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An Inside Look Into Outside the Rails (Part 2 of 2)

An Inside Look Into Outside The Rails (Part 2 of 2)

The Story Behind our Railroad Route Guides

By Robert & Kandace Tabern, Email:

Published: February 18, 2016

Co-author Kandace Tabern sells two "Outside the Rails" books to a passenger on an excursion train in June 2015

In our January 29, 2016 TrainWeb article (visible by clicking this link), we brought you the first part of the story on how our railroad route guide business, called “Outside the Rails”, got started. This month's article is the second and final part in this series.... and will explain how we came up with the idea of writing additional books... all the way through to the current time of our company and information about our two newest books that just came out.

After spending more than three years researching and writing the Chicago to St. Paul, MN book, Robert never really planned on putting the effort into writing any other books; he felt the project of writing a 300-page book was just too time-consuming. At the time, Robert worked in television news and emergency communications for a suburban Milwaukee police and fire department and didn’t have the spare time required to continue future projects. Also, in late 2011, the two of us also came back into each other’s lives – this included a period of long-distance dating and Kandace’s eventual move to Wisconsin from Arkansas – all of this left little time for researching rail routes and writing/publishing new editions of “Outside the Rails”.

After Robert published his Chicago to St. Paul, MN book in 2011, he planned to stop writing railroad route guides

However, circumstances in late 2012 changed Robert’s initial determination not to write any additional railroad route guide books. On December 3, 2012, we were instrumental in bringing together representatives from Amtrak, the National Park Service, and the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF) in La Plata, MO to help formulate the possibility of establishing a new Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief through Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri.  At that time, it had been more than two years since a Trails & Rails program operated on a long-distance train route out of Chicago. Between that initial meeting on December 3, 2012, and the first actual run of Trails & Rails to La Plata in May 2013, we were given the task of recruiting new docents and writing the reference manual for them to use on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, MO. We decided right off the bat, that we would aim to turn our notes about the route for Trails & Rails into a published book, a second installment of “Outside the Rails” you could say. This gave us dual purpose for doing our research.

Robert and Kandace Tabern returning home from Chicago Union Station on December 3, 2012 after striking a new deal with Amtrak, the National Park Service, and the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF), establishing a new Trails & Rails program; this program spurred a new edition of "Outside the Rails" to be written for the Southwest Chief route

We were in luck and January 2013 ended up being a very warm month across Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. This let us research the route with very little snow on the ground and cold weather. We spent all four weekends in a row that month driving a portion of the Southwest Chief route. The first weekend was spent going the first 28 miles of the tracks between Chicago and Naperville. The second weekend was from Naperville to Princeton, the third was from Princeton to Fort Madison, Iowa, and the fourth and final weekend was the far end of the route – from Fort Madison to La Plata, Missouri. Our research primarily includes driving the route of the BNSF train line as closely as possible – looking for interesting landmarks and things you see along the route. Also included in stopping in at local historical societies and meeting with interesting locals who might have stories to share that we could include with passengers on the train.

A photo from our first weekend of research for our Chicago to La Plata, MO book; here we pose with a statue of a lion that is located at the Brookfield, Illinois Metra Station - at approximately Milepost 15 on the BNSF route

Driving the route and taking notes might sound like an easy task – and sometimes it is – but researching each segment of the route can have challenges of its own. For example, while the stretch of train route from Chicago to Naperville was by far the shortest segment – and the easiest for the fact that there were many urban and suburban streets paralleling the tracks – it also proved to be the most stressful and cumbersome because of all of the red lights and heavy Chicagoland traffic that one encounters. There are also some questionable neighborhoods along the train route that one may not be safe in stopping off at. Now, the opposite end of the route from Fort Madison, Iowa to La Plata, Missouri provided just the opposite kind of challenges. While most of the folks we ran into were friendly in Iowa and Missouri, finding decent roads that paralleled the tracks was the ultimate challenge. When the Santa Fe built the train line between Galesburg and Kansas City, they were not really interested in the towns along the way – they wanted the most direct line between these two cities and other points to the west.  This meant the tracks go at a diagonal, while a lot of roads in the area go straight north-south or east-west.  So, in order to hit a town or point on the train line to research for our new book, one has to jog a few miles west and then a few miles south – and continue this hop, skip, and jump approach many, many times over. Another challenge about the more rural potions of the route was the fact that at the time of writing this book, Robert was driving a 2010 Toyota Corolla. This isn’t the best car for the unpaved roads of Northeast Missouri. There was more than one time that we came very close to getting stuck in the mud. One spot that this happened at was in the town of Dumas. Dumas is the first settlement that one comes to in Missouri on the westbound Southwest Chief – around Milepost 252 – just after crossing the Des Moines River. At one time there was a sizable community here, but today, it’s been wiped off the state highway map and there is just one hunting cabin here. We wanted to visit Dumas because of a legendary story about a haunted buggy tunnel that was located beneath the tracks here. Rumors had it amongst locals that one of the women who was killed in a late 1800’s train accident came out at 11:00pm every night to look for her head that fell in the creek below.  One of the ways into Dumas was actually washed out when we were doing our research and had to be “forded” in a 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Robert actually considered crossing this in his 2010 Toyota Corolla, until Kandace’s better judgment kicked in. We still made it to Dumas to get some photographs for our book – but we ended up having to go almost an hour out of our way to find a passable road to get back around to the town site.

