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Local Columnists

WRITE TEAM: Trains sound different in the country

Samuel Barbour
Samuel Barbour

I hear the train sometimes in the night while I’m falling asleep. It doesn’t whistle — it sounds more like a muted volley of low brass, occasionally accompanied by the deep, ominous rumbling of an idling diesel engine. The trains are coming in and out of the quarry that lies at the western edge of Ottawa. You see them in town from time to time, of course, and you notice when you get stuck waiting for them to cross the road, but late at night there’s a kind of magic to the sound of those trains.

Of course, the reality of those trains is that they are running out of the largest silica mining facility in North America. Sand has been quarried in Ottawa since the 1860s.

My mother, who happens to be a senior research chemist for a concrete admixture manufacturer back home in Ohio, knew about Ottawa sand, long before I married a local girl and moved here. It turns out Ottawa sand has a reputation for consistency that scientists really appreciate. Apparently, it’s also very useful in hydraulic fracturing process of extracting natural gas — and my wife tells me that there are a lot more trains coming out of the quarry than there used to be.

Driving around La Salle County, you might think of it as primarily agricultural — but you’d be wrong. There’s quite a lot of heavy industry here. Manufacturing employs nearly six times as many people as agriculture. Of the 52,200 people working in La Salle county, just 475 are farmers. And the biggest sources of employment are in retail and health services. There’s a thriving hospitality industry here, anchored by the popular Starved Rock State Park.

Much of the tourist trade comes from “the city” — the city being Chicago. Something I’ve noticed about Ottawa is that it’s just far enough away from Chicago that it feels separate from the city. The entire northeastern corner of Illinois gets lumped together as “Chicagoland” but if you get on the interstate and head west for long enough, you’ll eventually get to “the country.” I couldn’t tell you where the boundary is, but I’m pretty sure La Salle county is countryside. The funny thing about living in the country, though, is that what defines it is distance from the city, rather than a particular way of life.

One way in which country life is different from city life is the trains, though. When I lived in Chicago, trains were for getting around town. I rode them nearly every day. Around here, trains are for hauling freight. If you need to get somewhere, you have to find your own way. And that seems to folks just fine.

SAMUEL BARBOUR lives in Ottawa and teaches economics to community college students. He can be reached at

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