In this month they leased the depot from Illinois Central and were able to procure a caboose which was once part of the Elgin, Joliet and Eastern railroad.
The following month, in November, they located and bought a Columbia type 2-4-2 steam locomotive #5 built by H.K. Porter in 1946 for the Central Illinois Public Service Company as a switch engine to move coal cars. The locomotive was found in a museum in Wisconsin and arrived in Marion in the following year of 1973. Along with the locomotive, the CO & E also procured five passenger cars built in the 1920’s which had fallen out of use in the Illinois Central Commuter system in Chicago. One of these cars was modified for special events by the installation of a piano and stage.
The leased depot, built in 1912, was restored to its original condition. The original potbellied stove that used to sit in the depot was located in a Mt. Vernon shop and purchased for the depot along with period lighting reminiscent of the 1920’s. A gift shop was owned and run by the Southern Illinois Arts and Crafts Guild inside the depot as well as Crane’s Roaring 20’s soda fountain and gift shop.
The inaugural run for the railroad was held on May 29, 1973. Dignitaries present for the event were Congressman Kenneth Gray, Senator Gene Johns and Marion Mayor Robert Butler. In the first summer of operation as a tour train the line was hosting 1,000 riders a week. Of which, many were from other cities in Illinois and a significant percentage were out of state visitors who came here for the train ride. The train covered a 14 mile round trip tour in 1 hour and 15 minutes traveling at 15 MPH.
The railroad was featured in the Sunday Magazine of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in October 1974, Rail Classics Magazine in the summer of 1976, the cover of Rail Fan magazine in July 1980 and numerous other publications.
In 1975, the company acquired another steam engine locomotive #17, built in 1940 by the Canadian Locomotive Works.
In 1976, Illinois Central decided their freight runs to Marion from Carbondale was not cost effective to maintain and was preparing to abandon the tracks.
On July 14, 1977, a fire did serious damage to the old depot building and two of the CO & E passenger cars parked adjacent to the depot. This dealt a serious setback to the tour company.
Before the year was over, the CO & E and the City of Marion teamed up to buy the I.C. depot and 8.5 miles of track to the Crab Orchard Refuge for $500,000. The City came up with $200,000 and CO & E sold stock to cover the other $300,000. This now made the CO & E a common carrier with its own short line.
On October 18, 1977, the CO & E ran its first freight run using steam engine #5.
In 1978, with the freight business picking up, the tour train schedule went to Sundays only and was completely discontinued in 1979.
In December 1978, the company leased 100 flat cars from Itel and started offering a piggyback service using a ramp at the west end of their line. An additional 100 flat cars were purchased in September 1979 from the now defunct Erie Western Railroad. The piggyback service is run under the Southern Illinois Piggyback Company which is under contract to the CO & E.
In July 1979, their #17 locomotive was put into service after doing repairs and restoration on it after its purchase with what time they had available. This engine was sold in 1987 to an Iowa rail company.
The company has 500 distinct trailers which can be seen almost everywhere in the country. They are adorned by the company’s triangular herald and a picture of a large orange pig riding engineer style on the #5 engine with the inscription Pig Hogger.
In 1985, their remaining steam engine #5 was sold and resides in Jackson, Missouri. The following year, in 1986 they purchased two diesel engine SW-1200 engines, one was #1147 named Herrin, it was painted black and orange after the Herrin colors and was sold to the city of Herrin in 1987. The other was #1161, named Marion and is still their chief engine to this date.
In 1994 they purchased a 1953 engine from Sahara Coal Co., which they still own but at this date in 2013 is out of service.
In December 2012, Progressive Rail out of Lakeville, Minnesota purchased the CO & E system and as of this writing in February 2013 they have plans to increase traffic on the lines with a possible eye to restoration of the depot and a steam tour train.
Of the original owners, Bill Schreiber died in 2006 and Hugh Crane passed away in 2012. The only original owner left is Herb Soberg.
(Data from Crab Orchard and Egyptian Archives and Edward Bridges Collection; compiled by Sam Lattuca on 02/11/2013)