Rock Island's St. Louis Subdivision-
A Complete History

Compiled By Michael A. Landis

In the Begining (1887-1930)

What eventually came to be known as the St. Louis Subdivision of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad actually began life as the little St. Louis, Kansas City and Colorado Railroad (SLKC&CRR). (NOTE: Some sources refer to the line as the St. Louis & Eastern RR). Taking it's name goal into consideration, this little railroad had big dreams indeed. The SLKC&CRR was the product of the minds of businessmen who lived in towns east of St. Louis, such as Union, who didn't want to be left out of the railroad building boom. During this era, a railroad in town meant big industry and business, as well as quicker transportation (for both goods and people) to the rest of the country; these in return equalled security for the future of the communities. These businessmen wouldn't allow their towns to be left out of the "railroad fever", so organizers began to lay track eastward from the newly bustling railroad hub of St. Louis, reaching the city of Union in 1887.

The railroad did indeed bring succes and growth to the communities it served, so much that other communities westward (such as Ownsville) wanted in on the growth and success, and began to call for the railroad to be extended to their communities. In the late Spring of 1901, the SLKC&CRR completed it's extension from Union, to Gerald, Owensville and Bland.

One year after the extension opened, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, which operated through Kansas City, began to eye the little railroad as a vital piece to it's proposal to build a line linking KC with St. Louis. Therefore, in May of 1901, the Rock Island purchased the St. Louis, Kansas City & Colorado RR. Although isolated from the rest of the it's expansive midwestern rail system, the RI intended to build the remaining link from Bland into Kansas City, allowing it to enter the trans-state market (Kansas City and St. Louis were then and are still today the nations second and third largest/busiest railroad centers, respectively). Communities between Bland and Kansas City began to scramble to puruade the railroad to come through their town, many which were alraady served by lines of the Missouri Pacific, which had tapped the region in the late 1800's with several branchlines.

In the summer of 1904, the Rock Island finally completed it's railroad extension from Bland through Eldon and Versailles to Windsor, which was served by the mainline (St. Louis-Sedalia-Texas) of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad (the Katy). In order to handle passenger traffic for the 1904 World's Fair, the RI began operating it's trains to/from KC by using the MKT from it's line at Windsor to Clinton, then into KC over the Frisco "High Line" from Clinton. However, in 1905, the RI finally completed the last leg of the route- from Windsor, through Pleasant Hill, Lees Summit, Raytown into Kansas City. At this time, operations over the Frisco and MKT were discontinued (much of the last leg was constructed parellel to MKT's own Bryson (N. Windsor) to Paola, KS. line, which would later be abandoned in 1958). A simple ceremony was held to commemorate the opening of the St. Louis Subdivision, and regular tran-state freight and passenger services were commisioned immediatley. All in all, the St. Louis line was quite a feat to complete, not to mention an expensive one. Several tunnels and high trestles were required to traverse the many large rivers and rugged hills of the northern Ozarks mountain country on the east end.

Eldon, located almost exactly in the middle of the route, was commissioned as the base of operations for the subdivision, and the RI built a roundhuse and large yard there. Crews were changed in Eldon up until the last trains in '79-'80.

Despite the fact that it brought growth to the online communities, the RI quickly found it hard to compete in a rail market (STL-KC) that had been establised long ago by other great railoads such as the Wabash, Missouri Pacific, Chicago & Alton and the Burlington railroads. The lack of traffic on the line was certainly made up for by the grand scenery, and the "city-folk" from the cities would scamble to the trains in the summer to take them to the many vacation spots and campgrounds that were located in the scenic areas west of St. Louis. The RI could by no means compete with the great streamliner trains that sped between KC and STL on parallel competitor railroads, so the RI never fared well on passenger revenues on the route, despite many attempts to turn that fact around. A new "Rocket" streamlined diesel train set was put into service on the line in the early 1940's, however the train was pulled from service due to declining passenger revenues. With the low freight and passenger traffic, the St. Louis line quickly found itself classified as a secondary mainline. The entire Rock Island itself entered hard financial times, and is said by some railroad industry experts to be the "railroad system that should have never been built". Apparently, the RI entered several other big city markets as the latecomer, and found it increasingly hard to compete.

A Rocky Road For The Rock (1930-1979)

In the summer of 1933, the RI, for the second time in it's history, passed into recevership. The Great Depression and repeated midwestern crop failures had combined to weaken the system financially. In order to bring itself back to a point of greater economic success and in order to improve it's public image, heavier rail, new ballast and tie replacement for main and secondary trackage was called for by the governing officials of the railroad. New bridges were constructed at many locations, and dieselized freights were finally introduced to the St. Louis route in 1945.

