Illinois Beach State Park’s Long Abandoned Tracks

One of the more surprising relationships between geographical features, and one that we don’t typically associate with one another, is that of beaches and railroads. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were several examples of railroads on or near beaches, either for transporting beach-goers, or for transporting sand, gravel and other minerals from the shores.

Washed up tracks on Illinois Beach, 1997 (photo by A. Foyle)

In 2014, one of these railroads became washed up in the tide in Cape May, New Jersey.  Those tracks were used for transporting munitions during World War I.

Closer to my home, there once existed a set of beach tracks that were used in the south end of Illinois Beach State Park. While the track is currently mostly road, or buried under sand and, in the winter, snow, it's quite easy to see on maps of the area, despite the tracks having been torn up and made into a road not long after they were constructed. 

These tracks appear from time to time at the park. Unfortunately, I have never observed them myself! However, Vikinghammer2 did find them and shared them on Reddit.

Vikinghammer2 photo on the rustyrails Reddit

According to Chrzastowski & Frankie, "around 1902, a railroad track had been built across the ridges and swales to a point along the shore just north of Dead River (a tributary river inside the park). Along the beach vast quantities of sand and gravel were then being mined and hauled away by rail car. The remains of the abandoned tracks can still be found in some places. The scenery of what is now the South Unit led to using the area for the filming of several westerns beginning in 1914 and continuing into the 1920s."

Venturing back to Illinois Beach when snow isn't covering the same ground I'm trying to look for clues of railroad operations on, I walked a bit farther south and came across what appear to be a bridge foundation for no apparent reason in the sand. I'm wondering if this structure dates back to these operations, but I can't confirm or deny that they do. 

FRR&P photo, May 2021, of what appears to be perhaps ruins of a railroad fortification. I could be completely off base, however.

If anyone who can help me shed some light on this structure, it would be greatly appreciated!

The same ruins looking north.

A bit of history on the park. Its location next to Lake Michigan prevented it from ever being exposed to the rampant development that encompasses most of the Chicago area, however a town was platted in the area, to be called Mayville. During both World War I and World War II, the US Army used the north end of the park as a basic training facility. It should be noted that as of this time the north end of the park was still not part of Illinois Beach, and wouldn’t be annexed by the rest of the park until the 1970’s. (Chrzastowski & Frankie)

A topo map from the early 20th century. Note the existence of the now abandoned Chicago and Milwaukee Electric, later named Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee

Looking north along the South Unit Trail, this part of the path is located on or near the former right-of-way, quite close to Lake Michigan. 

A blue-colored image from the 1939 aerial, showing where the operations of the railroad right of way by the lake pretty well. (Illinois State Geological Survey - colored by FRRandP)

A turn south occurred around here, where the road now diverges north.

The ROW of the old line goes past the road and into the wilderness to a former junction with the tracks now owned by Union Pacific.

It should be noted that this was not the only spur from the Chicago & Northwestern main line into Zion. Another existed along present-day Caledonia Blvd to the center of Zion, where Christ Community Church is today. This line is noted in the Development of the City of Zion, by James Taylor.

"Development of the City of Zion", by James Taylor, page 7. Thanks to Jill Zwicke for providing this information!

Today, the ROW of the former railroad encompasses a majority of Illinois Beach State Park Rd before turning to the south and ending in the sand. No trace of the abandonment exists, at least at the moment, it is possible that the tracks wash up again, especially with the recent erosion that has occurred on Lake Michigan. That being said, there are a few examples in the park of where one can visually see where the tracks went.

Source: Chrzastowski, M. J., & Frankie, W. T. (2000). Guide to the geology of Illinois Beach State Park and the Zion beach-ridge plain, Lake County, Illinois.

Thanks as always for reading!


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