Good morning, America. How are you?
I am on a Monday morning train, to follow in the tracks of the journey that inspired Chicago folksinger Steve Goodman to write the song City of New Orleans.
Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central, Monday morning rail
I’m not on the Illinois Central, I’m on Amtrak, which took over all passenger rail service in the U.S. in 1971, the year after Goodman’s trip. And this train is not, technically, the City of New Orleans, a name now only applied to an overnight run between Chicago and New Orleans. It’s the Saluki, which goes as far as Carbondale. That’s actually farther than I need to go. Although Goodman sang about “changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee” and riding “through the Mississippi darkness, rolling down to the sea,” on that life-changing April morning in 1970 — the morning that produced his only Top 40 hit (although sung by Arlo Guthrie, not himself) — he only rode as far as Mattoon, where he and his wife visited her grandmother. As a student at the University of Illinois, Goodman had taken the train from Champaign to New Orleans, so he added in those memories to complete the song.
“The third stanza about Memphis, that was pure memory of the student trip back then,” he told an interviewer. “I thought it was stupid to write a song about a train that goes 900 miles and let the song end in Mattoon.”
Still, despite its title, City of New Orleans is a song about Illinois. Fifty-three years later, I wanted to find out if the romance of the rails Goodman sang about still exists. So at eight fifteen, we rolled out of Union Station.
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail
There are only seven cars and two conductors. Budget cuts. Rail travel is not as popular as it used to be. There are, however, a lot more than fifteen riders — most of them students returning to U of I or Southern Illinois University. They aren’t restless. At that early hour, most are asleep. There is no mail, either: railway mail service was discontinued in 1977.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields
The train makes a very brief stop in Kankakee, where no passengers debark. Kankakee is a minor station along the route, but Goodman probably mentioned it because it has a musical-sounding, easy-to-rhyme name — unlike Mattoon, which is pronounced, awkwardly, MATT-toon. Once the train pulls out, I see houses, I see farms, and I see fields, brown and fallow in January. There’s not much else to see on the prairie.
Passin’ towns that have no name
Freight yards full of old Black men
And the graveyards of rusted automobiles
We pass a lot of towns, but they all have names: Flossmoor, Peotone, Gilman, Onarga, Loda, Paxton, Tolono, Tuscola, Arcola. Nor do I see any freight yards full of old Black men. I imagine Goodman embellished some of the details to give the song an Americana feel, in the tradition of classic train songs by the Appalachian, Southern and Western musicians he admired. However, there is a graveyard of rusted automobiles alongside the tracks! Thompson Auto Wreckers in Chebanse, where hundreds of cars at the end of their useful lives await scavenging. I try to take a photo, but the speeding train carries me out of sight of the junkyard before I can enable my camera app.
Dealin’ card games with the old men in the club car
Penny a point ain’t no one keepin’ score
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin’ ’neath the floor
There is no club car on this run, only a lounge car, where a lone vendor sells coffee, tea, bagels, muffins, and sandwiches. Inside are no tables, only two seats, which makes it impossible to deal cards. “This is called a Panic Box,” because it’s so small, the vendor tells me. The actual City of New Orleans still has a lounge car, with tables, but Amtrak canceled its dining car service, which is now only available on cross-country runs. Also, there’s no need to hide a bottle in a paper bag, because Amtrak sells vodka, gin, rum, bourbon, Jack Daniel’s, beer, wine, and White Claw.
“Only time you gotta worry about that is before noon on Sunday,” the vendor assures me.
I can’t say I feel the wheels rumblin’ ’neath the floor too much, because I am sitting in the top compartment of a two-story car. Ridin’ the rails from Chicago to Mattoon is no longer exactly as Goodman described it…but it probably wasn’t exactly that way in 1970, either. Boozy old timers getting drunk and playing low-stakes pinochle at nine thirty in the morning may have been more folksingers’ license.
And the sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep
Are rockin’ to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel
I do not ask any of the men on the train, “What did your father do for a living?” However, the Pullman Rail Car Company ended its service in 1969, at which time the average age of a porter was 63 years old. So not only are all the Pullman porters gone, their sons are likely gone, too. I do not see any mothers holding babies. As I said, most of the passengers were college students who can’t afford cars. Who would wake a baby up at six in the morning to ride a train?
Mattoon’s train depot dates back to Goodman’s journey. “ILLINOIS CENTRAL” is spelled out in metallic letters on its brick facade, and the roof is covered with orange terra cotta tiles. Outside the depot is a historical marker detailing this city of 16,000’s greatest claim to fame: “General U.S. Grant, near this spot on June 15, 1861, took command of his first troops in the Civil War, 21st Ill. Inf.” What is there to do in Mattoon? Steve Goodman’s grandmother-in-law is long gone, so it’s no longer possible to visit her. I walked through midtown, which is four blocks long and two stories tall, looking for a place to eat lunch. Smelling meat a-cookin’, to quote a famous Downstater, I turned the corner to find Burger King. Not that Burger King, but, as the sign says, the original Burger King, Home of the Hooter, a quarter-pound hamburger named after its founder, Gene Hoots. The short-order diner opened in 1954, the same year as the Florida Burger King which would grow into a national chain. When that other Burger King began opening restaurants in Illinois, Hoots sued to prevent them from using his name, in the landmark case of Burger King v. Burger King. The court ruled that BK could not do business within 20 miles of Mattoon. So Burger King is the only Burger King in town.
Is it worth a three-hour train trip just for a hamburger? One that’s grilled, not flame-broiled? As Steve Goodman would have agreed, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. He never wrote a song about Mattoon.