Passenger service, although at the time of it's demise was down to twice-daily motor car "doodlebug" service, was finally axed on April 11, 1959. The RI had long ago classified the line as a local line for passenger runs. Trains, which consisted of a doodlebug motor car, a coach and perhaps an RPO (Railway Post Office) car, operated from St. Louis to Eldon, and from KC to Eldon, where both trains would change direction and head back to their cities of origin. Thus to get from KC to St. Louis, one had to change trains in Eldon. The loss of the RPO contract probably "did this train in", as similar circumstances with the postal contracts led tp the demise of countless other [passenger trains during this era around the nation.

By the early 1960's, the entire Rock Island itself was once again failing financially, as was most of the American railroad industry. The continuing operation of many money draining rural branchlines posed great financial losses for the Rock, and prevented principle and secondary mailines from proper maintainance. Freight service continued along the route to St. Louis twice daily. In the 1960's, the entire line was even rebuilt to accomodate high piggyback cars and auto rack cars that were quickly popping up all over America's railroads. Thsi included the rebuilding of most overpasses and tunnels to allow the new generation of rail cars to operate. However, the continued deterorating condition of the route and roadbed made the line an operational nightmare for the company.

End of the Line for the RI Line (1979-1996)

The Rock Island entered its third and final bankruptcy in 1975, and despite the best efforts of management and trustees, (as well as the flashy new blue and white "The Rock" image) the railroad could not survive. The final blow to the railroad came when it was struck by its clerks in 1979, in a wage dispute. By order of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Kansas City Terminal railway took over operations of the Rock Island, under an ICC "directed service" order. In early 1980, the bankruptcy court determined that the Rock Island could not be successfully reorganized, and that the railroad was to be shut down, embargoed and split up among several other railroads. It was ordered that all RI trackage was to remain in place so that rail service could be reactivated where needed by other railroad carriers, even into the future. The largest gains from the embargo went to the Chicago & Northwestern, which took most Iowa/Minnesota trackage, The MKT, which took most Oklahoma/Texas lines, and the Cotton Belt. Most of the rest of the RI was reactivated by shorlines or regional railroad companies, with the remainder being abandoned.

On March 31, 1980, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad operated its last train.

The St. Louis line was operated for a brief period by the Kansas City Terminal Railroad, but Cotton Belt quickly came forward to buy all of the embargoed Rock Island track from St. Louis, through Kansas City, as well as the Golden State Route from K.C. through Topeka to Tucamcari, NM.

Cotton Belt spent millions to upgrade the route west of K.C. to New Mexico from it's decomposing, weedy condition to a high speed mainline. Plans called for the same to happen for the route east of Kansas City to St. Louis. While financial arrangements were made for the rebuilding of the St. Louis line, all through Cotton Belt received trackage rights as a deal of the UP-MP merger, and all SSW traffic across the Missouri was rerouted to the parallel ex-MP Union Pacific mainline to the north (via Sedalia, Jefferson City). SSW continued to operate local freights along the ex-Rock route to serve local customers on the east end, with the section between Belle and KC never even seeing an actual SSW train. Having been strapped with growing concerns about the quickly deteriorating line and financial burdens, Cotton Belt put it's plan for the line's rehabilitation on the back burner, and in Septemebr of 1982 a "clean-up" train operarated in some areas to remove crossing signals and excess track scrap.

In 1983, a transload dock was built in Belle to serve off-line custmers in that area. This dock, in addition to a couple of warehouses and a small MFA feed mill, made up the traffic base for the community. Several trips by the SSW local were made as far west as that community in '83-'84, but this operation was soon discontinued, with SSW delegating the town of Owensville as the new end-of-track. However, through the 80's, Owensville's major customer base also dwindled, including a major printing plant, and a rotary kiln for clay- once one of the line's largest customers; the MFA grain elevator in Gerald also decreased it's rail usage. SSW thus began serving towns west of Union only as needed, and by December 1995, the last train served the towns of Owensville and Gerald, with Cotton Belt pulling back to Union.

Through the 80's, SSW operated occasional unit coal trains to the massive Union Electric power generating facility at Ameren, located just outside of small community Labadie, near the MO River. SSW/SP coal trains (RI caol trains also operated this service for a while in the late 70's) from Colorado would run past the power plant on UP's Sedalia Sub west into St. Louis, but would then turn back east on the St. Louis line to reach the power plant. This operation was eliminated with directional running (putting locomotives on each end of the train), thus allowing all traffic to come in off of the UP mainline.

