Trains and old railway depots of Saline County

Monday, August 20, 2018
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Riding the rails was one of the best ways to travel back in 1878 to 1940, since many paved roads were nonexistent.

I remember my grandmother, Anna Wise Hayob, telling about traveling on a train to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. I don’t remember what kind of train it was or how long it took her to get to St. Louis. I do know there were berths to sleep in and a dining car that served delicious food.

Much of the information in this article came from Robert L. Ehrhardt, a claim agent for the western division of the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio. He did the research for the History of Saline County, the A.H. Orr edition.

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Saline County Railroad Lines:

The first railroad to traverse through the county of Saline was the Chicago and Alton. It was first known as the Alton and Sangamon. Its name derived from the city of Alton, Ill., and its Sangamon River. On March 6, 1878, a contract between the citizens of Saline County and the C&A was entered into for this railroad line. P.H. Rea, a name well known to many Marshall citizens, represented the county along with several others, in signing the contract. This line was completed in October of 1878 and extended to Kansas City. At the time, in 1879, this was the westernmost point of the railroad line. The Alton Line is now known as the Kansas City Southern, which is still operating in Saline County.

In 1886, a second railroad line was formed through the county, the Missouri Pacific. It started in December 1886 and was completed in the fall of 1887. Originally, it ran from Boonville to Lexington, where it joined with an existing railroad, connecting to Kansas City. However, not wishing to miss out on a connection to Marshall and the agricultural goods shipped from there, the Marshall Industrial Lead branch was built westward into Marshall. After 120 years of service, Missouri Pacific was granted an abandonment of the Marshall line and its rails were removed in November of 2009.

The Chicago and Alton line always was in financial trouble when it was taken over by the Union Pacific, keeping it out of bankruptcy. The C&A finally slipped into receivership in 1922. It had not paid interest on some of its bonded indebtedness since 1917 and, therefore, had been insolvent since that date.

It is amazing how many times local train lines changed names. In 1929, the C&A was sold under foreclosure and the Baltimore and Ohio railroad acquired control of the company. The line was then called the Alton Railroad until 1942 when the B&O line decided it had made an unwise decision in acquiring the line, and the line was returned to control of the courts.

In 1947, the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad line took over the Alton. It was a purchase and a merger transaction different from previous. It merged the bankrupt western line with the solvent southern line and formed the second mid-continent trunk line from Chicago to the major ports of the Gulf of Mexico. It was said that much of Alton’s problems were due to the Kansas City line that was high maintenance due to floods and the way the track was laid out over steep grades and numerous curves. In 1946, I remember riding the Alton line to Carrollton, Ill., to visit relatives and encountering curves, but not steep grades — of course that was not the Kansas City route. There was no air conditioning, and all the windows had to be kept lowered to stay cool.

Slater played an important role in Saline County railroad history. Slater was a huge railroad town in the 1900s. The Slater station was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Train and engine crews were changing at Slater in the 1940s, with one crew running between Slater and Roodhouse, Ill., and another crew running between Slater and Kansas City.

A major factor for Slater’s prominence as a railroad town was its roundhouse. To those who may not know, a roundhouse is a huge building, built in a semi-circle. There are stalls in the building for about 10 to 20 engines. Outside the roundhouse and within the legs of the semi-circle, is a turntable. In using the turntable, the locomotive can be turned in any direction. The roundhouse was used for storage and to replace engines.

In the 1950s, Slater, the “Railroad Town,” began to lose its defining name and major benefactor. The predominant cause for its demise was the advent of the diesel engine. The Slater roundhouse was set up to service steam locomotives. Gradually, as steam locomotives were replaced, the roundhouse was phased out. The chief and dispatcher’s office was moved to Kansas City, as were the mechanical and car department offices. Jobs were lost as work consolidated. If you talk to old-timers and look at some of Slater’s buildings, especially the churches, you will see the benefits the town derived from those railroad days. Like so many railroad towns of bygone days, Slater had to look to other industries.

This article is an excerpt from the Marshall Writers’ Guild book, “Saline County Structures and Stories” (2016). Virginia Sprigg is a member of MWG.