11 July 2011

Some rails long gone

As most of you know, I'm a railroad buff. Perhaps naturally, since my Dad and my uncles all worked for the old Milwaukee Road, and the Burlington also went through my old hometown. The Burlington had the great roadbed and track and the gleaming stainless steel Zephyr passsenger trains that roared up the Mississippi valley on the way to the Twin Cities and points west. The Milwaukee was more cash-poor and the equipment was generally a bit more weatherbeaten and worn.

In addition, the Rock Island was south of us. It was the first railroad to have a bridge across the Mississippi river back in the 1850s. By the 1970s it too was running on a cash shoestring and looked it. The Illinois Central ran north of us, along the Wisconsin border. The Chicago North Western ran west through Illinois and Iowa on its way to Omaha, and its connection to the Union Pacific (the first transcontinental railroad).

A local road that occasionally gets overlooked is the Chicago Great Western, which was in existence from the 1880s to 1967, when it merged with the Chicago North Western.

The CGW was a latecomer to the Midwest railroad arena and as such didn't have access to the best terrain or most direct routes between major cities. It crossed through some of the hilliest terrain in the Driftless Area and had to bore through the river bluffs near Galena with the Winston Tunnel. It had numerous branches in Iowa, as did most of the other Midwestern railroads. I believe that in the early 1900s, no place in Iowa was more than 20 miles from some rail line. Since a team pulling a grain wagon could cover 20-some miles in a day, the strategic placement of rail branches made perfect economic sense.

By the middle of the 20th Century, trucks began to haul all that grain, and the growth of the highway system took a lot of passengers and freight away from the rails. Those railroads burdened with a lot of (now) light traffic-density branches and no direct lines between major cities were the first to fall into bankruptcy and merger. So went the CGW. After the merger with CNW, the North Western pulled up a lot of the lines they didn't want or need. By the 1980s, most traces of the old railroad were gone.

The hub of the Chicago Great Western was the city of Oelwein, Iowa. Its lines to Chicago, Minneapolis, and Kansas City all merged there. The main engine and car shops were located there, and the North Western did keep these shops going until its own merger with the Union Pacific in the mid 1990s.

Most of the rail jobs are long gone now, and the UP runs through Oelwein these days instead of stopping. But there are a few people in town trying to keep the heritage alive with the Hub City Railroad Museum, located in the old Oelwein Yard Offices. This is where your correspondent took a day trip last Saturday.

The museum has a decent collection of old employee records, pictures, and small equipment. The museum does a good job of showing the CGW's influence in Oelwein.


A lot of the pictures and equipment aren't shown in any coherent order, and the few pieces of rolling stock they own are in somewhat sad shape. That isn't anyone's fault, really. The museum is run by volunteers, most of them getting up in years. It's a classic case of too few hands and too many projects and not enough visitors to fund said projects. It's a shame, but all too common.

Probably the centerpiece of the museum rolling stock is an old F7 locomotive. General Motors' E and F series were most railroads' first purchase of diesel road power. They're something of an iconic design in 20th Century industrial equipment and have been on many US and foreign rosters. Even today, the F7 can be seen occasionally hauling museum passenger trains, commuter trains, and business trains for the major railroads. They weren't extremely popular with road crews (they weren't easy to climb up into), or maintenance crews (major engine work meant removing a good portion of the carbody), but the things still look cool!

From the outside, she looks resplendent in crimson and black with yellow lettering. This is how she'd have looked pulling a long freight up across the hills and plains on her way to Chicago or the Twin Cities or down to KC.

We'll climb the stairs and go in through the vestibule door in the rear of the engine.

The powerplant-an EMD16-567B 16-cylinder diesel engine, producing 1500 horsepower. Fairbanks-Morse made a similar design for its locomotives-but a person would be more likely to see one on a fleet submarine from the World War II era. F-M produced its 16 cylinder diesel in trainloads for the Navy. Even today, a nuclear submarine carries a similar engine for last-ditch, emergency use. But I digress.

At the nose of the engine is, of course, the head office-the control station. Until the 1980s, a freight train carried a crew of five, three in the engine (engineer, fireman, brakeman) and two in the caboose (rear brakeman, conductor). Nowadays the average crew is two. So the engine has three seats-one for the engineer who actually did work, and two for the relatively useless fireman and brakeman.

This would be view from the engineer's seat:

The interior is, to put it kindly, in rough shape. Certainly not beyond restoration, but needs some serious work.

Like military vehicles, railroad museum engines and rolling stock should be kept under some sort of cover. This F7 would do well in a shed, with the interior refurbished and monitored to keep the riff-raff from stealing stuff and ripping the engine up, or traded to another railroad museum that could keep her up properly.

In short, as a city museum featuring their railroad history-not bad. As a railroad museum-not so good, but still  a good collection of a 'fallen flag' road.

yankeedog out.


  1. Nice one YD, wouldn't call myself a train buff but I can certainly appreciate the scale of engineering involved.
    That one looks a bit like the one in The Silver Streak, no ?

  2. Drej-Good eye. The engine in 'Silver Streak' was an 'E' series. Longer, with 6 wheel trucks, but similar in appearance. That train was actually Canandian Pacific, slightly redone.

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