CARBONDALE — Milton McDaniel Sr. likes to talk about the trains. After 50 years as a railroad employee, he has some stories to tell. On Aug. 4, he began a new chapter in life — retirement.
When McDaniel was hired to work as a fireman for Illinois Central Rail Road on Aug. 4, 1967, he was the first black fireman hired north of the Ohio River. Harry Koonce, superintendent of railroads in Carbondale office, broke railroad rules to hire him. While there were black firemen south of Cairo, there were none in Illinois.
He was promoted to engineer in 1973 and was the first black engineer on the line.
In 1967, there was still a lot he was not allowed to do because of his race.
“I was unable to cross the bridge into Kentucky,” McDaniel said.
The first time McDaniel was allowed to take a train across the bridge, which is almost 4 miles in length, was 1978.
“I had to take a train from Cairo to Kentucky, and then bring a train back. My first trip was scary,” McDaniel said.
A curve on the Kentucky side of the bridge had a speed limit of 15 miles per hour. McDaniel took the train down to about 10 miles per hour and crept across the bridge.
“I think I remember them asking, ‘Mac, are you still moving?’ I told them I was,” he said.
Although some days McDaniel was disappointed by the way people treated him, he was surrounded with some good coworkers.
On his first trip as a fireman, McDaniel took a train from East St. Louis to Cairo and was not allowed to stay in a motel with his co-workers. Koonce called the motel the next day to tell them if McDaniel was not welcome there, none of his employees would stay there.
Another disappointment came while he worked out of Benton. When he was not allowed to eat inside a restaurant in Eldorado in the 1980s, his co-workers refused to eat unless he was allowed to eat inside with them.