Over the past year, through three iterations of route proposals, many landowners were outraged when they learned their homes and farms were in the path of a railroad that would divert freight traffic around the Chicago area. They took that anger to a series of sometimes raucous public hearings.
But it’s easy to lose sight of the individuals in a crowd. This isn’t just a gang of rabble-rousers; these are real people. So we met with opponents of the Great Lakes Basin Railroad on their own turf: turf that the rail company would like to sink its tracks into.
Kathi Jurkowski calls her herd to dinner. And it really is a herd -- of chunky, shaggy, skittish two-toned cattle. She raises these Scottish purebreds on her farm and home, Klover Korners in Rockton. They’re Belted Galloways, also known as “Oreo Cookie Cows” because of the white band around their middles.
As she delivers an afternoon snack of a bucket of grain, Jurkowski points across the pasture. “So, see where that tree line is? That’s where my grandkids live," she says. "And that’s where the tracks will be. So I won’t be able to see them. We’ll just be able to wave at each other between the train cars.”
Her son bought the neighboring farm so his children could be close to their grandparents -- and the hunting was good.
Kathi and Jerry Jurkowski built their brick house 30 years ago in rural northern Winnebago County, not far from the Wisconsin border. They have 200 acres, with plenty of room for their Belted Galloways, goats, and chickens, as well as the corn and soybeans they grow to help pay the bills. It’s where they plan to spend the rest of their lives. Then, in September, they learned the Great Lakes Basin Railroad had changed its route. Trains would pass closer than 200 feet from their bedroom. Jerry Jurkowski says it goes beyond just the loss of part of their land. What happens to the remaining land is one of the reasons a number of county farm bureaus, such as Winnebago-Boone, oppose the rail line.
“It makes many odd-shaped fields that are very, very difficult to work,” he says. “A triangle is probably one of the worst things to farm. And it’s making many, many triangles across the state.”
Within a few months of learning about the rail line, the Jurkowskis found themselves becoming experts in all things rail. Neighbors started meeting in their home to plan their opposition strategy. They’ve been outspoken opponents at public hearings. They’re active on anti-Great Lakes Basin Railroad social media sites. They’ve become a clearinghouse for yard signs.
And Kathi has put together a presentation to take to area clubs and organizations. She says people throughout the region are learning they have something in common. “When you start over in LaPorte, Indiana, this is thousands and thousands of acres of pristine farmland," she says. "And they talk about creating jobs? What about the jobs they are taking away? Farmers hire people. Farming is a job.”
Then Jurkowski jokes this has been a heck of a way to make new friends.
About ten miles north of the Jurkowski farm, across the Wisconsin state line, is one of the area’s busiest best-kept secrets: Double-B Farm, Country Store, and Café.
Jim Lyga calls it “the most unique place I’ve ever found.” He’s a retired photographer who has parked himself in a busy part of the restaurant regulars call “The Room of Knowledge.” He says he shows up every day for coffee. Thursdays are special because his crew gets together to solve the world’s problems. They call themselves the ROTC: The Retired Old-Timers Club. Club members tend to have strong opinions on everything. They’re unanimous in their stance against the Great Lakes Basin Railroad.
Joe Weum says, “It’s kind of like Standing Rock. They think they have less opposition so they can just bulldoze over us.” He lives about three miles from the proposed path but doesn’t want to deal with construction tie-ups and the fear of cars loaded with hazardous waste derailing. Retired Rock County Sheriff Howard Erickson says he doesn’t know anyone in Beloit Township who supports the plan.
Retired Old-Timers Club members treat the Double-B like home -- or better. They take turns refilling coffee cups for all of the customers. They even pooled their money to fix the driveway when it needed repair. They’ve looked at the maps and know the current proposed path of the train line is a threat to their gathering spot. The two-room restaurant is located in the front part of a barn built in 1850. Baby farm animals live in the back part of the barn, ‘til they’re old enough to move outside.
This is Barb Beeler’s farm. Once she’s finished feeding her restaurant customers, it’s time to take care of the hungry crowd outside.
These are the cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens that end up on her customers’ plates. She says the current path of the rail cuts off her house, barn, and restaurant from her pasture – the food source for many of her animals.
“So everything we have on the 43 acres is on the other side of the train,” Beeler says as she feeds the pen full of goats – and one sheep. “So when you pull into this lot, you see tracks. If it went up to the top and went straight by the power poles, wouldn’t affect us as much. But this is cutting us out of pasture land.”
Beeler isn’t sure if she and her husband can afford to keep their livestock if a rail runs between them and their grazing land. And it’s the farm-raised meat that keeps their restaurant viable. She also isn’t sure the limestone foundation of her sesquicentennial barn can handle the vibration of a train running less than a football field away. Like many other farmers along the route, she feels disrespected by the whole process. Great Lakes Basin Transportation maintains the path was drawn to have the “least impact” on people.
Beeler takes issue with that: “We are still people. We are not packed together, but we are still people. We count," she says. "Don’t call us a wasteland. You can’t make more ag land. Once you take it away, that’s it. It’s done.”
Like others who have protested in meetings and comments submitted to the federal agency in charge of approving rail projects, Beeler says she is living in limbo. “Do I have to sit for two years and wonder, ‘Am I gonna have a train in my yard?’”
The wait probably will be that long. Building a railroad from scratch is a long process. Frank Patton, the founder and chairman of Great Lakes Basin Transportation, says America has forgotten how to build railroads. And, at this point, it’s in the hands of the Surface Transportation Board.
“It’s a new day, it’s a new process,” Patton said after a public meeting in Grundy County, “We will obey the law and follow the permitting processes. We want everyone to stay informed as we move forward. We want to talk to every property owner eventually, but it’s too early now. But within a year or two. There are some terrific ideas coming in through our website, and it just shows there’s no monopoly on wisdom.”
So, while the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly along the tracks in Washington, opponents of the Great Lakes Basin Railroad are encouraging each other to continue their fight. That means telling their story to whomever will listen and keeping the comments flowing to the Surface Transportation Board.