Washed out gravel roads, like this one in Clark County, Missouri, presented many challenges for researching the train line from Chicago to La Plata; this incident caused us to go an hour out of our way to get between Fort Madison, Iowa and Dumas, Missouri

Kandace checks out the supposedly haunted 1880's buggy tunnel located beneath the BNSF line at Milepost 251, Dumas, MO

For every moment of almost getting stuck in the mud or having to go on an hour detour in rural Missouri, as authors – we also have our moments of great joy from hard detective work. One example of this is finding an amazing discovery at the former Cherry Hill Coal Mine. One of the sites that we knew we would have to go back and do additional research on for the book – beyond our quick weekends of driving parts of the route – was a large hill that can be seen south of the BNSF train line between Mendota and Princeton on the route of the Southwest Chief (and California Zephyr, Illinois Zephyr, and Carl Sandburg, too!).  If you have ever seen it during one of your train trips, you will notice how out of place it is – in contrast to the very flat landscapes of Central Illinois.  We had no idea what this was at first glance – maybe a garbage dump, maybe a Native American burial mound, maybe something erosion created? 

A 150 foot high hill (pictured here to the right of Kandace) caught our attention when driving the train route

By doing some initial research, we discovered this 150-foot-high hill was slag (or a waste product) from a coal mine that was in operation here during the early 1900’s. By visiting the town closest to the hill, we learned that the Cherry Hill Coal Mine was actually one of the worst mining disasters in United States History!  On November 13, 1909, while lowering hay to a band of mules who were living in the second and third levels of the mine, the hay brushed up against a torch used by miners. The fire that resulted spread and over 250 men and boys – some as young as 9 years old – lost their lives.  The mine re-opened in 1910 and continued to provide coal for the Milwaukee Road railroad until around 1930. It was at this time, that the mine was sold to the Bartoli family who immigrated from Italy. The Bartoli family mined Cherry Hill for about another five years until it became unprofitable – and then from there – used the land above the mine for pasture and crop land.  For the book’s purpose (and of course our own curiosity) we wanted to see what was left on this site.  When we drove over to the mine site – we saw a locked gate up around the property and decided to head back home to see if we could track down a property owner. After spending several hours of research on this, we came up with just one on-line article; it was written by a historian who toured the mine site about 10 years prior. It appeared the property was still owned by the son of the original landowner who purchased it from the Milwaukee Road. Further research indicated the son of the original landowner had passed since the article was written, but the property was still in the hands of the grandson of the original landowner. Some digging around and help from local officials in Cherry put us in touch with Ernie and Charlie  They were very nice and agreed to meet up with us to give us a walking tour of the property.

Ernie Bartoli has his picture taken for "Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO" at the Cherry Hill Mine site

The Cherry Hill Mine's main shaft has been sealed with concrete, with a marker placed on it

Kandace (left), our photographer (right), and the Bartoli Family at the Cherry Hill Mine site conducting research for our Chicago to La Plata book

A unique view; this photo was taken from the top of the Cherry Hill slag hill - you are looking 150 feet below on Arlington, Illinois

The Bartolis pointed out various historical debris located on top of the Cherry Hill slag hill pile

