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.
“Before I left Benton, I was eating inside, by 1994 or 1995,” McDaniel said.
Still, he said the biggest challenge on the track from Chicago to New Orleans was a hill on the southbound line going into Cobden. It is the steepest hill on the entire route.
McDaniel has had some fun, too. He remembers many good trips to East St. Louis.
“Having little kids of my own color wave at me and think maybe someday they could be an engineer made me feel good,” he said.
He was teased for years about a report of a black man stealing a train in Tamms. He says the people in Tamms had never seen a black engineer. The erroneous report was an easy fix, and he laughs today telling the story.
McDaniel is proud of never delaying a passenger train or number one train with his freight train. He said passenger trains are delayed for freight trains today.
What will McDaniel do in retirement? Since he has been on sick leave for a while, his activities will not change too much. He and wife, Corene, have two children and four grandchildren.
“I have four grandchildren, and they keep me plenty busy,” he said.
McDaniel will continue to volunteer at the African American Museum of Southern Illinois, stay active in Boskydell Baptist Church and try to help everywhere he can in the community.
“I did what I had to do to measure up to my counterparts,” McDaniel said. “I had to work twice as hard to be considered half as good as my co-workers.”