Like burying an old friend

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Thursday, May 27, 2010

I anticipate spending some quality time today on BNSF Railway’s Chicago-Kansas City artery, near Carrollton, Mo., where, due to joint track and trackage rights, you never know whether you’ll next see one of its trains or those of Norfolk Southern or Union Pacific. I get there, all right, but it’s an anticlimax after spotting the exit sign on Interstate 70 to Rocheport, Mo.
I’ve always had this thing for Katy, she being the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. I grew up near her in Texas. I rode her trains, passenger and later freight. I watched her gradually revive from near-collapse in the mid-1950s, after epic droughts in the Southwest, until her purchase by Union Pacific in 1988.
Nothing typified the travails of the Katy better than its St. Louis line, which meandered nearly 400 miles from Budweiser City on the Mississippi River to Parsons, Kan. During World War II, flush with cash from military traffic, the MKT gold-plated this marginal line, completely renewing the ties. Trouble was, treating ties with creosote wasn’t possible during the war. So they wore out prematurely in a dozen years, just as the railroad’s finances cratered. The St. Louis line never recovered. Three freights each way in 1955 became two in 1959 and one in 1980. By then, it took every bit of 24 hours to run the route. Very little of the St. Louis line survives today, run by RailAmerica subsidiary Missouri & Northern Arkansas. More than half of it is a giant bike trail, extending from Sedalia, Mo., to St. Louis. And it’s a sign about the trail at the Rocheport exit that causes me to instantly alter my plans for the day and turn off.
Only a few hundred people live in Rocheport, but so help me, I take 15 minutes finding the Katy Trail. When I do, what looks at first like the old depot turns out to be a nicely built replica, made with aluminum siding. It also serves as Rocheport’s city hall. Villagers take turns mowing the grass and keeping the grounds attractive. I’d love to have neighbors like these in Virginia.
From there, I drive another dozen miles along the Missouri River flood plain to Franklin, Mo., just across the river from far larger Boonville. Franklin was the crew-change point on the St. Louis line, a village of maybe 100 people today. But remarkably, the rambling old yard office remains, looking better than ever as someone’s private property. So does the  turntable, probably not used during my lifetime and flooded now with rancid water. You can see, looking east from the yard office, where the yard tracks once sat. Today it’s occupied by several RVs and campers.
One last sight to see before I leave: Katy’s Missouri River lift bridge. It’s still there, separating Franklin from Boonville, almost a quarter century after a train last crossed it. Now the bridge is permanently in lifted position. I never do figure out how the Katy Trail gets across the Missouri. Today that’s a biking rather than a railroading matter.
All of this takes maybe 90 minutes. I never see a train, naturally, but I thoroughly enjoy the experience. I leave feeling as if I’d buried an old friend, said goodbye. The vibes are sweet, not bitter. Bikers: Enjoy my railroad. — Fred W. Frailey

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