Giant Locomotive Plant Going Way Of Steam Engine

Kirsten Scharnberg

Chicago Tribune, March 24, 2000, page 1

Jack Wheelihan won't even drive down that old stretch of 55th Street in suburban McCook, the same strip of asphalt he routinely traveled during his 36 years of building the colossal, real-life locomotives that made generations of American children beg for Lionel train sets for Christmas.

He can't stand to watch the wrecking cranes.

He refuses to see that famous sign, "World's Largest Locomotive Builders," turned into a relic.

He won't witness the "death throes," as he likes to call the final stages of demolition on the old General Motors Electro-Motive Division plant, the historic brick building the size of several football fields that once produced diesel locomotives that made all other forms of railroading obsolete and earned Chicago worldwide fame for "driving steam out of the United States."

In a high-tech new millennium destined for rockets instead of railroads and with the locomotive assembly portion of Electro-Motive's business relocated several years ago to a more modern facility in Canada, the wrecking crews are in the middle of tearing down the well-known production plant that once turned out more diesel locomotives than anywhere else in the world.

"Someday I'll go past and it will be just a big, open field," Wheelihan said of the 3.6 million-square-foot plant where he worked almost his whole adult life. "Or maybe a parking lot or a mall. And I'll be able to deal with that. But, no, I won't watch the carnage."

Excuse Wheelihan--"a third-generation railroader," he calls himself--for talking about those soon-to-disappear stories of amber bricks as though they were a family member or a dear friend. After all, he knows the history of that building on the outskirts of Chicago as well as he knows his own family's--and both are intimately tied to the thousands of miles of rails that snake across the country, with Chicago as their busiest hub.

Wheelihan knows that when the first diesel-electric locomotives rolled out of the McCook plant in 1936, everyone thought they were a "flash in the can, and steam engines would always be king."

He knows that Electro-Motive proved everyone wrong, revolutionizing the way trains traveled the country by turning out nearly 10 180-ton intricately painted locomotives every day in the 1930s and '40s, slowing the frenzied production only when the federal government needed diesel engines for battleships during World War II.

And the 58-year-old engineer knows what it felt like--so sad that it almost made hundreds of grown factory laborers cry--on that day in late 1992 when someone rang, for the last time, the ceremonial bell that indicated a hulking locomotive had been completed on the dusty plant's vast production floor.

For Wheelihan and 13,000 workers once employed at the Electro-Motive plant, a place so big that some people considered it a town unto itself, it was bad enough to see the old building sitting abandoned and empty for seven years. But the wrecking crews out there now, who are expected to wipe out by fall all trace of the big building that has been called a symbol of Americana, are even worse.

Few people argue that streamlining production costs by using one Canadian plant makes good business sense for Electro-Motive. But the company continues to employ nearly 2,000 people at a second facility in McCook, where they build virtually all of the engines for the locomotives.

Electro-Motive officials say they plan to preserve several hundred of the building's bricks to sell to historians and former employees.

"Some people are just extremely passionate about this business," said Electro-Motive spokeswoman Sheri Woodruff, during a tour of the division offices in McCook.

The history at Electro-Motive runs back to 1935, when ground was broken for the McCook plant. With the Depression leaving a pall over the nation and the railroad industry in swift decline, the big railroad companies of the day were looking for something to reinvigorate passenger rail travel.

It came in the form of a new, fast, convenient, ultra-modern invention: the shiny, sleek diesel passenger train. Free of the need for coal or constant stops for water to generate steam, the trains were able to transport people--and eventually freight--to their destinations in short, hassle-free order.

"Electro-Motive became the pre-eminent producer of diesel locomotives in the United States from the 1930s until the 1970s," said Nick Kallas, general manager of the Illinois Railway Museum in Union, whose museum displays and still runs for tour groups some of Electro-Motive's original locomotives from the 1940s.

"At one point they were dominating up to 85 percent of the diesel locomotive market, and all those trains were coming straight out of some little town just outside Chicago," he said.

From immediately after World War II until the early 1970s, Electro-Motive was vastly out producing all competitors. Its biggest rival, General Electric, didn't come close.

But then, from 1981 to 1990, annual sales ranged from a high of 843 locomotives to a dismal 255. Railroad deregulation had led to mergers that decreased demand for locomotives, and deregulated trucking hit the industry just as hard. General Electric suddenly was proving to be a fierce competitor, cornering up to half the market. And, ironically, Electro-Motive fell victim to its own craftsmanship.

"They built their locomotives to last so long that they basically put themselves out of business," Wheelihan said.

Even when the rail industry started to make a comeback during the 1990s and despite a 1999 record order of 1,000 new locomotives for Union Pacific, the company couldn't afford to keep both the McCook plant and the London, Ontario, one working.

Because the facility in Canada was more modern--about 20 years younger than the McCook plant-- the decision was made to permanently transfer all locomotive assembly there.

So now, even though the diesel engines still are built in McCook, Electro-Motive workers don't see the final product, except at railroad crossings like everyone else.

From the spot where he was standing in front of the old building recently, Bob Hill, a 36-year veteran, and Del Hermann, who put in 35 years, couldn't even see the wrecking equipment behind it. But they knew it was there.

"It kind of makes you want to cry when you look at this place and realize how much of your life is attached to it," Hill said. "How much of the country is attached to it."

Copyright 2000, The Tribune Company.