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Shirley Cut

The “cut” through the Shirley end moraine is seen here in this 1974 photograph. The view is looking south; by this time the double-track mainline had been returned to a single track. (Courtesy of Jack Keefe) Shirley Cut PFOP

SHIRLEY — If you think Central Illinois is as flat as the proverbial pancake, hop on a bicycle and head out into the countryside, where you’re sure to be quickly disabused of this common misconception.

Some of the inevitable huffing and puffing would likely come from pedaling up one of the series of ridges formed during the withdrawal of the Wisconsin ice sheet 14,000 to 25,000 years ago. Arcing across the northeastern corner of Illinois and into the central and east-central sections, these ridges were formed when the retreating glacier halted long enough (tens to hundreds of years — mere blips in geologic time) to deposit enough rock, gravel and other debris to form what are properly called end moraines.

One of the largest in Illinois is the Bloomington Moraine that begins north of DeKalb and passes through the Peoria area before heading east to Bloomington and onward to Saybrook. The aptly named Moraine View State Park in eastern McLean County sits atop this ridge.

Another end moraine cuts right through Shirley, a small unincorporated community a few miles southwest of Bloomington. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Shirley “hill” (as it was called) presented a challenge to the Chicago & Alton Railroad, with heavier trains often requiring two locomotives to make it up the long and (relatively speaking) steep grade.

In the spring of 1909, the C&A embarked on a previously delayed double track upgrade over significant stretches of its mainline south from Bloomington. As part of this improvement, a “cut” (think of a long, wide trench) was carved through the Shirley “hill.”

The Pantagraph reported in July of that year that a steam shovel and a force of some 60 railroad hands were working around the clock, creating a two-mile cut about 20 feet at its deepest. The work required removing an estimated 240,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock, with much of that serving as “fill” to ease the grade on either side. “The steam shovel is a massive affair, and is capable of raising several tons of earth at each lift,” noted The Pantagraph. “Although an awkward looking piece of machinery, its movements, when underway seem almost human.”

Once opened, the cut meant C&A trains passed through Shirley well below the elevation of the town itself. Since there wasn’t enough room in the cut for much of anything other than the rail lines, the C&A erected a long flight of wooden stairs leading from the depot to the tracks below. In 1975, the now-abandoned Shirley depot was picked up and moved to Funk’s Grove where it served as an antique store. It’s still there, though the business is gone and the building stands vacant.

Today, getting from Old Route 66 to Quinn Street in Shirley means crossing a bridge spanning the cut, where below one can spot an occasional Union Pacific or Amtrak train speeding past.

Back in mid-August 1909, The Pantagraph reported on the death of Macedonian laborer Lazo Waneff during the construction of the Shirley Cut. He was one of 50 or so Macedonians from the Ottoman Empire employed by St. Louis contractor T.J. Daly & Co. who were working in three shifts on the double-track grading.

At the time, one or more steam shovels were busy filling a train of narrow gauge tram cars, making a mile and half run south to the foot of the grade. There, the cars were dumped as the immigrant work gang, shovels in hand, spread the “fill.” At 2 a.m. of Aug. 12, 1909, an exhausted Waneff attempted to cross the track ahead of the dump cars but stumbled and fell, and before he could get up he was run over by several of them and decapitated.

McLean County Coroner James F. Hare arrived on the scene, and in the “gray dawn of early morning” hastily organized an inquest that in no time absolved both the contractor and the C&A of any culpability and thus fiduciary responsibility. “The little nest egg earned by Lazo to take back to his parents as a token of his industry will be used to bury him,” reported The Pantagraph. “His journey will be to a land unknown instead of to the place of his birth. His untimely fate is but one of the little tragedies which cause us all to think about them for the moment and then become lost to memory forever.”

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