More trains where 'Eagles' flew

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Wednesday, July 13, 2022

A MoPac 4-8-2 hauls the westbound Royal Gorge through California, Mo., in January 1948. C.T. Wood, Louis A. Marre collection
Over the past several months, Amtrak has been slowly getting back to a full schedule of post-pandemic passenger trains, and that’s good news. Here in Milwaukee, I never knew how much I missed our seven daily Chicago trains until suddenly some were missing. It was a relief last year to get back to our full Hiawatha lineup.

Train riders in Missouri know the feeling after the announcement last week that Amtrak is restoring a second St. Louis-Kansas City round trip of its Missouri River Runner. The second train — a morning departure from St. Louis and a corresponding afternoon return from Kansas City — is scheduled to begin running this coming Monday, July 18. 

The River Runner saw its first cutback in 2020, part of Amtrak’s initial coronavirus response, then saw a brief reprieve in 2021, only to be cut back again on January 3 of this year after losing temporary coronavirus federal funding. Now, as the Trains News Wire has reported, the state of Missouri is stepping up with money in its 2023 budget for “daily rail passenger service,” subject to various stipulations that basically say “don’t count on this forever.”

Two trains a day does not a corridor make, although St. Louis-Kansas City would be a natural market for more frequent service, given two large cities at its end points and the state’s capital, Jefferson City, squarely in the middle. It wasn’t that long ago that this strategic 283 miles of the former Missouri Pacific (now Union Pacific) was thick with passenger trains, including a couple of MoPac day-coach trains that served the same purpose as Amtrak’s of today. 

E3 leads eastbound Missouri River Eagle past the rock outcroppings at Otterville, Mo., August 1947. Paul E. Nentwig
The line also hosted a number of name trains, either run solely by MoPac or in conjunction with other railroads. Among them were the Sunflower, which ran between St. Louis and Wichita, and the Missouri River Eagle, connecting St. Louis with Omaha via Kansas City. 

Then there was the line’s most famous train — the St. Louis-Denver-San Francisco Scenic Limited — which first appeared in MoPac’s timetable in 1915 as part of a shared service with Denver & Rio Grande and Western Pacific. Billed as a “daylight observation train” because of its traversal of Colorado’s spectacular Royal Gorge, the Scenic Limited was begun in conjunction with the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and remained in service after the fair. The train’s name lasted until 1946, when it became the Royal Gorge for a few years.

One of the Scenic’s admirers was writer Lucius Beebe. “The Scenic Limited was classic train in its true operational sense, with head-end revenue cars, coaches, diner, lounge, and through Pullmans, all the components of a first-class train just short of the limited of grande luxe,” Beebe wrote in his book “The Trains We Rode.” He continued: “Breakfast on the Scenic’s diner and coffee over a copy of the Post-Dispatch or the Kansas City Star could be an event of tranquil satisfactions.”

Beebe would certainly approve of the accompanying C.T. Wood photo of the Scenic’s successor train, the Royal Gorge, hustling through California, Mo., behind one of MoPac’s huge Alco-built 4-8-2s in January 1948. So-called standard railroading at its best.

Alco PA diesels pull an Eagle along the riverfront in Jefferson City in April 1950. Louis A. Marre collection
But it wasn’t all standard railroading on the St. Louis-K.C. route. The line made splashier news on March 10, 1940, when MoPac introduced the Eagle, a spiffy blue-and-silver streamliner pulled by a rakish EMC E3 diesel trailing complete trainsets built in St. Charles, Mo., by American Car & Foundry. The trainsets included 76-seat coaches, “deluxe” 61-seat coaches, diner-bar-lounge cars, and beautiful round-end parlor-observation cars.

The new Eagle was a sensation, so much so that by the following year its name was changed to Missouri River Eaglebecause it had spawned a whole generation of other MoPac streamliners such as the Colorado Eagle and Delta Eagle. As author Greg Stout states in his authoritative book “Route of the Eagles: Missouri Pacific in the Streamlined Era,” the Eagles spread their wings far beyond MoPac territory.

“Diversity was … a hallmark of the MoPac’s passenger routes,” wrote Stout. “From its St. Louis base, the railroad dispatched the colorful Eagle fleet to destinations as far-flung as Omaha, Denver, Wichita, New Orleans, Memphis, and Texas. Through its network of through and connecting services, the Eagles flew even further afield, to California, New York, Chicago, Washington, and even Mexico City.”

A light rain is falling as the westbound Colorado Eagle accelerates out of Kirkwood on June 17, 1959. J. Parker Lamb
I suspect the best place to watch the Eagles, though, was along the route of today’s River Runner, with its long stretches along the wide Missouri River; its alignment through so-called “Robber’s Cut” near Otterville, where in 1876 MoPac’s train 4 was robbed by Jesse James and his gang; its stop just a block or so from the state’s handsome capitol building in Jefferson City; and its association with the charming Romanesque 1893 depot at the St. Louis suburb of Kirkwood, a favorite spot for generations of photographers. 

With its Charger locomotive and its usual mix of Horizon and Amfleet cars, Amtrak’s Missouri River Runner looks like any other Midwestern corridor train. Its MoPac heritage, though, is anything but typical.

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