Is There a Little Lost Locomotive Buried Beneath the BNSF Line in Hinsdale?

Long story short: probably not. 

But its been a local legend for well over a century, that there exists in the mud between Western Springs and Hinsdale an abandoned Chicago Burlington & Quincy Railroad locomotive, that was buried under the tracks during the construction of the line over 150 years ago. The Western Springs Historical Society dubs it "The Little Lost Train".

1880’s era train at Stone Avenue Station. (Western Springs Historical Society)


And the legend has renewed interest, giving the ongoing roadwork on the Tri-State Tollway (I-294) which has required BNSF to construct a temporary bridge over the Interstate.


A simple diagram of the construction is posted below from the Illinois Tollway. Riders of Metra's BNSF Line will be quite familiar with the project already.

The new bridge will be just south of where the current bridge exists, and moved back once construction on the Tri-State is completed, and an additional storage track will be part of the final alignment.

The legend dates back to the construction of the line in the early 1860's. The area between present-day Highlands and Western Springs stations were the most difficult to complete when building the original line, as a result of being directly next to the Flagg Creek

Annual Reports of the Burlington Route note that for at least two years, mass amounts of fill were dumped, to little or no avail for completing the route; representing the final link between the current BNSF racetrack between Chicago and Aurora.

Chicago Burlington & Quincy Zephyr Locomotives. c.1930 at West Hinsdale Station. (Southern Methodist University Libraries)

When the Tri-State was first being constructed in 1957, requiring the bridge to be built in the first place, the legend once again became part of the local discussion. The Western Springs Historical Society notes that, "since much of the area directly west of Western Springs was marshy wetlands, there was considerable excavation work required before a railroad bridge could be built to handle the numerous trains that would pass over the new tollway. According to reports from that era, bulldozer operators were told to be on the lookout for a steam locomotive that was believed to be buried somewhere in the mud. While no train was ever found in the course of the construction, many believe that such an artifact is still buried just west of the village."

There are two stories behind this rumor; one from construction from the 1860's, and one from the 1890's. In the first story, a work train overturned from heavy rains that had shifted the roadbed. Burlington officials who were trying to fill the area anyway, decided to use the locomotive as fill and rebuilt the track over it. Historian Charlie Vik believes this "is an exaggeration of what likely was an engine or cars that sunk into muck and had to be pulled out. The railroad in 1863-64 could not have spared any [locomotives], as wartime traffic was heavy and new locomotives not to be had."

The 1890 story is descried in depth by the Historical Society. "In the 1890’s a wood-burning engine, like the one shown above, passed through Western Springs headed for Hinsdale. Pulling two cars and a caboose, the little train went across what was the only solid land west of the village. Supposedly, the roadbed gave way. The engine then overturned and became mired in the swampy bog. Due to heavy rains and the surrounding water, railroad crews were unable to get the engine back on the tracks. So, the railroad reportedly salvaged whatever parts they could and then allowed the little engine to sink into a “muddy grave.”" (WSHS)

Just for fun, I decided to check the Illinois Height Modernization Chart (LiDAR Data) of the area to see if anything stuck out at me. This data was from before construction progressed last year, likely 2018 or 2019. 

Nothing screams out of the ordinary to me.

Illinois Geospatial Data Clearinghouse

Ultimately, I don't think one is going to dig up a fully intact steam locomotive from the depths of the racetrack today, and I highly doubt that a brand new railroad just left a steam locomotive to be used as fill upon their construction. 

It wouldn't surprise me at all, however, to find some buried parts of locomotives or equipment, however small, in the fill under the railroad, but I also think that's true of probably any operating (or non-operating) railroad across the world, so while there may be a little truth to this story, the truth is likely far less interesting and strange than the legend. 

That said, there have been numerous steam engines and pieces of equipment buried or submerged underwater to be discovered decades after the event, so this legend will live on. Where's Geraldo when you need him?

Thanks as always for reading!

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