While freight traffic levels beyond the suburbs of St. Louis remained low, (some say SSW/SP had an unusually high surcharge on any railcars loaded or received on the line, to discourage an increase of traffic) carloadings within the city and it's suburbs renained high enough to warrant regularly scheduled service from Lackland Yard. Operations from Carrie Yard to Lackland had long since been turned over to other carriers, such as Termianl Railroad Assn. and Norfolk and Western (later Norfolk Southern). As the 90's approached, UP put the line up for sale, with the intent to scrap the out-of-service west end as soon as possible. In 1997, a new company under the name of Lackland Western intended to take over operations (Rand McNally's rail maps for that year designate the line under Lackland Western ownership!), however a new company, the General Railway Corporation, soon came forth with interest in acquiring not only the east end, but the entire railroad for reactivation of service.

STRICT To The Rescue! (1996)

Back in the early 90's, Union Pacific contacted Southern Pacific about the possibility of purchasing the west end within suburban KC (Pleasant Hill-Leeds Jct.), which it would use as an alternate/overflow route into the K.C. gateway. As traffic on it's Sealia/River Subs soared, UP began seeking any easier way to get the additional traffic into the city. UP's interest pursuaded SP to exclude the west end from the chopping block, upon which the rest of the St. Louis line quickly found itself upon. In 1994, Southern Pacific made plans to put the inactive central portion of the line up for abandonment. However, on-line communities and shippers, including the Missouri Farmers Association, arose in protest, and formed the Save The Rock Island Committtee (STRICT) in order to preserve the only possible rail outlet/inlet for the region. (UP's mainline is 15-20 miles north). As a result, SP quickly withdrew the line from the abandonment proceedings. This was the begining of renewed interest to reactivate the STL line.

Will This Be The Year? (1996-1999)

There have been several times over the past 16 years that plans called for the reopening of the old St. Louis line. The Union Pacific's lines which Cotton Belt had used was utilizing were becoming a bottleneck, slowing traveling times. The daily number of UP, SSW and Amtrak trains soared to 30 on both the River and Sedalia Subdivisions. Cotton Belt, distraught with this increasing problem, began plans several times to reopen the line. After many failed attempts, a group came forward in the late early 1990's with hopes of converting the route into a high-speed rail corridor. The company's unrealistic-for-the-early 90's plans were dropped and the line continued to rot.

Perhaps the most realistic plan came to surface in the mid-90's, when The State of Missouri began negotiations with SSW to acquire the route for it's conversion into a rails-to-trails bicycle/hiking route similar to the states's Katy Trail. Intersted parties in reopening the line to rail traffic surfaced and protested, but the state eventually moved forward to gain security of the line. In 1997, Southern Pacific/Cotton Belt was merged into the Union Pacific system. UP's acquisition of all SSW properties included the ex-Rock Island St. Louis line which the state was negotiating to purchase. It was, however, the state's top priority to re-establish rail service on the line. The UP, which would have no reason to rebuild and reopen the parallel line due to it's satisfaction with it's parallel top-notch mainlines, made announcements that the line was once again open to interested parties.

In February 1997, the General Railway Corporation of Omaha, NE approached Union Pacific about the line and studies found that they (GRC) could "make a go" of the project. The plan called for the sale of the 245 miles of defunt or low-density trackage that makes up the former Rock Island St. Louis Subdivision; between Leeds Jct. on the west end, across the state through Windsor, Versailles and Eldon to the community of Vigus, located within the St. Louis suburban city of Maryland Heights. Union Pacific is to retain ownership of the line between Maryland Heights (Vigus) into St. Louis for industrial switching. In addition, UP would retain ownership of the extreme west end in KC, granting MCRR trackage rights on both portions to enter the cities proper. Union Pacific's retention of these parts will allow UP to set standards as to what traffic MCCR could and could not run- such as highly prized coal traffic.

For 2 years, parties fought and protested the lines reopening. In 1998, however, the Surface Transportation Board ruled against opposing trackside landowners, granting a major victory for the continued plans to reopen the St. Louis line! As of October 8, 1999, the General Railway Corporation closed on the deal with Union Pacific, and the Missorui Central Railroad became a reality!

A New Railraod For The New Millenium

As of May, 2000, the MOCR was busy rebuilding it's St. Louis to Union segment to handle increased traffic. The railroad has been sucsessful in winning back several customers, and traffic is streadliy increasing. Trains operate daily in the St. Louis area, and a couple of times per week to Union. Plans for the reopening of the line to Owensville are still underway, however, there aren't currently any rail customers west of Union that would justify reopening the tracks. The MFA mill in Gerald, just west of Owensville, is a potential customer that the railroad is seeking to serve. As soon as customers are secured beyond Union, reopening would (of course) immediatley follow suit. Look for trains running to Owensville and Gerald, perhaps, by 2001. While the future of the west end of the line is now secure against abandonment, it may be years before an MOCR train travles the length of the entire line. Funding, of course, will determine when the west end is reopened.

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