With the Cherry Hill disaster happening more than 100 years in the past, there was little evidence of what had happened there.  The wall of one of the original mine buildings, the slag heap, and the sealed shaft to the mind were all that was left. We got invited by the Bartolis to climb the slag heap. Let us tell you – that is was no easy feat!  There was no trail up there – and we got tons of scratches from thorny bushes. But, we finally made it to the top and got a spectacular 20-mile sweeping view of the area between Mendota and Princeton. The real jewel of the trip happened on our way down. Ernie stumbled on what he though might have been an old railroad tie from the mine branch line that went to the top of the slag hill – finding ties are a relatively common thing for him when he ventures up the hill. But what he found was even more precious – one of the mule shoes that were taken from the mine. Perhaps, the mule was among those who perished on the day of the fire. Since we occasionally do lectures and narration about the towns and sites along the route, in addition to our book, Ernie gave us the mule shoe – and we use it as a historical prop whenever we can.  Doing research for a book can really give you some amazing stories that you probably would’t get anywhere else. Of course, the portion about Cherry Hill has become a true favorite for readers and those who attend our interpretive programs.

Robert holds up a mule shoe that survived the mine fire at Cherry Hill; it was found during our hike to research the Chicago to La Plata book

Robert’s first “Outside the Rails” route guidebook took him more than three years to research, write, and publish. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the luxury of that amount of time on our side when it came to the Chicago to La Plata, MO book – we had to get it to our docents by early March 2013 so the Trails & Rails docents could get familiar with the stories in it by the time the first program rolled out on May 18, 2013. Working together as a team, we were both able to reach our goal – the first edition of “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO” was published on March 11, 2013.  It was about 200 pages long and sold for $20.00.

Robert holds up a copy of our book, "Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO", shortly after it was published in March 2013

We decided to use our Chicago to La Plata, MO book to help raise money for the non-profit American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation (APRHF), since they agreed to be a key sponsor of the new Trails & Rails program between Chicago and La Plata, MO.  Several book stores in Chicago and various venues of the APRHF in La Plata agreed to carry copies for sale to the traveling public. Amtrak and the National Park Service did not let us sell our books on the train while doing Trails & Rails, but we got crafty with that and often times passengers would “step off” the train very quickly in La Plata to purchase the book at the depot.

Between the 2013 and 2014 Trails & Rails seasons, we decided to do additional research and write a new version of the book that would feature additional content. We got the chance to meet with more individuals along the route and gather more interesting stories about the Southwest Chief route from Fort Madison, Iowa. For example, Fort Madison station agent Amy Lambert provided us with several contacts in her area who knew a lot about the Mississippi River and history about the historic town. We also met some local farmers along the way, including Al Siebert, who owns a strawberry and pumpkin patch that is visible on the north side of the train about two miles west of Princeton, Illinois. 

Conducting additional research for the Second Edition of "Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO" in Fall 2014 led us on more adventures, including a visit with Al Siebert of Princeton, Illinois who owns a pumpkin farm along the BNSF main line

Kandace in a pumpkin patch taking notes for the Second Edition of "Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to St. Louis; our research would lead to the expansion of this book by about 100 pages from the First Edition to the Second Edition

Our newer editions of the Chicago to La Plata, MO book also included more geology and human history – for example – the fact the “tall bridge” about two miles west of Princeton over Big Bureau Creek was actually an ancient channel of the Mississippi River – and there was a pre-historic Native American site around Milepost 220.  Last, but not least, we added additional places where people could see animals from the train. This included visits to two alpaca farms west of Galesburg, a mule farm near Argyle, Iowa, and a white-tail deer farm in Northeast Missouri.  Kandace’s keen eye even spotted a permanent eagle nest that can be seen from the train along the Mississippi River near Dallas City, Illinois (you can only see it when the leaves are off the trees during the winter).  We learned that eagles will often mate for life and come back to the same nest year after year – even though they may travel up to Alaska from Illinois for the summer months.

The BNSF Bridge over Big Bureau Creek, west of Princeton, near Milepost 106

Robert visits an alpaca farm near Cameron, Illinois for researching the Second Edition of "Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO"

Kandace discovered this eagle's nest, which is visible from the train during winter months, just east of Dallas City, IL

We published a very limited Second Edition of “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO” in March 2014; it was just for the exlcusive use of our Trails & Rails volunteers. After cleaning up some errors in the Second Edition, we published the Third Edition of the Chicago to La Plata book a few months later. This is the current edition that is 350 pages long and sells for $35.00.

