If you’ve been anywhere near the Penny Bridges lately, you know the trail under them is closed for drainage work. A few of you may remember when the Rock Island trail was a functioning railroad. I do have very dim memories of it since I visited extended family who lived close to the Penny Bridges with a backyard that ended almost at the tracks. I asked my cousin who still lives there what he remembered of the corridor and he recalled something quite different, not the park-like setting of today.
First, he remembers the thousands of frogs heard all summer. There was often standing water near the bridges, as discharge pipes from nearby buildings and parking lots emptied into the lower railway corridor. The tracks were strewn with glass and trash and kids would lay pennies on the rails to flatten them. Southeast of the bridges was an apple orchard, and continuing south, a popcorn field. Before Calvert, which was gravel and not a through street, was a railroad siding, it’s switch, and a fuel tank. Lumber for the wood shop at Union College was unloaded and trucked from there. Hobos sometimes rode the rails, and local kids would sometimes hitch rides too, unknown to the conductor. In the early seventies, he thinks, was the derailment, which left new cars and household appliances strewn across the backyard.
In the area across the trail from Leon’s Market, kids in those days would dip water into cardboard milk cartons and pour it into the holes of the Franklin Ground Squirrels, who are similar to gophers, and the 13 stripe ground squirrels, who would stand up and whistle in alarm. Once flushed from their burrows, my cousins would capture one when they wanted a pet, take it home and tame it. The area south of the Penny Bridges to the west, past the wooded area, was known to have a good population of Bull snakes, and a little further down was another apple orchard. Wild asparagus was available along the tracks. South, in Bishop Heights, was the Catholic orphanage, school, and dump, which always seemed to have a fire burning. Continuing on across Highway 2, the first bridge was enclosed as it is today, but the second was not. A brave, or foolhardy, child could walk across, hoping a train was not coming. You could look down through the railroad ties to the 27thSt. roadway far below.
Starting in Fall of 2019 construction of the new Rock Island to Jamaica Connector bridge from Densmore Park to the old Rock Island trestle, or Train Wreck bridge in Wilderness Park begins, with ramps providing access to the Jamaica. I hope the trail will continue on through the park on the elevated rail bed.