Why Matt Rose should hate Fred Frailey

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, December 18, 2009

In the course of the next few years, if things go okay, BNSF Railway should close the remaining single-track gaps in its magnificent Chicago-Los Angeles Transcon. There are three short gaps (including Abo Canyon) in New Mexico and one in Oklahoma. Paired track in eastern Kansas makes the stretch between Emporia and Mulvane the same as double track. It will be a great day for Matt Rose, El Jefe of BNSF, and I will celebrate with him … except that there will remain one more stretch of single track, which there is no present plan to close. It’s the bridge across the Missouri River at Sibley, Mo., some 30 miles east of Kansas City. And it was put in place by someone named Fred Frailey.

Frederick Hesser Frailey was my grandfather. He was born in Fort Madison, Iowa, in 1879, some seven years before the Santa Fe Railway built through that town on its way from Kansas City to Chicago. Growing up in Fort Madison, he must have been quite taken by trains, because after serving in the Army during the Spanish-American War, he hired on to the railroad as a civil engineer.

According to Mead’s Manual, the single-track bridge over the Missouri at Sibley was built in 1887-1888 and rebuilt in 1913-1915. I take issue with that second date. My dad was born in Carrollton, Mo., the nearest community to Sibley of any size, in 1910, and he often told me this was while his dad was working on the bridge. Mead’s Manual goes on to say that the “engineer in charge” during that rebuilding was one F. H. Frailey.

Today it still stands, a mighty and imposing structure. And the circumstances of its placement make adding a second track on a parallel bridge difficult, to say the least. If this were not so, the bottleneck would have been erased decades ago.

From the east, the double-track BNSF runs in the Missouri River bottoms. But to cross the river at Sibley, the railroad had to get from the bottomland on the north (railroad east) side to the bluffs on the south (railroad west) side. The bluffs are confronted immediately after crossing the Missouri.

So here is what happened when the present alignment and bridge were put in place some 99 years ago by the first Fred Frailey. Starting about a mile and a half east of Sibley, the two tracks begin rising on a fill that eventually climbs about 40 feet on a 0.5 percent grade. At the end of that rise, two tracks become one at East Sibley, and trains make a 90-degree left turn to face the river. Immediately they leave the fill and start across the bridge, which is three-fourths of a mile long. The superstructure over the river occupies about half of the bridge, the rest being steel trestle over crops and marsh. And immediately after crossing to the south side of the Missouri and gaining the bluff, the rails again bend 90 degrees, this time to the right, to reach the resumption of double track at West Sibley. The two Sibleys are separated by 1.4 miles of single track, all protected by a 30-mph speed limit.

Now you know why Matt Rose should hate Fred Frailey. The Sibley bridge is a first-class pain in BNSF’s ***.


I never met my grandfather Fred. After Sibley, he settled in as division engineer of the old Oklahoma Division, headquartered in Arkansas City, Kan. There, through the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression, he and my grandmother raised their two sons. In 1937, my grandfather boarded No. 5, the Scout, to go to Purcell, Okla., on the other end of the division and begin his annual bridge inspections. But after No. 5 left Guthrie, Okla., he complained of a headache and collapsed in the smoker lounge of his coach. By the time the train got to Edmond a few minutes later, Fred H. Frailey was dead of a stroke. If my father was at all like his father, Fred H. Frailey was a kind and wise man.

Yesterday I drove into Carrollton and located 307 W. Benton Street, where my dad was born. The house was shuttered and looked unoccupied. Then I followed the railroad west until, past Henrietta and Camden, I could see the bridge in the distance. The structure is almost impossible to approach closely from the north side of the river, due to locked farm gates. At the closest gate, I took a long look from a quarter mile away, trying to imagine how many hundreds of thousands of trains and how many millions of axles it had safely supported these 99 years. Then I returned to my car around and drove on. Thank you, Pat Flynn, for these fine photographs.— Fred W. Frailey

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