LeROY — By the late 1800s, McLean County featured one of the densest railroad networks the world had ever seen. Rail lines, including the Illinois Central and the Chicago & Alton, crossed the county to haul grain, livestock, finished goods and passengers to and from communities large and small.
For all this area’s rich rail history, the most colorful line to reach these parts was the narrow gauge Havana, Rantoul & Eastern (HR&E) Railroad, nicknamed the “Punkin’ Vine.”
Its founder was Rantoul attorney Benjamin F. Gifford who, frustrated with what he believed were Illinois Central’s exorbitant freight rates, built an east-west line as competition.
Construction on Gifford’s narrow gauge road began the summer of 1875, with the final 22 miles from the Champaign County community of Fisher west to LeRoy opening in early 1879. Although the planned LeRoy-to-Havana stretch never made it off the drawing board, Gifford could boast of completing and operating a working short line railroad, with West Lebanon, Ind. as the east terminus; LeRoy as the west; and Rantoul roughly in the middle.
Locally, the Punkin’ Vine (a vernacular pronunciation of “Pumpkin”) was also known as the LeRoy Narrow Gauge or simply “The Dinky.” As a narrow gauge line its rails were laid three feet apart, compared with the standard 4 feet, 8½ inches. Narrow gauge locomotives were smaller and less powerful than their standard cousins, and hence pulled less weight. A distinct advantage, though, was that narrow gauge lines laid over the relatively flat Corn Belt landscape could be built on the cheap.
The origin of the term pumpkin vine is hazy, though it’s a familiar nickname for shortline or narrow gauge railroads, perhaps because the routes would often wind to and fro (like the aforementioned vine) to pickup small towns or follow the vagaries of the terrain more than their straight-line, mainline competitors.
The Punkin’ Vine entered LeRoy from the east, running down Oak Street before curving southwest to meet what would become the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis Railway. Two blocks before the connection the HR&E maintained a cluster of buildings, including a stationhouse, roundhouse/engine house, turntable, water tank and handcar shed. There was also a grain elevator and small stockyards.
The Punkin’ Vine’s original rolling stock consisted of two steam locomotives, two passenger cars and 88 freight cars. During its first six months of operation, it carried almost 6,000 passengers and nearly 8,000 tons of freight, receiving in exchange a little more than $15,000 (or around $350,000 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars).
In late May 1879, The Pantagraph ran a letter from an unnamed LeRoy resident extolling the virtues of the new railroad. “Trade is improving and business of all kinds is looming up at this place,” read the letter. “Where are the old croakers now who said that the narrow gauge would kill the place?”
But the old croakers had the last laugh, for the long-term viability of Gifford’s line was dicey. As Carlton J. Corliss noted in his definitive history of the Illinois Central, the HR&E was built on a “shoestring,” and day-to–day costs and mounting debt left nothing for its stockholders.
In May 1880, Gifford’s line was absorbed into robber baron Jay Gould’s Wabash system, though the road defaulted on its mortgage bonds and was placed in receivership twice. By 1886 the narrow gauge had fallen into the hands of the Illinois Central, and in June 1887, it was consolidated into an IC subsidiary called the Rantoul Railroad Co. The rail behemoth then issued $1 million in bonds to rehabilitate the now-dilapidated short line, a move that included ripping out the narrow track in favor of standard gauge.
Before the age of the school bus, area students were known to travel up and down the Punkin’ Vine to attend school in LeRoy or in one of the several one room schoolhouses scattered along the line. Back in 1940, Oral Buck recounted the glory days of the railroad, saying, only half-jokingly, “that it would stop any place along the line if some hunter wished to get off and shoot a rabbit or a quail.”
The Punkin’ Vine remained under the management of the Illinois Central, and for years one passenger and two freight trains ran daily between Rantoul and LeRoy. With the rise of the automobile and “hard” roads, passenger service ended in 1931, and the last freight train ran on March 18, 1980.