Remembering the Current River Railroad
Wed, 06/09/2021 - 11:04am admin
On a trip to Van Buren last week, I noticed some parts of the old Current River Railway trackbed still visible from the highway, starting at Willow Springs. I often walk the old bed east of Willow Springs and admire the rockwork and pilings used to build trestles to cross the Eleven Point River. An enormous amount of work made the Current River Line, mostly with hand labor, and it's only a memory today.
I found it ironic that my wife this week at church was handed an article written in 1954 about the railroad by the wife of a former, now deceased employee of the railroad. I had planned to write about the Current River Line solely from my files, but the article has a lot of new content, and my stuff can wait.
Willow Springs and the little towns along the sixty-two-mile line have a rich history in their involvement with the railroad, and in many cases, the arrival of the rails made the town. From a start in Willow Springs, eastward to Chicopee, across the river from Van Buren, there are thousands of stories, and I'd like to take a look at some of them taken from the article.
I'm quoting from "It's Not Just Another Branch," authored by railroad buff Wayne Leeman in the February 1954 issue of Trains & Travel. Leeman wrote, "When completed in 1889 at a cost of about $1,500,000 (One million five hundred thousand dollars) the wholly-owned subsidary of the Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis was guaranteed twenty million board feet of lumber a year by the Missouri Lumber & Mining Company which had sought construction of the road. That guarantee remained in effect for many years. Track was standard gauge and penetrated some of South Central Missouri's most scenic country. At first, the tracks went to Grandin, mill town of the lumber company about 20 miles southeast of Chicopee. In the Chicopee area, the tracks paralleled the river for which the line was named."
"Created to care for lumber from virgin pines that abounded in the rolling countryside, the Current River tracks at times were as busy as some main lines in attending to branch locals and lumber-company tram-trains taking logs to Grandin. In later years the Frisco also took over a stretch of the Cape Girardeau Southwestern and provided service from Willow Springs to Puxico."
While timber was being harvested in those years, you could board a passenger train in Willow Springs and ride to St. Louis via the interconnected companies' lines. By the time of this article, all the track except the sixty-two miles between Willow Springs and Chicopee were gone, and that track's days were numbered. Known locally as the "Pea Vine," many can remember the whistle of the trains that ran from Willow Springs, eastward to Hutton Valley, Mountain View, Birch Tree, Bartlett, Winona, Low Wassie, McDonald, Chicopee, Chilton, and Grandin. In 1975 when I moved to my home south of Hutton Valley, I could hear it and often had to wait for a train to pass on my way through Hutton Valley.
The article continues, "Perhaps best of all is that two men who virtually grew up with the line are still around to tell about it in glowing terms (1954). Bealey Byron (Red) Britell still pilots the diesel that now pulls the daily mixed freight on the branch. Charles E. "Check" Baldridge retired as a conductor in 1946 after forty-five and one-half years. A resident of Willow Springs, he keeps in close touch with the status of his beloved branch."
Baldridge's two-story home still stands at the south junction of Highways 60 and 63 south of Willow Springs.
"The Current River Railroad owes its existence to the inability of another carrier to recognize the bonanza when it was one. When John Barber White came to Missouri in 1880 to run the Missouri Lumber & Mining Company for Tidioute, Pennsylvania businessmen who were already wealthy from oil and lumber, he located first at Mill Spring on the old St. Louis, Iron Mountain & Southern. Mill Spring still is a tiny station northwest of Poplar Bluff, on the present Missouri Pacific." (Mill Spring Station was later abandoned.)
"When it became apparent to White that the future of his new lumber company rested with large tracts away from any existing rail facilities, he tried to interest Iron Mountain officials in building a spur to the southwest. Negotiations dragged on until 1884. In that year, when a contract failed to materialize, White turned to the old Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis. Vast tracts of pine and hardwood stretched to the west and south, valuable only if they could be hauled out. In those days, it was by the railroad or else."
"It would have pleased White far more to have had a spur run southwest of the main line near Mill Spring. It is possible he would have kept his mill there. Why he was turned down has not been determined. But if the Iron Mountain people couldn't recognize a good thing, George H. Nettleton's railroad could. The Kansas City, Fort Scott & Memphis set up the subsidiary Current River Railroad and started building. Under terms of the agreement, White guaranteed the branch twenty million board feet a year. Maximum rate was to be fifteen cents a hundred pounds."
"Meanwhile, White picked Grandin, first known as Lakewood, for his mill city, primarily because it had a large pond fifty feet above the Black River. When the railroad arrived July 1, 1889, the sawmill and planing mill were in operation, with six million board feet of lumber stacked and ready for shipment. An era for southeastern Missouri had been well launched, and whether it is considered rape of a great natural resource or shrewd business in the manner of the times depends on which side of the mountain a person looks from."
