When Missouri became a state in 1821, the only means of transportation were the rivers. The National Road from Pennsylvania through Ohio, Indiana and Illinois ended at St. Louis, and no other roads or turnpikes existed in Missouri. Railroads were important to Missouri. In 1851, the Missouri Legislature granted funds for two railroads: the Hannibal and St. Joseph and the Missouri Pacific. By 1855, the railroad from St. Louis had almost reached Jefferson City, at a construction cost of $47,000 a mile. A celebration was arranged for Nov. 1, 1855, in Jefferson City — but the train never arrived. As the passenger train carrying dignitaries crossed the Gasconade River trestle it collapsed, falling 30 feet into the river, drowning 31 people. At the start of the Civil War, this railroad line again made history. Missouri Gov. Claiborne Jackson and Gen. Sterling Price of the Missouri State Guard met with Union Gen. Nathaniel Lyon at the Planters Hotel in St. Louis. They hoped to keep Missouri neutral, but when negotiations failed, they sped back to Jefferson City by train, burning the railroad bridges behind them. Gen. Lyon and his troops followed behind on the riverboat Iatan (which is represented on the Seal of Jefferson City) and came ashore at the penitentiary landing below Jefferson City. Railroads became invaluable during the Civil War, and after 1865, new lines opened up Missouri. By 1870, Missouri had more than 1,000 miles of railroads joining the state, and by 1890, there was almost 7,000 mile of track. Jefferson City became a central hub for railroad lines throughout the state, which also opened up Cole County. The Missouri Pacific ran along the Missouri River from St. Louis to Kansas City; and the Jefferson City, Lebanon and Southwest Railroad, locally known as the Bagnell Branch, opened up service from Cole County to Miller County. Stops from Jefferson City stopped at Scruggs Station, Lohman, Russellville, Enon, Olean, Eldon and Aurora Springs. Between Eugene and Henley ran another railroad that served Cole County. The St. Louis, Kansas City, and Colorado Railroad came into Cole County from Osage County in 1902. In 1903, this line merged with the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company — or the Rock Island Line. This section featured two large river crossings and four tunnels, which still exist today. One of the bridges is the Henley-Hoecker Bridge over the Osage River. The main span is 375 feet long and about 50 feet above ground and 70 feet above low water. Tunnel Number 3 at Eugene goes under Missouri Route 17 and is 1,667 feet long. If you explore it today, watch out for snakes. The Rock Island Line was the last trans-Missouri railroad, with the most mileage across the state. Eugene had a train depot open 7 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, and passenger trains operated on this track until 1959. Freight trains continued service until 1979. Trains were still the fastest way to travel. Passenger trains averaged 36 miles per hour, and the freight trains averaged 15-19 miles an hour. The “Red Ball Express” averaged 29 miles an hour over the whole route. In the special instructions, there was a 20-mile-per-hour restriction on the Henley-Hoecker Bridge, and a 20-mile-per hour limit going through Tunnel Number 3 at Eugene. These figures are from the 1951 Rock Island Employee Time Table Manual. The Rock Island Railroad only ran through not quite 8 miles of Cole County, but it played a big part in moving people and goods through Central Missouri. Belle became a major depot, and the railroad towns of Freeburg, Argyle, and Meta in Osage County came into existence. The Rock Island Railroad went bankrupt in 1980, and later, Ameren bought the St. Louis to Kansas City section to move coal trains to their coal-fired plants. After the Thom Saulk flooding of Johnson’s Shut-In State Park, Ameren gave up this right-of-way to create a rails-to-trails state park. In the future, the old Rock Island Line could become the Rock Island Trail State Park. It’s still in its infancy, but regardless of what transpires “The Rock Island Line is a Mighty Fine Line!”
Sources: Edward S. Grey, railroad nerd and expert; “Heartland History,” by Gary Kremer
Sam Bushman is the Cole County presiding commissioner. His column appears monthly in the News Tribune.