Missouri railroad marks 150 years
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Without the Columbia Terminal Railroad, Columbia would be a much different place.
This railroad, formerly known as the Columbia Branch Railroad, has celebrated its 150th birthday. The 21.7-mile railroad that connects Columbia to the main line in Centralia began construction in 1866 and was completed on Oct. 23, 1867.
Without it, Columbia wouldn’t have been able to grow and develop, said Marty Paten, founder of Boone County Historical Investigation Services and member of the COLT Railroad Advisory Board. The University of Missouri wouldn’t be here. And the telegraph, a revolutionary invention in the late 1800s, wouldn’t have connected Columbia to the world.
At the time, the only way to get from the state’s largest city, St. Louis, to Columbia was by stagecoach or steamboat.
“It was very difficult to get here because you never knew what the conditions were going to be on the river and riding in a stagecoach was really hard to get from there to here,” Paten told the Columbia Daily Tribune .
James S. Rollins, a Missouri politician and lawyer known as the “Father of the University of Missouri,” wanted a railroad between Columbia and St. Louis to attract more students to attend the university. In 1854, the North Missouri Railroad began construction to Centralia.
During the Civil War era, there were rumors of the university moving to Sedalia because it already had a railroad. Rollins, along with other founders of the university, wanted the university to stay in Columbia. The war delayed construction of the Columbia Branch Railroad, and it began a year after the war ended in 1866.
The University of Missouri wasn’t the only institution that benefited from the railroad. Stephens College and Columbia College, known as Christian College at the time, attracted more students.
“This railroad not only saved those institutions, but the growth couldn’t have happened without a way to get people into Columbia,” Paten said.
As more people came, Columbia developed.
“This created a lot of different types of businesses to exist and thrive, and that was all possible because of this railroad,” Paten said. “It was literally the lifeline of Columbia and most of Boone County. Probably 90 percent of the businesses got most of their products by way of that railroad.”
This also brought the telegraph to Columbia. It was built along the same line as the railroad.
“When a place got the telegraph, overnight it was completely changed,” Paten said. “The university wouldn’t have survived without the telegraph.”
But the railroad was constructed with poor equipment and with it being so busy, there were many accidents. Paten described the train as “busy, dangerous and slow.”
It was one of the busiest railroads in the United States at the time, with up to 13 trains per day traveling along it in the 1920s. But, because the track was in poor condition, there were about 350 accidents resulting in hundreds of injuries and deaths in its 150-year history. And, it could only travel between 10 and 25 mph.
One of Paten’s favorite stories is of a man walking along the tracks next to the train. The conductor on the train told the man to hop on and the man declined the offer because “he was in a hurry.”
There are many other stories that have happened along this railroad through its rich history. There were murders, robberies, Big Foot sightings and ghost stories, to name a few.
One of the worst murders in the county up until that point happened at Brown Station. One of the nighttime security guards was shot in the station while teaching someone how to use the telegraph. Paten owns that telegraph.
That’s not Paten’s only connection to the railroad. Several generations back, his grandfather was one of the men who helped construct the railroad. Also, he grew up on land owned by Dr. Brown, for whom Brown Station is named. He found this out while researching for his 384-page book, “The Columbia Branch Railroad.”
“It ended up where I had a lot of personal connections,” Paten said. “I really didn’t know that at the time, and I’m learning more and more fascinating stuff by the week about my family. My family was the first to settle in what would become Boone County.”
The railroad stopped offering passenger service in 1969 and now transports industrial materials for businesses such as lumber, steel, chemicals, automobiles and drywall. The city of Columbia purchased the Columbia Branch from the Norfolk Southern Corporation and renamed it The Columbia Terminal Railroad, known as COLT.
It runs about 450 carloads per year with hopes of increasing in coming years. Peter Davis, chairman of the COLT Railroad Advisory Board, said that the railroad is competing with trucks to transport materials.
However, Davis said the benefit of transporting goods by railway over trucks is its more cost efficient. A train can transport 50 to 80 tons per car, with 60 to 120 cars on a train with only a 2-person crew. It also can operate 24 hours a day by switching crews out. Truck drivers are limited in the hours they drive per day and how much one truck can carry.
However, railroads are more expensive in moving items once they get to their destination. Trucks can deliver goods directly, while railroads can only go to a nearby station.
“The future will be at least what it is now if we’re successful in attracting business,” Davis said. “The economics show that any good that goes 500 miles or more is cheaper to move by railroad than by truck.”
Davis said the city wants to develop container traffic to attract high-value freight to handle appliances and liquor.
“Our railroad is providing the same kinds of services that they did in the past but in a modern and efficient way,” Davis said. “That someday will be history.”
Information from: Columbia Daily Tribune, http://www.columbiatribune.com