Trains were colorful when I was growing up in the late forties and early fifties.
Passenger train themes, locomotive paint schemes, freight car slogans, and cabooses that were rolling billboards, left over from the “glamour era” of the railroads made every passing train an adventure. Keep in mind that this was in the days before television, so the freight train was like a travel brochure being paraded in front of you.
There was a Wabash Railroad switching yard located along Bear Creek just west of where the railroad’s mainline crossed Lindell Avenue. The Wabash traffic headed to Kansas City on one end, and Detroit on the other. The CB&Q yards, downtown on the banks of the Mississippi River, was too far from home for me to visit, but I would occasionally see their trains on the old St. Louis & Hannibal tracks in our neighborhood, particularly as I walked to school.
The Wabash Railroad (reporting mark WAB) was a Class I railroad that operated in the mid-central United States. It served a large area, including track in the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, and Missouri and the province of Ontario. the Wabash Railroad carried a fascinating heritage. It earned pop culture status thanks to the folk song “The Wabash Cannonball” (which eventually led to a train of the same name) and flew a legendary logo with the slogan, “Follow The Flag.”
My mother used to tell the story of how she couldn’t trust me to stay in our yard at 1505 Vermont Street when the nearby switch yard got busy making up a train. She said that I would slip out the side gate and hurry to see the trains. It was only a few blocks to the Lindell Street bridge over Mills Creek where I could watch freight trains being made up. I always enjoyed watching the little steam engine shuffling back and forth through switches, moving freight cars from siding to siding to make up one long train.
It was a time of transition for railroad locomotive power as steam engines were being relegated to yard switching duty and colorful diesel locomotives did most of the line haul and passenger service, and boxey switchers worked in the yards. I liked the sleek and colorful round-nose diesel locomotives, but I had a particular affection for the chuff-chuff-chuff of the little steam engines that switched the Lindell Avenue rail yard.
I stood on the bridge over the creek and knew how far back to stand from the track so the steam engine wouldn’t scald me as it chuffed across the street. I don’t recall how I learned that lesson, but I’m sure it only took a time or two to figure it out. This was the route I took every school day on my way to classes. I may have been smart enough to take a clue from the conductor and brakeman as they got on and off the train to make up the strings of cars.
The switch engine would often go down the track into the yard to pick up a string of cars and pull them across and clear of Lindell Avenue. The conductor would wave the motorists and pedestrians through the intersection, and then would stand in the street to stop traffic, and wave the train to come back across the street and back into the yard. Even after the steam engine disappeared, and switching was done by a big, black, boxey, diesel locomotive, I was fascinated by the switching activity, and never lost my love of trains.
The Glamour of Steam
I recall some of my most familiar eye-catching lettering and slogans. They stirred the imagination as they passed by. “Everywhere West,” “PENNSYLVANIA,” “Santa Fe – All the Way,” “REFRIGERATOR CAR,” “Grand Canyon Line,” “Super Chief of California,” “Be Special – Ship Union Pacific,” and of course, at the end of the train, the bright red caboose with the lightening bolt, and, in big letters, “Radio Equipped.”
Other common railroad slogans were “Old Reliable” (Louisville & Nashville RR), “The Western Way” (Western & Pacific RR), “Mainline of Mid-America” (Illinois Central RR), “Heart of the South” (Seaboard Airline RR), “The Katy” (MKT), “Silver Meteor” (Seaboard Coast Line), and there were many more. It just stirred one’s imagination with mystical names, locations and journeys.
For more than a century the caboose was a fixture at the end of every freight train in America. Along with its vanished cousin the steam locomotive, the caboose evokes memories of the golden age of railroading. In those days the caboose was headquarters for the conductor, a head brakeman, and a rear brakeman.
I recall patiently waiting for the freight cars to clear the street because I knew that at the end there would be a caboose with colorful messages painted on it, and perhaps, a friendly railroader that might wave back.
Back Yard Switching
When we visited my great-grandparents on Market Street in Hannibal, their backyard ran adjacent to a siding leading to a lumber yard just two houses away. Beyond the lumber yard siding were two other sets of tracks; one for the Wabash and one for CB&Q. Often, I would get to see a CB&Q switcher go by with cars for local delivery at the same time the lumber yard was being switched. That was a thrill!
We played outdoors in those days, before homes had televisions or any type of digital device. I would hurry to the back edge of their yard when I heard a train coming, to watch it pass by, or deliver or pick up cars at sidings just down the block. The trains had cabooses at the end where the brakeman and conductor rode. I always thought it was fun to have a crew member wave back as they passed by. I guess, based on mom’s remarks, I was always a rail fan.
I admired the brakeman who rode on the ladder of the freight car of
lumber slowly being pushed into the lumber yard. He would have the engineer stop the train on the branch line, jump down to the ground, unlock and throw a switch lever over to align the track with the siding. He then would unlock the large gate over the track and swung it back out of the way, and signal the engineer to begin pushing the cars back as he stepped back up on the ladder.
Sometimes there would be a long string of cars in the train, and the engine wouldn’t even get close to the switch. Other times there would be only the two or three cars stacked high with lumber. As the engine pushed the cars into the lumber yard, the brakeman would disappear into the yard as the cars moved past the gate.
A few minutes later, the engine would move back to the branch line track, clear of the switch, where it stopped while the brakeman shut and locked the gate, threw the switch back over to align the track, locked it, stepped up on the ladder of the end car, and motioned the train to move on down the track in the direction of Oakwood.
The Short Line
The St. Louis and Hannibal Railroad, known locally as “The Short Line,” the StL&H was originally incorporated as the St. Louis & Keokuk RR on February 16, 1857. The Civil war and various depressions and recessions prevented its actual construction until 1871. The first Short Line train reached Perry July 1892, and the track was extended from Oakwood into Hannibal. A brick depot was built at 501 S. Main Street in 1892.
Beginning in 1933, the railroad began operating four Mack AD model railbuses to bolster passenger service, and ran infrequent freight trains as well. It helped for a time but eventually the Perry Branch was abandoned in 1943 and the main line was abandoned in 1944. The company was finally dissolved March 12, 1945.
The final railroad configuration was mainline from Hannibal to Gilmore, and branch line from Ralls Junction in New London, to Perry. The railroad was never very profitable as it served a largely rural area with little industry and small revenues. The building of hard surface roads, particularly U.S. Highway 61, the ever expanding Foster Bus Line routes, growing trucking industry and finally the personal automobile spelled its demise.
The depot at Center, Missouri was preserved and donated to the Ralls County Historical Society. And, in August 19, 2003 a dedication service was held at New London naming Missouri Highway 19 between U.S. Highway 61 and the edge of Perry as the Short Line Route.
Wabash Railroad – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabash_Railroad
Fallen Flags – https://www.american-rails.com/wabash-railroad.html
1886 system map – https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/67/1886_Wabash.jpg
Wabash River – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabash_River
St Louis & Hannibal RR – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._Louis_and_Hannibal_Railroad, and Alan Ballard Book: https://www.hannibal.net/article/20080927/NEWS/309279948