How a failed railroad lives on

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Here is what has changed in the past generation: No Class I railroad today would tolerate a route like the path that Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad trod through Missouri—386 miles of rotting ties beneath 90-pound rail, with little business to show for it. But once upon a time such sights were common. I’m recalling Rock Island through Nebraska and into Colorado, the Milwaukee Road’s entire western extension, Chicago & North Western’s Cowboy Line across Nebraska and even great big chunks of Penn Central. But when I think today of my beloved Katy, what do you suppose pops to mind first? Yup, that damned and doomed little piece of it, from St. Louis to Parsons, Kan. I cannot get it out of my head. Fortunately, Michael Landis has written an entire book on just this segment, Show-Me Katy (www.themaintrack.com), and it finally gets its due.

My affection for the Katy is easily explained. I grew up in Texas 35 miles from the Katy’s Dallas line, where I came to love its downtrodden ways. Plus, during his tenure with Trains, Wally Abbey rode Katy’s St. Louis-Texas fast freight (“Here Comes the Komet! September 1953). I was mesmerized by his tale, and thus began my fixation on the St. Louis end of that railroad.

Two things drew me to it. Without doubt, here is beautiful, lonely, inaccessible country. Half the way to Parsons from St. Louis the railroad hugged the north bank of the Missouri River. The river towns were tiny (Marthasville, Rhineland, Mokane, Tebbetts, Hartsburg, McBaine) and the roads spotty. Entering this territory was like jumping into a time capsule. Then at Boonville, the tracks crossed the Missouri on a lift bridge and plunged southwest through more populated, hill-and-dale country, past Sedalia, Clinton, Nevada and Fort Scott before reaching Parsons in southeast Kansas. This is classic rural America, folks.

The other thing exciting my imagination was the sense of paradise lost. Tom Carter joined Katy’s engineering department out of SMU in 1949 and found St. Louis-Parsons in excellent shape, but for one thing: untreated ties installed during World War II. They all failed in the mid-1950s, starting the route into a downward spiral from which it never really emerged. The Komet used to make the St. Louis-Parsons run overnight in 10 hours, but by 1961 its successor needed 14 hours. By 1982 the journey lasted at least 18 hours. All this time, on-line business seeped away like water going down the drain. What was a prosperous piece of railroad in 1950—three freights each way and the Katy Flyer—just faded away as decades passed.

So what happened to this slice of the Katy? That long stretch along the Missouri was always subjected to flooding, which would send Katy’s trains (by 1980, one each way a day) over the Missouri Pacific on the other side of the river for 200 miles, to Sedalia. In 1986 the detour was made permanent and everything east of Sedalia abandoned. And of course the MKT was absorbed by Union Pacific in 1987 and most of the rest of the line to Parsons was abandoned as well. All that remains is from the Missouri-Kansas border near Fort Scott, Kan., to Clinton, Mo., a bit over 60 miles, run by Genesee & Wyoming subsidiary Missouri & Northern Arkansas.

All this author Landis splendidly documents in Show-Me Katy. Plus, there’s a happy ending, sort of. In a sense, most of the St. Louis line—the more scenic portion alongside the Missouri—lives on today as the Katy Trail, a paved biking and hiking path extending 240 miles, from Clinton all the way to Machens, a village northwest of St. Louis where Katy rails ended and trackage rights into the city on the Burlington Route (later Burlington Northern) began. You can relive this railroad in your imagination, as I have done, walking along the right of way and waiting for the sight of a Pacific with the Flyer behind it or a quartet of F3s hauling the Komet to Texas.—Fred W. Frailey

 

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