Wally Abbey’s early days in Chanute

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, January 7, 2021

Extra 4103 East stands in the Chanute yard in 1950. The 2-8-4 was rare on Santa Fe — the railroad had but 22, 15 built by Baldwin in 1927, 7 more from Lima in 1928. Wallace W. Abbey, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection 
For much of the past year, I’ve been immersed in railroading as seen through the eyes of the late Wallace W. Abbey. Wally was a gifted storyteller, as brilliant with his typewriter as he was his camera. That will be proven once again later this year when perhaps his greatest achievement — his book about the development of the FT diesel — is released by Indiana University Press.

Entitled The Diesel That Did It, the book traces the story of the FT from the earliest days of Electro-Motive Corp. in Cleveland through the locomotive’s introduction on the Santa Fe in 1940 to the early glory days of EMD in La Grange. I’ve been lucky enough to partner with Wally’s daughter, Martha Abbey Miller, in editing the book for IUP. All we can hope for is that Wally, who died in 2014 at age 86, looks down and approves.

There’s more I’d like to say about the book down the road, upon its release. Meanwhile, in the process of working through Wally’s 50,000 words and 500 collected photographs about the FT, a few tangential themes emerged, including the one you see here. 

It concerns his brief tenure as a newspaper reporter in Chanute, Kans., just 29 miles north of his mother’s hometown of Cherryvale. Fresh out of the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas in 1949, Wally got the classic entry-level job, working as a reporter for the Chanute Daily Tribune. That Wally was drawn to newspapering was in the genes: his father, Wallace W. Abbey II, was a 44-year veteran of the Chicago Tribune, retiring in 1966 as assistant managing editor of the entire newsroom.

Long before he made a name for himself as a public relations exec for the Soo Line and Milwaukee Road, even before his celebrated three and a half years as a Trains magazine staffer, Wally Abbey was out there on the streets of Chanute, covering the local police beat, going to school board meetings, interviewing coaches after Friday night football games, working in the photo lab. Take it from someone who started out the same way, a small-town daily is a great way to learn the craft.

The platform at Chanute hums as the daily-except-Sunday motor train M.176 from Pittsburg unloads. Wallace W. Abbey, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
Not that Wally loved every bit of it. Here’s what he wrote later: “Covering sports for Chanute’s high school and junior college and for Chanute’s AAA-league baseball team was for me a chore. I knew nothing about baseball, basketball, or football. Me, the sports idiot, son of a famous sportswriter [from the] huge and infamous Chicago Tribune.” 

From what we know, Wally enjoyed that first year with a press card. But the appeal wasn’t in just getting to cover the news. As the accompanying photos show, there was some good railroading in town, thanks to the Santa Fe Railway.

In those days, Chanute was the division point for Santa Fe’s Tulsa Subdivision, a secondary main line. Although it wasn’t the route of the Super Chief, the division had creditable passenger service of its own, including the Oil Flyer and Tulsan, Chicago–Tulsa streamliners that connected with through California–Chicago trains via Kansas City. The Oil Flyer was an overnight train carrying a sleeper and a dining car the entire route, while the daylight Tulsan featured a Kansas City–Tulsa café-lounge.

A local train out of Chanute, running as a mixed to Frontenac, Kans., is ready to depart behind FT 182. Wallace W. Abbey, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
That wasn’t all. The branch to Joplin, Mo., offered mixed-train service (FT-powered!) as far as Frontenac, Kans., as well as doodlebug service west to Fredonia and east to Pittsburg. On the south side of town was a decent-size yard and engine terminal, with a 30-stall roundhouse and running-repair shop. Throw in the fact that steam and diesel still coexisted in Chanute and there was plenty to keep the young photographer occupied.

Abbey was already showing the artful approach that would mark so much of his photography. My favorite is his shot of the M.176 on the motor train just in from its daily-except-Sunday trip from Pittsburg, there to meet the southbound Oil Flyer. His vantage point beneath the eaves of the depot nicely captures the buzz of train time in a small town. 

Wally would be pleased to know that his old newspaper is hanging in there. The Chanute Tribune is still published daily, with a circulation of approximately 4,000 and a coverage area that includes four surrounding counties. Editor Stu Butcher says his small newsroom employs an editor, two news reporters, and a sports editor, which I’d guess is about what Wally would have known. “We just try to be a local voice for our readers,” says Butcher. 

An A-B-B set of FTs idles near the 30-stall Chanute roundhouse and machine shop on the south side of town. The roundhouse remains clearly visible in satellite imagery. Wallace W. Abbey, Center for Railroad Photography & Art collection
Better yet, from Wally’s point of view, Chanute is still a railroad town. The Santa Fe is long gone, but its former north-south line through town is now the South Kansas & Oklahoma, a 398-mile Watco-owned regional that operates an X-shaped system radiating out of its headquarters down in Cherryvale. No more cool passenger trains, but the SK&O keeps itself busy with a robust traffic mix of grain, cement, coal, chemicals, steel, and other commodities.

Given his family pedigree, I would guess Wally was contemplating a long newspaper career as he worked the streets of Chanute that first year out of college. But fate intervened barely a year later when Al Kalmbach came calling, offering him the job at Trains. Thus, Wally moved to Milwaukee, vaulting off in a direction that allowed him to do something he loved: write about railroads. How lucky we are for that!

But it all started at the Santa Fe’s big brick depot in the division town of Chanute, where a cub reporter watched and photographed FTs and 2-8-4s doing their thing on the Tulsa Sub.

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