The Last Granger Railroad
text and photos by Brad Joseph, MMR originally published in the Caboose Kibitzer
With the 1995 Mid-Continent Region Convention in Des Moines, Iowa, I had given some thought to spending some time on the Chicago & Northwestern mainline. All winter I looked at maps, read stories, and looked at photos of locations in the hope I could devote a day or two before or after the Convention to photography. Then came what Pacific Railnews called the “stealth merger” – Friday, March 10, 1995. With that news, the MCoR lost an old friend. While the C&NW was headquartered in Chicago and served ten states, it was Iowa’s railroad.
This was the last granger railroad in the United States, excluding new regionals spawned by the past decades’ consolidations. It was the Chicago Great Western and Minneapolis & St. Louis incarnate, and for me it would always conjure up images of endless grain trains crossing the Hawkeye State, much like they had for the last one hundred, thirty-six years. So as the spring of 1995 wore on, the MCoR meet in Des Moines became the secondary reason for my visit to Iowa. First and foremost was now the opportunity, perhaps my last, to record the C&NW on film and tape. Leaving after work, and driving all night long from St. Louis, I had lots of time to reflect on why the C&NW had such a unique personality. The all night trip was necessary to get to the Kate Shelley Bridge near Boone at dawn when light would be best. Perhaps the Kate Shelley story was one of the reasons for the inordinate following this railroad enjoyed.
Many of you know the story – I had it read to me countless times as a child, and I don’t know how many times I have read it to my daughters Whitney and Carolyn. In 1901, a twelve year old girl saved a passenger train from running off the flood-ravaged Des Moines River bridges near Moingona, Iowa, a spot several miles south of the high bridge on today’s mainline. How many railroad bridges that you are aware of today have such a story behind them?
Perhaps it was the never say die attitude the railroad displayed in their determined entry into the big money Power River Basin coal game. During a mid-70’s bid to reduce reliance on seasonal grain traffic, the C&NW inked an agreement with the BN to build a new railroad to tap the low sulfur coal deposits in Wyoming. The BN tried of waiting to see the cash. The Northwestern just could not raise the funds needed to renovate their line across Nebraska (the “Cowboy Line”) to handle the traffic, but they did not give up. In a move that today seems ironic, they formed a partnership with the UP and began hauling almost 50% of the coal, much to BN’s chagrin.
Of course, the UP has been important to the C&NW for a long time. In fact, their fortunes have been intertwined ever since the city fleet was shifted from the rails of the Milwaukee Road along with UP’s Chicago bound freight business. Lots of people forget that the UP did not directly serve Chicago until the MoPac merger, but had run from Council Bluffs over the CMSTP&P or C&NW.
|Eastbound Powder River coal train at Scranton, Iowa. 6/15/95.Click any of these photos to see the larger, high-resolution version.|
I feel that one of the most interesting things about the Northwestern was its recent motive power moves. They operated a beautiful executive F-unit fleet for several years. They maintained and shopped their GP7s and GP9s unlike most Class 1s, and they also fielded the world’s most modern power, the AC4400CWs – what a combination! In fact, it was such a combination that I photographed on the “Spine Line” during the Des Moines meet. The “Spine Line” was the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific’s route from the Twin Cities to Kansas City, and in 1980, when they shut down operations C&NW leased, then purchased it. On a hot June day at Marshaltown, train MTMCA-Marshaltown to Mason City local rolled west out of the yards for the junction with the “Spine Line” in Nevada with an AC unit sandwiched by two geeps. Now that is homespun railroading for a Class 1! I would sure like to know what the engineer of that train thought having to ride in the geep with that million dollar unit right behind.
|Douglas Wessling cutting the grass at Grand Junction, Iowa, as the “Rolfe Branch way freight” passes. He is still using his 1947 Farmall at the Lions Park. 6/15/95.Click any of these photos to see the larger, high-resolution version.|
The Chicago & Northwestern always had a backroads, small town friendliness to it that I can’t describe any better than the photo of Douglas Wessling. I came across him cutting the park at Grand Junction, Iowa, while the “Rolfe Branch way freight” rolled by. The combination of tractors and C&NW power looked just right. Grain elevators are never too far from trackside in Iowa either, witness the scene at Scranton. Even though the eastbound train was hauling Power River coal, I couldn’t resist the shot.
Like I said earlier, the MCoR has lost a friend. If you get the opportunity to spend some time trackside before they go away forever, take it! The new mega railroads created in the past years somehow are much more impersonal than those warm Iowa days this past summer near Des Moines.
|Northbound MTMCA just about to cross under the C&NW mainline. It is coming off the “Spine Line” junction at Nevada, Iowa. How about that lashup! 6/17/95.Click any of these photos to see the larger, high-resolution version.|