Two passengers on the Southwest Chief enjoy reading the Second Edition of "Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO"

Much like Robert not intending to publish anymore books after his first Chicago to St. Paul, MN edition, we did not plan to write anymore route guides after the Chicago to La Plata, MO edition.  Between our full-time jobs and managing 30 volunteers for the Southwest Chief Trails & Rails program, we really didn’t have any free time to consider researching and writing more books.  We did, however, spend additional time marketing the book and getting into various book stores and shops along the route. During 2014, we moved our “Outside the Rails” business from South Milwaukee, Wisconsin to our new home/base of operations in Wadsworth, Illinois. Wadsworth is located half-way between Chicago and Milwaukee, just south of the Illinois-Wisconsin border. We can be contacted through mail at: 39067 Caroline Avenue, #42, Wadsworth, Illinois, 60083.  Please allow 4-8 weeks for processing for orders and correspondence sent to this address.

A patron of Galesburg Public Library enjoys learning about his hometown in "Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to La Plata, MO"

May 2015 marked the start of the third season of the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata, Missouri. The 2015 season was supposed to include about 50-60 round trips between May and December 2015. Unfortunately, just about a month into the season, we were informed by the Jim Miculka, the National Park Service’s National Coordinator for Trails & Rails, that he wished to end the partnership agreement for our program with the American Passenger Rail Heritage Foundation. We were quite surprised with Jim’s decision, as our APRHF-sponsored Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief between Chicago and La Plata produced some of the highest volunteer hours for the National Park Service amongst all Trails & Rails programs nationwide. Plus, the National Park Service had to provide very minimal funding for our group, with the APRHF picking up most of the expenses. Over two-and-a-half seasons, our volunteers reached out to over 50,000 passengers. The final Trails & Rails program ran on July 18 and 19, 2015. The cancellation of our program by Jim also resulted in the loss of the only Trails & Rails program out of Chicago Union Station on a long-distance Amtrak train.

Our final Trails & Rails trip from Chicago to La Plata, MO on July 19, 2015 featured special guest Junior Ranger Aida, she earned more National Park Service Junior Ranger badges than any other girl her age in the country.

Even though we and the APRHF Board of Directors were disappointed with the way things ended with Trails & Rails – we kept a positive attitude about the whole matter – and looked at the closing of one chapter as a beginning of another opportunity.  Since the APRHF devoted a lot of resources to Trails & Rails – including a wireless speaker system and route guide handouts –  the decision was made to keep doing interpretive programs on board trains. The day after the last Trails & Rails program to La Plata, MO was indefinitely suspended by the National Park Service, APRHF President Bob Cox announced the creation of a new affiliate – the APRHF Rail Rangers. Volunteers with Rail Rangers do many of the same things that Trails & Rails volunteers do, except on private rail car excursions and for groups – instead of for the public on Amtrak trains.  Robert was appointed the Executive Director and Chicago Coordinator of Rail Rangers and Kandace was appointed the Assistant Chicago Coordinator. Since the new set-up had to get partnerships established with private rail car owners, it was decided to start the program with just nine volunteers instead of the 30 that we had.

The outreach arm of the APRHF and Outside the Rails Books transitioned from Trails & Rails to the APRHF Rail Rangers in mid-2015

In partnership with Outside the Rails Books, APRHF Rail Rangers provide interpretive programs on private passenger cars

APRHF Rail Rangers provide narration on private railroad cars, much like Trails & Rails did for Amtrak passengers

APRHF Rail Rangers Interpretive Guide Fred Glure (left), Asst. Chicago Coordinator Kandace Tabern (center), and Interpretive Guide Dave Poole (right) attend an outreach event in November 2015 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Having a smaller group of volunteers with Rail Rangers compared to Trails & Rails, has allowed us to devote more time to our “Outside the Rails” route guide business over the past 8 months now. In late Summer 2015, we decided to write abbreviated versions of our route guides from Chicago to La Plata, MO and Chicago to St. Paul, MN. This idea came from Bob and Amy Cox (APRHF's President and Vice-President) who noticed that some people who came to buy the books in La Plata, MO wanted a more travel-friendly version. The customers liked the fact our books were so detailed, but didn’t want to bring a 350-page version of it on the train. By August 2015, our abbreviated editions of our first two books were published – both are about 50 pages and sell for $10.00 (Chicago to La Plata, MO version) and $15.00 (Chicago to St. Paul, MN version).  These smaller books have proven to be a big hit for those who want to pack a little lighter.

