Dad and I headed south from Chicago, leaving the North Side about 9:30 a.m., going down Lake Shore Drive and the Dan Ryan before peeling off to the southwest on Interstate 57 with a destination of Cairo, all the way at the southern tip of the state. We stayed on that all the way down to Tolono, a small town that’s the subject of a railroad song by Utah Phillips (I wrote briefly about the song earlier this year).
The old Illinois Central (now Illinois Central Gulf) and Wabash (now Norfolk Southern) lines come together in town. In his song, Phillips describes the place as a flag stop — a place too small to have regular service. That looks like it was probably true, though there are so few passenger trains now that I’m sure it’s been decades since even a flag stop was made.
We got off the interstate just northwest of Tolono and drove into town on U.S. 45. I noticed while we were heading through that there was a sign for a historical marker. But as we passed the spot indicated — the entrance to a gas station — I didn’t see a marker. We drove out the south end of town, turned around, and tried again. We turned in at the gravel entrance to the gas station, but still didn’t see anything historic looking. But we did see a local constable parked in his Tolono squad car, apparently waiting for speeders . He lowered his passenger-side window as we rolled up.
“We were looking for that historical marker,” I said.
“What?” he answered.
“Do you know anything about the historical marker that’s supposed to be here?”
“A drunk took it down last winter. State still hasn’t put it back up.”
“Do you know what it was for? What the marker was for?
“I don’t know. State’s supposed to put it back up again.”
I had my camera out, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask whether I could take the officer’s picture. I also didn’t ask how long he’d been living in the area that he had no idea what this marker was about. Inquiries like that could be a threat to homeland security and speed-zone enforcement. Instead, Dad and I drove off to see Tolono; I was hoping there’d been an old station or stop of some kind I could photograph so I can send a shot to my old friend Gerry, who used to play the song so well. But there’s not a whole lot happening in town, certainly no evidence of a rail-passenger platform anywhere. I shot a couple scenes along the Norfolk tracks anyway. Then we headed back to U.S. 45 to go south for a few miles and get back on I-57.
We passed the historical marker sign again, and going by the gas station I finally saw the monument. It was a tablet set into a boulder in among some sort of ever-greenery. The bushes kind of looked like landscaping for the gas station, and the boulder hadn’t been visible when we were consulting local law enforcement about markers of historical significance. The police officer had been parked no more than 100 feet from the spot.
We halted again, and it turned out to be worth it this time. The marker commemorates what is said to be Lincoln’s last speech in Illinois, on February 11, 1861, during a brief stop on his journey east to be inaugurated. One site notes that Lincoln stopped further east, too, in Danville, and spoke to a crowd there. A railroad-centric account of the journey mentions Tolono, but not Danville.)
Lincoln’s brief Tolono speech is on the marker:
“I am leaving you on an errand of national importance, attended as you are aware with considerable difficulties. Let us believe as some poet has expressed it, ‘Behind the cloud the sun is still shining.’ I bid you an affectionate farewell.”