Bumps down memory lane (Day 7)

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I began in Mena, Ark., astride Kansas City Southern's northern neck (KC-Shreveport) and snug against the Ouachita Mountains. As the morning wore on, I worked my way north through incredibly beautiful landscape on the western edge of the Ozarks, sometimes on back roads (to stay near the tracks) that you'd need topographic maps to find; past such places as Marble City, Baron, and Lyons, all in extreme eastern Oklahoma. And to pass the time as I drove, I imagined passing the Southern Belle behind an E8 or the Merchandise Special behind six red-yellow-black F3s.
The lack of trains to see made my trip down memory lane more vivid. In other words, my imagination filled the void. At Westville, Okla., I discovered why the railroad was so still: A steel gang had possession of the track for what looked like the entire day. So back I went to free-associating, imagining I had time-machined my way back to the Fifties. I set myself up for a surprise.
I rounded a curve into Decatur, Ark., and there, 100 yards away, sat a train
led by a big 1:1 scale F unit in classic KCS freight colors. Look at the scene pictured above and tell me you wouldn't be stunned, too. For an instant I thought I really did enter a time warp. Then reality set in. The locomotive probably had no prime mover inside. It sat on a pair of isolated rails beside the former depot, which now houses the Decatur Museum. When you get closer, you see the train behind it is only a bay-windowed caboose. And I'd seen this scene before in 2009, though not from this perspective and definitely not during a mood of nostalgia. I pulled off the road and just stared at this beautiful creature. Kansas City Southern was the railroad I grew up around, and F units were its coin of the realm. No steam locomotive ever looked as handsome to me as the classic F diesel. And seeing those classic KCS colors made me feel like a kid again. Only one detail needs attention: Mr. Haverty, please send the museum a new nose decal.
In Neosho, Mo., I watched a southbound coal train led by BNSF Railway diesels attack McElheny Hill, doing at least 25 mph as it started the ascent and maybe 10 as the rear pushers went by. An hour later, between Joplin, Mo., and Pittsburg, Kan., here came HKCSH behind three of the new locomotives whose red-yellow-black colors are reminiscent of that F unit in Decatur. Another coal train positioned its distributed power locomotives on the main line, as I passed through Pittsburg, while southbound MKCSH was tucked away on two back tracks, awaiting a crew.
I remained in nostalgia mode, and I had a mission: See what is left of the Katy Railroad's St. Louis line. This was 387 miles of railroad that maybe never should have been built, and it withered in the second half of the 20th Century as mergers sapped connecting traffic and online revenue sources dried up, to the point that one train each way a day became the norm. A couple of years before Katy disappeared into the Union Pacific system in 1989, it abandoned the easternmost 190 miles in favor of trackage rights over Missouri Pacific, from St. Louis to Boonville, Mo. Today, you can ride the Katy's St. Louis line all 225 miles from Sedalia, Mo., to St. Louis, on a bike.
It was the part that never became a state park that I looked for in Fort Scott, Kan. Where the depot stood on the north side of downtown is now a grove of young trees and undergrowth. Where the Katy crossed the town's main drag, National Avenue, the tracks abruptly end just before reaching each side of the pavement and are swallowed in tall weeds. Crossing signal masts remain, minus the crossbucks and lights.
A RailAmerica subsidiary, Missouri & Northern Arkansas, owns this line from Fort Scott northeast to Clinton, Mo., more than 70 miles. But M&NA trains haven't reached Fort Scott in years, as the rails are covered by weeds and dirt. But at Eve, Mo., four miles east of Fort Scott, sits a new ethanol plant, and M&NA stores empty tank cars for the refinery on the main line. Katy's St. Louis line, I'm pleased to say, isn't dead yet.
Fred W. Frailey


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