What the heck just happened?

A roundup of a few unexpected stories that crossed our paths in 2017

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By Bob Uphues

2017 Year in Review

The bread and butter of community journalism is about what you'd expect – keeping tabs on local government, reporting on the policies of various school boards and about what's happening in the schools, featuring interesting or notable local residents and keeping the public apprised of local criminal activity.

But every year, without fail, there are those stories that you really never quite expect. Here's a roundup of some of those stories from 2017. 

Dem bones

Crews working to install a new storm sewer system in Riverside's First Division were just about done digging the final trench for the new pipe in the 100 block of Bloomingbank Road when they uncovered human remains.

The obviously very old bones – later they'd also find a button and a metal nail – were found right along the curb line, an area that had never before been excavated. Construction immediately came to a halt and the Cook County Medical Examiner collected the bones and other artifacts for further testing.

The medical examiner's office confirmed the bones were human and said more testing would be done to try to determine whether the remains were Native American or of a European settler. The area near the river is known to have served as a burial site in the 19th century.

In response to a recent email from the Landmark seeking information on the testing, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner stated that the bone fragments were "not enough to determine the age of the bones or information about the deceased, but it was determined to be an adult human. It is believed they are very old and likely pioneer-era bones." 

A cut above

In March 2016, a strong storm uprooted a 160-year-old white oak in the 300 block of Fairbank Road in Riverside. While most trees damaged by storms end up in the wood chipper, Village Forester Michael Collins had a better idea.

He lobbied for the tree, a sapling when Riverside was created, to be milled and turned into three tables that are now used for meetings of the village and township boards of trustees and some Riverside advisory commissions.

The tables were designed over a period of months in 2016 and crafted this year by Paul Meyer, who owns a woodworking business in northwest suburban Woodstock. The tables arrived in Riverside in August and have been put to good use.

Power of the press

It was a sad, but familiar tale – a local club with deep roots but an aging membership was on its last legs.

In July, the five members of the Brookfield Woman's Club, founded in 1906, announced they would be shutting down the club's operation on Sept. 6. The youngest member was 77 at the time.

"It was too much for us," said club President Joanne Bazata, a member since 1980, at the time.

The trouble wasn't the club, however. It was that no one really knew it existed anymore. In the age of social media, the woman's club was invisible – until the Landmark published the story about its impending demise.

And then it all changed.

At what was to be the club's final meeting on Sept. 6, members announced they were forging ahead. After reading the Landmark article, more than 20 women, mostly in their 30s and 40s, joined the club, elected new officers, created a Facebook page and embraced the longtime members, four of whom stayed on. The club just celebrated the holidays at their annual Christmas party at Irish Times.

"We didn't realize that's what we were missing," Bazata said in October. "We were supposed to be on Facebook." 

It's war!

"Collateral damage' is a tragedy of war, but in case of an epic battle last July in which two gas station owners duked it out in the form of forcing each other to slash their gasoline prices to the bone, innocent bystanders got a heck of a deal.

For about 11 hours, starting at 11 a.m. on July 15, the owners of the Shell station at 3100 Maple Ave. and the Clark station at 3045 Maple Ave., kitty-corner from his rival, kept ratcheting down prices, drawing long lines of customers eager to get in while the war – and gas supplies -- lasted.

Prices dropped to as low as 73 cents a gallon at the Shell station and 70 cents a gallon at Clark and police were called in to direct traffic before a truce was called at about 9:45 p.m.

"People loved it," said Nadir Khan, owner of the Shell station. "It was crazy outside."

Horning in

In February, the train horns started blowing incessantly as freights lumbered through Riverside on the BNSF tracks. At all hours of the day or night, the screaming horns woke residents from their slumbers and generated a load of complaints, as well as a mystery.

Why was this happening? BNSF engineers knew not to blow their horns late at night and hadn't done so for years.

The culprit turned out to be something called Positive Train Control, a new wireless network that feeds information to train engineers, including speed limits, locations of other trains and switching info.

It also tracks dangerous uncontrolled rail crossings and has the network automatically sound a train's horn if it's approaching one. The system recognized Herbert Road in Riverside as an uncontrolled crossing – it isn't a crossing at all – and horns would blow as trains approached, forcing engineers to override the system until the bugs could be worked out. 

The hordes descend

Brookfield Zoo is open every day of the year and during the winter, quite frankly, the animals don't get a lot of visitors.

The zoo entices people to visit by offering free weekend admission in February, which usually bumps attendance to a few thousand people on those weekends. 

On Feb. 18 and 19, temperatures reached the 70s – and people celebrated the unseasonable warmth by visiting the zoo at no charge. On Feb. 18, some 22,863 people visited the zoo – easily a record for any day in February since the zoo opened in 1934.

The following day set another record, with 27,531 visitors – a bigger day than many weekend crowds during the summer.

And the following Monday, a school holiday no less, another 21,000 people visited the zoo, even though they had to pay regular admission.

A Brookfield police officer described the traffic backups, worsened by construction on 31st Street near the main zoo parking lot, as "just insane."

Contact:
Email: buphues@wjinc.com Twitter: @RBLandmark

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