"For good stories about the past, Britell only has to think a little while to come up with something based on his forty-eight years of service, all at or out of Willow Springs. He started as a machinist's helper in 1905 at the age of 13. Like the time his freight train carrying tons of rail got out of control going down the sizable hill into Fremont. (There's a sizeable hill there today and just as steep.) With whistle screaming, the steam locomotive and cars rocketed through town where normally opposing trains met. Fortunately, none was there this day. When the runaway finally came to a stop, crewmen were almost speachless with fright - except one: Britell."
"He was talking about it recently and with a little grin remarked, 'I was just a young man and kinda enjoyed it, but believe me, I was the only one who did.'"
The article written in 1954 continues, "Speaking for experiences of the line personnel is Dan D. Woodson, now about seventy years old. He's been an agent since 1908 - for the last nineteen years in Mountain View. He remembers when the stove-heated branch locals usually carried about one hundred fifty persons."
"'And that wasn't all,' he says, 'every time the trains ran in daylight, and it wasn't raining about that many persons were at the depot just to watch. Not any more. Why, when they put the diesel on only recently, I thought maybe a few would come down to see it. If they did, I failed to notice 'em.'"
"Currently, it's a good month in the passenger division when he sells eight tickets at sixteen cents to Trask, six miles to the west. Freight's the thing now, stabilized by a swing toward steadier operations in lumbering. This results from proper management of surrounding forests, as exemplified by the work of the United States Forest Service. Instead of boom and bust, management holds forth the promise of sustained yield for a level economy - and steady shipments."
Alas, freight and timber shipments could not keep the Current River Line running, and in the late 1970s, the Frisco shut the line down and took up the tracks.
"Of the three men, it's Baldridge who has the lion's share of recollections. For one thing, conductors have more contact with the public than enginemen. That's only part of the explanation for Baldridge. He always seemed to enjoy what he was doing, had a zestful interest in people and things - and still does today at the age of seventy-one."
"Investigation by the former conductor since his retirement has developed some additional information on the flood at Winona on July 4, 1895. He determined that a wall of water twelve feet deep rushed through the town, drowning eleven persons and generally wrecking existing buildings. The town was rebuilt about a mile north, where it is today. The Ozark Land and Lumber Company had a big mill about a half-mile south of the present depot at a point known as Fisher Town."
"Winona also was a key point on the old Winona & Southern Railroad and the Salem, Winona & Southern, both long gone."
"Baldridge's funniest incident has nothing to do with floods, old-timers, or much to do with the railroad, for that matter. Rather, it revolves around an airplane when planes were new, small, and unreliable. Baldridge was a conductor on a run headed for Willow Springs from Puxico. Near Short Station, the crew saw an airplane on the ground with three men standing on it. Visitors from the sky being rare in this area directly across the Current River from Big Spring, the crew stopped the train to see if they could extend some Frisco hospitality. Sure enough, the men did need help. The plane's engine wasn't functioning correctly. They thought that if they could get it to one end of the field, the pilot could take off with it, and the other two men would ride to Willow Springs on the train."
"The crew got the plane in position, the pilot coaxed it into the air, and his two passengers took to ground travel. It turned out they were big manufacturers of hosiery, or so they said. They wrote down the stocking sizes of the crew's wives, but nothing ever came of it, Baldridge recalls."
"As for the conductor, he was faced with explaining a 45-minute delay. Finally, he decided that honesty would probably be the best policy and reported it for helping get the airplane into the sky, without seeking overtime pay. The upshot was that his superiors commended him for the way he handled the incident."
"Baldridge started as a brakeman in 1900 and remembers well the big mills that flourished at Grandin, because he worked there for $1.25 a day. There was once a track around the large millpond, and it was the train crew's job to undo the chains to let the logs fall in. About that time, railroading was worth $2 a trip on freight and $2.50 a trip on locals."
"During his many years with the trains he had several close brushes with accidents. Once, when on top of freight cars, he saw one ahead of him derail. He kept running toward the caboose while cars jumped the tracks behind him. They stopped just before he reached the caboose."
"He switched often at Midco, the big World War I plant near Fremont that had four or five engines of its own. Baldridge ran often with Britell, whom he considers an excellent machinist. The engineer was roundhouse foreman at Willow Springs for twenty-one years until 1939, when the installation was closed. At its peak there were seven locomotives assigned there, and ten crews called it their home terminal. A machine shop also was operated in connection with the roundhouse."
"Work fixing up the roadbed still is in progress. All bridges were inspected and repaired in preparation for the diesel, which ties up each night at Willow Springs. Occasional passengers include visitors from St. Louis and Kansas City who find on the train a good opportunity for their children to ride a caboose."
Today little is left of a bygone era interconnecting Willow Springs and Mountain View to the communities to the east in Shannon and Carter Counties. In those days, local newspapers reported on happenings between the towns with great interest. The railroad beds, a few train stations without their tracks, and cabooses preserved as curiosities are what remain to remind us of the past. Thanks to ninety-five-year-old Jessie Mae Miller of Willow Springs for sharing her copy of this article.