The mystery of Silverdale

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, December 6, 2018

I am always amazed at how rapidly nature reclaims an abandoned railroad. In no time at all—mere years, not decades—the hump of a right of way and all its other architecture (except perhaps intact bridges) just vanishes. I was reminded of this a few years ago when I veered west from U.S. Highway 69 on the former Katy (now Union Pacific) at Atoka, Okla., confidently expecting to find traces of the Oklahoma, Ada & Atoka, part of the Midland Valley (Muskogee Lines) network of regional railroads. Nothing! Not only had nature reclaimed its own, but new development had refashioned the landscape. And I had just seen this railroad. Okay, maybe it was 1955. But still . . .

Today the pups and I paused in South Coffeyville, Okla., half a mile south of the Kansas border, while I tried to find where the Katy’s Parsons-Oklahoma City secondary line had crossed Missouri Pacific’s Kansas City-Little Rock main line at an interlocking tower. The tower was history about 1957 and the Katy’s line a couple of decades later. Even with the help of USGS quadrangle maps from that era, I’m not sure I found the spot. How can a railroad so totally disappear?

Then I drive straight west in Kansas from Coffeyville, just north of the Oklahoma line, toward Arkansas City, on U.S. 166. Nearing Ark City, there’s a sign saying Silverdale, and it lights a bulb in my memory. Ark City once had four railroads, starting with Santa Fe, which dominated the town. This was the railroad’s Oklahoma Division headquarters then and still a crew-change point. But Missouri Pacific, Frisco, and the Midland Valley also made calls on branch lines. Silverdale was where the Midland Valley joined the MoPac branch for the short joint trackage into Arkansas City. Missouri Pacific’s line ended, but Midland Valley went back to its own rails to Wichita.

So I see the highway sign and wake up the dogs by braking hard to make the turn. I was born in Ark City and have seen the name Silverdale since before I knew how to shave. But I’d never been there and decide to rectify my benign neglect and find traces of the railroad. First I pull over and download a USGS quadrangle map of Silverdale circa 1965.

The village then and now is four by four, that is, four streets this way and four that. I pass one piece of land that contains more junk per square foot than I’ve ever seen outside of a landfill. Its owner must be very popular, or the employer of the other residents of the little village. After about 15 minutes of driving back and forth, referring to both the 1965 map and a contemporary rendition, I am 100 percent certain I am astride the Missouri Pacific right of way. And there is no trace of it whatever. Absolutely nothing. The railroad may as well never have existed. I find that offensive.

I go on to Arkansas City, the birthplace of my love of trains. Back and forth the dogs and I drive, and there is no evidence at all that MoPac or Midland Valley ever went there, aside from a spur track to a flour mill than BNSF Railway now switches. Time hasn’t erased the Frisco’s north-south path through town, and even now there’s a big empty space where it’s substantive brick depot once stood and, a quarter mile away, a bigger empty space where the railroad once switched a vest-pocket yard.

Bottom line is that I ended up largely frustrated. Every railroad line I’ve mentioned in this little essay I once saw and knew. Now nature is telling me they never existed. Not only are they gone, but the evidence they ever existed has vanished as well. That’s piling on the hurt.—Fred Frailey

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