The Forgotten Railways of Chicago: The Old Plank Road Trail

The Old Plank Road Trail is one of the longer trails in the Chicago area, running between Joliet and Chicago Heights, IL. It has an extensive history as a proposed plank road, railroad, and interurban right of way during various times in its life.

It was one of the first "Rails to Trails" projects that I experienced, or at least that I'd realized upon walking it that was an abandoned railroad corridor. It is also, in my mind, one of the best examples of rail trails, in that it preserves the history of the right of way, fits seamlessly into its surroundings, particularly in the Frankfort, IL area, and improves the area around it. Today, we're going to explore some of the history of the trail, and show some of the area, particularly around Frankfort.

The Old Plank Road Trail at Frankfort in November, 2017

Like many of the transportation routes we know today, Native Americans were the first to create these routes. This area would be part of, or lead to, the Sauk Trail, which along with being the name for a nearby street, stretched to the Illinois River throughout the state, and continued east to Detroit, MI. The link shows an excellent map of the route in Michigan.

Sauk Trail - From Chicago's Highways Old and New, 1923.

In 1849, the land was proposed to become a plankroad from Oswego to the Indiana State Line via Joliet, along the same right of way that the railroad would use. This was to be known as the Oswego and Indiana Plank Road.

While the plankroad idea went nowhere, in 1855, the Joliet and Northern Indiana Railroad began operation from its namesake city to East Gary, IN, near present-day Lake Station, IN. This cut travel time along the route about 30 miles as a bypass of the City of Chicago, and the line became known as the Joliet Cutoff as a result. 

It wasn't long before the right-of-way came under control of the Michigan Central Railroad, and while the Oswego and Indiana Plank Road Company would be controlled by the MC, the railroad obviously never build a connection between Joliet and Oswego, plank, rail, or otherwise.

The History of Will County notes, "The right of way from Joliet to Oswego was not used for railroad purposes and gradually, piece by piece, returned to the original owners. Abstractors, even now [1928], are compelled frequently to get quit-claim deeds from the New York Central Lines to clear up titles on property.' The closest that Joliet and Oswego would get to being linked via rail service would be through the Elgin Joliet & Eastern Railway via Aurora, or the interurban Aurora Plainfield and Joliet Railroad.


Image: Michigan Central Railroad. Rand McNally, 1888



In 1890, the Michigan Central would come under the ownership of the New York Central Railroad. While the J&NI and MC both existed as paper railroads until the 1950's (Old Plank Road Trail), the line is a good example of the continued consolidation and growth of railroad companies from the 19th to the late-20th centuries, as the line would be inherited by New York Central's successor Penn Central, and PC's successor Conrail, who would abandon much of the line in the 1970's.

The line allowed riders to connect to Detroit, Cincinnati and other points east on the East Gary end, while connecting to St. Louis-bound trains at Joliet.

NYC 6069 on the Joliet Cutoff at Matteson, IL. Paul Jaenicke Photo.

A parallel interurban railroad also operated adjacent to the right of way in most spots, between Joliet and Chicago Heights, allowing riders to connect to the Chicago & Interurban Traction
line at Chicago Heights. This was known as the Joliet & Southern Traction Company and later the Joliet & Eastern. 

A couple pictures of this operation within Frankfort are displayed at the Trolley Barn, which it ostensibly was at some point. This is one of the places where the interurban left the Old Plank Trail right of way, which is a block north of Kansas St.

Kansas Street, Looking East. This is what it looks like today.

Interurban Station, Frankfort, IL. Here's what it looks like today.

A painting of a trolley barn, possibly the original barn the current store is located on. A plaque inside the barn notes the building was dedicated in 1909, so if this painting was dated, it would shed a bit more light on the situation.
An ad showing a transfer from Joliet & Southern to the Aurora Plainfield & Joliet.

Now for a bit about the trail today. Obviously, it starts in Joliet, IL, just east of where the line crossed the Hickory Creek.

Old Plank Road Trail western end.

Over I-80, the original rail bridge was still used until it was replaced a few years ago. Personally, I think the old bridge is far better looking.

Before and after of the OPRT I-80 Bridge. Photo: Patch.

Much of the trail in New Lenox is covered by trees, providing a good deal of shade in the summer months. When the trail enters Frankfort, however, it changes character entirely, and enters Frankfort's Historic District seamlessly.

Frankfort Grainery, once a grain elevator, is now a relic of the area's agricultural past.



A station platform and signal preserved in downtown Frankfort.


A bit west of Frankfort over US-45 is a really interesting looking bridge that is part of the trail. This is looking west.

Here's another shot of the bridge, this time looking north from US-45.

The trail continues eastward to Chicago Heights, but the right of way continued onto Lake Station, IN, running through the massive Griffith Junction.

Matteson, IL on the Old Plank Road Trail, the ex-Michigan Central line abandoned by Conrail in the 1970’s. Lurking in the background is a repurposed Illinois Central Railroad Caboose.

The Old Plank Road Trail is one of my favorite trails for its commitment to preserving the history, as well as providing a great utility today, and it's a fantastic example of the development of transportation over time. This route started as a Native American trading road, which was later used by white settlers. It was then was slated to be improved into a plankroad, before being improved into the Joliet & Northern Indiana Railroad during the 1850’s, and continued as such until the 1970's through successor railroads, before finally becoming a walking trail.

Thanks as always for reading!



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