like to do it on a bike.”

Harrold, who lives in Fithian, is eager to pedal the proposed 24.5-mile Kickapoo bike trail between Urbana and Danville that will follow what had been a railroad route from 1869 to the mid-1990s.

The trail, which as proposed would be operated by the Champaign County Forest Preserve District and the Vermilion County Conservation District, is closer to fruition but still not there, said Tim Bartlett. He is superintendent of planning and operations for the Urbana Park District and a member of the Champaign County Design and Conservation Foundation, a private group negotiating with the CSX Corp., which owns most of the old Peoria & Eastern right of way.

“I’m a-hoping they get that trail in,” Harrold said. “I ride my bike now, but I can’t ride that trail. I’m a-hoping they get it in while I’m still riding.”

Historically, it takes several years to negotiate an acquisition agreement, then pull together the resources to develop and open the right of way as a recreational trail.

“It’s coming together, but now will be the difficult time where we have to pull things together and get going,” Bartlett said. His group, he said, is working on three fronts: negotiating with CSX, working on preliminary environmental reports required by governments and the railroad, and organizing a citizen’s group to raise money and build support for the trail.

Harrold said he has been looking after a stretch of the right of way between his home and Illinois 49.

“What’s happening now is that some people are trashing it and dumping junk on it,” Harrold said of the right of way. “I’d like to protect this part of it if I could. I’m already looking after it a little.”

The Urbana-to-Danville section of the old rail line holds great meaning for Harrold because it’s where he started with the P&E (a division of the Big Four Railroad which was owned by the New York Central) in 1941, shortly before the beginning of World War II. His grandfather, who emigrated from Ireland, and his father both worked the rails (the Pennsylvania Railroad), and there was little doubt he would, too.

“I started with the old Cairo Division (of the Big Four) in 1939 at $6.35 a day,” he recalled. “That was real good money then.”

Two years later, he started with P&E and worked mostly out of the yards in Urbana. But since he was low man on the seniority list, he would take any job offered, including fireman on the fast passenger trains or work in the Hillery yard on the west side of Danville. That’s why he moved to Fithian, in a home a stone’s throw from the railbed, in 1948.

“I came here because I wanted to be halfway between Urbana and Hillery so I could work jobs either way,” he said. “That worked out real good for me.”

Around that time, he said, he became an engineer and remembers greeting his children as he drove the train past the house.

“I had two girls then and they were little kids and I’d wave at them as I’d go by,” he said. “Sometimes I’d throw them candy.

“We usually were slowing down here because we’d switch out coal or pick up lumber in Fithian so we weren’t going very fast.”

Driving the freight train was an easier job than serving as fireman on the passenger run, he recalled.

“In the summertime, that passenger run was a pretty hard job,” he said. “Nobody wanted it. But I climbed right on it. You were shoveling coal. And the time was pretty fast. That run was only six hours and something, and you stopped in every town.”

A 1947 timetable shows the train departing Peoria at 10:20 a.m. and making 25 stops on the 211-mile journey to Indianapolis, including a 1:48 p.m. stop at Fithian and a 1:56 p.m. stop at Oakwood.

“You really had to fly between towns and of course that meant the fireman had to shovel a lot of coal,” Harrold said. “When they’d pull into a depot, you’d get a little break. But when they were running, it was hot work.”

Perhaps all that work years ago is the reason Harrold can still ride a bike 6 miles a day, has planted thousands of trees on 80 acres he owns in northern Minnesota (where he has ridden his bike on the 110-mile Paul Bunyan Trail) and has hopes of riding his bike along the same route he drove a train decades ago.

“I’d love to ride that old railbed again,” he said. “I’ve even offered to pitch in some money to get it done.”

Your CommentsComments :: Terms :: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

nice story i still cling to the old ways and memories and dont like the way things are headed and im 47 not old ,old but definately not young anymore either it sounds good that hes trying to raise money for it the bicycilist should pay for it not us hunters ,fisherman and trappers because the il dnr gives our monies towards theese projects which is not right !i speak because here in Fulton they give 22,000 for the trail here and believe me theres been more worse things done with our funds and if anyone has a problem with this comment please elaborate and tell me how much bike riders pay the dnr?

Posted by trolloni on 12/09 at 07:53 PM

After reading the article my thoughts were somewhat the same. Sell them a sticker for the bikes and fund there on trails, joggers, walkers and other users also. Seniors should get a break since more than likely we have been on the books most of our lives. Of course somebody should stand up and say something honest like you know the state is broke and we really have higher priorities at this time. But my hats off to Mr. Harrold 6 miles a day at 92 way cool. Maybe trade it in for a mountain bike and go for it! Another thought maybe they could shut some of these trails down for upland hunting.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/14 at 03:18 PM

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