Local News

Once a bustling railroad stop in Whiteside County, now echoes of Denrock grow ever fainter

DENROCK – No sign, no building … there’s nothing left that would give passersby on Moline Road any indication that they just breezed through a once bustling former railroad site between Erie and Lyndon.

Denrock never was much more than a dot on a map, but for a while at least, it was a busy little dot, a rail crossing that attracted a post office, depot, businesses, and plenty of train traffic.

It was established 150 years ago, in 1871, but don’t expect any sesquicentennial celebration. That’s because today, Denrock is just a distant memory. Not even the X-shaped rail crossing that put it on the map remains; two legs were abandoned in the mid-1980s, and the “Denrock” sign was removed nearly a decade ago.

Even though Denrock as it was is long forgotten, the location today is something train engineers can’t afford to forget. With two legs no longer used, the tracks take a sharp turn, forcing engineers to slow down to 20 to 25 mph to navigate the curve as the tracks cross Moline Road. The sound of wheels scraping the edges of the rails are often heard as the train makes it around the bend. Along with the Union Pacific at-grade crossings near Fulton, it can take longer than usual for a train to pass the crossing near the curve, much to drivers’ dismay.

Denrock has a story, however, and there’s more to it than just a tricky turn.

Before 1869, Denrock was just a parcel of grassland alongside a wagon route between Sterling and Moline. At Hamilton Corners, where state Route 78 goes north from Moline Road today, that route crossed an old coach route that ran from Morrison to Spring Hill starting in 1853; it crossed the Rock River in Portland, which is the area around Howard Road today.

The Rockford, Rock Island and St. Louis Railroad constructed a line between rural Sterling and Barstow in 1869 that ran parallel to the wagon route to Moline. Erie native James Pratt took advantage of the parallel routes and laid out a settlement, Pratt, that same year. The town has long since disappeared, from the landscape and from maps, but it once had a depot and post office — but Pratt’s prosperity didn’t last long once another railroad line was built a few miles east of it.

Denrock’s X-crossing came in late 1871 when the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy extended a line northwest out of Prophetstown and across the Rock River toward Fenton. It acquired the Rockford, Rock Island and St. Louis Railroad a few short years later. Denrock straddles the border between Lyndon and Fenton townships. The ‘X’ point of the crossing sits just east of the border in Lyndon Township, but the current curve is entirely within Fenton Township.

As a spot that saw more rail traffic than most places along the CB&Q’s minor lines, Denrock thrived with a depot, coal sheds and a water tank. The post office that once had been in Pratt, came to Denrock in 1890, and not too long after that, a hotel and restaurant combination opened up.

The hospitality business began in 1893 by husband and wife John N. and Anna W. Hogeboom, who, Whiteside County historian W.W. Davis of Sterling wrote in 1908, made their lunchroom “unusually inviting by the kindly service of these excellent people. Home cooking, mince pies of her own baking, ever giant good and wholesome. A cozy sitting room in the rear for retirement, and bedrooms for chance travelers above.”

Local farmers would haul grain, produce or materials only a short distance before the goods would be carried off in all four directions from Denrock. Both lines split off at various points in each direction, miles from Denrock, but cargo and passengers could reach cities including Galesburg, Savanna, Sterling-Rock Falls, Mendota, La Salle and Clinton, Iowa, after passing at least one split intersection.

Denrock’s demise was a slow one that began when the automobile began to replace the train as a preferred method of travel. When Illinois designated Moline Road as a state highway – then state Route 86 from Sterling to Muscatine, Iowa, via Moline and Rock Island – the road was paved and east-west traffic did more driving than riding the rail. Route 86 became Route 2 in 1936 and lost its state highway status in 1974.

As automobiles became more affordable and more roads were paved, the numbers of railroad passengers declined, as did shipments when trucks began delivering more goods. One by one the businesses closed, except the depot, which last served passengers in the mid-1960s. The depot stood for a couple of more decades until it was razed — but that wasn’t the last blow for Denrock’s makeup.

The railroad industry, which phased out passenger service to the government-controlled Amtrak by 1971, struggled to keep afloat against other means of transportation. The CB&Q, which featured shiny silver passenger “Zephyrs” – whose engines featured a distinctive bell-shaped front – merged with a couple of other companies to form Burlington Northern in 1970. Soon Burlington Northern’s green-and-white engines zoomed through Denrock from four directions.

After only 10 years in business, however, Burlington Northern was in such bad shape that it had to shut down a large number of its minor lines. The line east of Denrock ceased operations in 1984, and the line south of the crossing closed the following year. This turned Denrock from a crossing into a curve.

Denrock’s ‘X’ spot was about 300 feet from Moline Road. Connection tracks were built on three of the four corners, the exception being one going north to east. The depot, which was the last building to stand near the crossing, was nestled between the Prophetstown-Fenton line and its connecting curve toward Erie. Most of Denrock’s buildings stood to the west of the Prophetstown-Fenton line and north of the Erie-Lyndon line.

Francis Road, which now is a dead-end road going southwest from Hamilton Corners, is a remnant of the Morrison-to-Spring Hill wagon trail. It crossed both CB&Q lines at grade; those crossings are now gone, but hints of their existence can still be found, if you know where to look: the road makes a minor dent where it crossed the line east of Denrock, and an old wood trestle continues to stand south of the other crossing. The abandoned trestle carried the tracks over a low area on the nearby farm where water ran off, and it can clearly be seen in the months when the corn stalks aren’t as high. Francis Road today dead ends just south of that second crossing, but up until the 1950s, it continued to link up with Henry Road toward the Rock River, where it once crossed into Portland back when horses were the main form of transportation.

Further evidence of the right-of-way on the abandoned legs not too far from Denrock still shows signs that tracks used to go by. The abutments of the bridge crossing the Rock River south of the junction still stand. The old Armstrong Agri Service buildings west of Lyndon sit at an angle parallel to Moline Road; that location being where the east-west line crossed the road. “Phantom bridges” along the east-west line over various creeks still stand where the line runs parallel to Interstate 88 east of Lyndon.

Burlington Northern eventually merged with the Santa Fe railway in 1993, and continues to maintain a small storage yard at the Denrock curve. And though the once bustling little spot on the map that fell victim to progress and change is long gone, it’s having the last laugh: delaying drivers who get caught waiting for the train to pass by, and who, as they count the cars and listen to the creeks and clanks, probably feel like time is standing still.

More on Facebook

Several Facebook groups have been formed dedicated to the history of railroads in Illinois. Information compiled for this story came from groups such as Railroad History Buffs of Illinois, Friends of BNSF, Friends of the Burlington Northern Railroad, and Burlington Route Historical Society.

The Union Depot Railroad Museum, 683 Main St. in Mendota, has a collection of history involving the lines that crossed Denrock. The museum is open from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Find it on Facebook or call 815-538-3800 for more information.

For recent videos of trains going through the curve at Denrock, search for “Denrock BNSF” on YouTube.

Cody Cutter

Cody Cutter

These days, Cody Cutter primarily writes for territorial "Living" magazines and specialty publications in northern Illinois, including the monthly "Lake Lifestyle" magazine for Lake Carroll. He also covers sports and news on occasion; he has covered high school sports in northern Illinois for nearly 20 years in online and print formats.