Various APRHF Rail Rangers and Amtrak officials gather to celebrate the release of the new abbreviated editions of "Outside the Rails"

The creation of APRHF Rail Rangers directly lead to the creation of our next book. When we managed the Trails & Rails program on the Southwest Chief, one of the most popular aspects was the Junior Ranger program. Children (and children at heart!) could fill out a booklet and earn a gold badge and patch for their efforts. The APRHF wanted to continue a Junior Ranger program on the excursions that the APRHF Rail Rangers would be involved with. For this project, Kandace teamed up Karri Cox, the daughter of Bob and Amy Cox. The two worked together for several months to put together a 32-page activity book for children. The theme would be activities that one could do on the train (it even has a Midwest-focus!) and information about railroad safety.  The book was published on October 1, 2015; this marked the official start of the APRHF Junior Rail Rangers program. The activity book sells for $10. For an extra $5, one can purchase an APRHF Junior Rail Rangers “prize pack”. This “prize pack” includes a gold badge that says Rail Rangers on it (it is done in the same style as National Park Service junior ranger badges), a Junior Ranger cloth patch, a Junior Ranger sticker, and a special prize (which varies, but can include a story book or coloring book, etc.).  Many state and national parks around the country offer a Junior Ranger program to children and teens. The APRHF announced that the officials spokeswoman of the program would be 15-year-old Aida Frye, who holds the record for earning the most Junior Ranger badges anywhere in the country. She offer appears at outreach events put on by the Rail Rangers.

Outside the Rails debuted its first children's book on October 1, 2015 - the APRHF Rail Rangers' Junior Rail Rangers Activity Book

People who purchase the APRHF Junior Rail Rangers Book can earn an official badge, as seen above

During Fall 2015, we got the chance to meet Eva Hoffman, who is the author of the Flashing Yellow Route Guide book series. If you read the first part of this article written last month, you will know that served as one of the inspirations for “Outside the Rails”. In September 2015, we took a trip on the California Zephyr between Chicago and Salt Lake City; Eva joined us between Denver and Granby and narrated some of the route for us.

Outside the Rails Authors Kandace Tabern (left) and Robert Tabern (center) meet up with Flashing Yellow Guidebooks Author Dr. Eva Hoffman

Finally, our two most recent books were researched and written over Fall 2015 and Winter 2015-2016. The most labor-intensive project for us was researching and writing a 102-page route guide book form scratch for the Lincoln Service and Texas Eagle route from Chicago to St. Louis. We decided to focus our attention on this route, as one of the private car owners who is affiliated with APRHF Rail Rangers, informed us of a potential trip in 2016 on this segment. Plus, with ten passenger trains a day operating between Chicago and St. Louis, we decided there would be a good demand for this route guide. We enjoyed writing this book – especially it’s re-occurring themes such as the Illinois & Michigan Canal, U.S. Route 66, and the various Abraham Lincoln-era history. This route guide was made available on February 1st, 2016 – yes, just a few weeks ago. You can purchase it for $20.00 per copy.

"Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to St. Louis, MO" was published on February 1, 2016

In Winter 2016, we decided to release a book that passengers could use on Amtrak’s Hiawatha Route between Chicago and Milwaukee. This was a relatively easy effort, considering Robert had written about that section of track already in his 2011 Chicago to St. Paul, MN book. We drove the route once and took a round-trip on the train to make the appropriate updates about sites that might have changed over the past five years. “Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to Milwaukee, WI”, a 102-page book, will be released in just a few weeks from now on March 1, 2016.  It will also be available for $20.

"Outside the Rails: A Rail Route Guide from Chicago to Milwaukee, WI" will be published on March 1, 2016

So what is next for Outside the Rails?  We plan to take a few months off, as late Spring through early Fall are busy times at our full-time jobs… as well as for managing the APRHF Rail Rangers and making contacts and new partnerships with private rail car owners. However, we do plan to write a new route guide book starting in Fall 2016, with an expected release date around February or March 2017. Possibilities for our newest edition including the route from Chicago to Carbondale, Illinois, Chicago to Detroit/Pontiac, Michigan, or Chicago to Indianapolis, Indiana.  The focus of “Outside the Rails” will continue to be on Midwestern railroad routes. We never want to compete with Flashing Yellow Guidebooks, which provide information about the train routes across the country.  We welcome anyone’s feedback when it comes to ideas for our next book. For now, continue to check out our websites below for further updates... and we hope you enjoyed this two-part series on how our railroad route guide business evolved over the past five years.

NEXT MONTH'S ARTICLE (COMING MARCH 2016): A week-long trip to West Virginia's Mountain Railroads (Beckley Coal Mine, Cass, New Tygart Flyer, Potomac Eagle & Western Maryland Scenic Railroad)


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More about the Cherry Hill Mine Disaster | Junior Ranger Aida Frey More about Junior Ranger programs


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