Ghost Trains in the Hills
17 January 1960
by Frank Peters
On each side of the road a low ridge with a flat top stretches smoothly away, mysterious as an Aztec ceremonial ramp and looking as old. It is the bed of an abandoned railway, a massive and costly ruin that is America's most notable continuing gift to its own archaeology.
One thousand miles of the ghost trails have been added to the countryside every year since 1935. They cost five dollars a running foot to build and now they are for the birds and the bird hunters.
Theses elongated funerary mounds, scenic and friendly to the hiker's boot, are less easily accessible to the curious Ozarker than their miles would seem to promise.
The reason is that in hill country the track surveyor's went far off the straight path to reach their destination by easy grades. The hill farmer, like the mule that pulled his cart, usually made his own track doggedly up and down, following property lines or pushing directly toward the target.
Whenever vehicular lanes began to be built with the motor car in mind-- and few were in Missouri until the '20's-- the highway engineers often tagged along the gentle slopes and curves the rail surveyors had discovered. Later, as the rubber-tired swarm grew, highwaymen struck out afresh, moving mountains, filling chasms and conquering spaces that the railroads, at their zenith, never needed to contemplate.
And, as the highways got wider, thicker and longer, the cars faster and the trucks bigger and noisier, the railroads grew thin, morose and frequently bankrupt. That is the oft-told Plight of the Railroads and is how the sheep and the quail hunters got their scenic five dollar a footpath.
In 1883 a line was laid by the Frisco toward the vast timberland north of Forsyth. The Frisco was after crossties. The hill folk provided millions eagerly and cheaply by sawing the scrub trees into one or two eight- foot lengths and squaring them with a broad ax.
Microscopic Chadwick, the railhead for this industry, became a boomtown. Chadwick in the 1880's was, incidentally, the original local Gomorrah fingered for bloody purification by the Bald Knobbers, a sort of spring-water Ku Klux Klan that burned barns in praise of sobriety rather than slavery.
The settlements along the "Chadwick Branch"-Sequiota, Galloway, Kissick, Cassidy, Ozark, McCracken, Sparta, Oldfield- existed meagerly or not at all until the railroad went in. But with the freight link to the rest of the world, the towns grew, Model T's reproduced, the inevitable smooth roads were built and by 1934 and the Depression everyone concerned could either take the Chadwick Branch or leave it. The Frisco left it from Ozark on.
The vestige of the line can be seen leaving Ozark in a north-easterly direction, across the Finley River from the surviving Frisco tracks. The roadbed winds, ascending and curving south through rough country, emerging on a ridge and crossing the present highway about halfway to Sparta and continuing on the smooth ridge to Chadwick. The highway follows the west side of the old right of way for the last few miles into Chadwick.
A tiny freight train still rolls every weekday to Ozark and back in a winding route, mainly following the James River Valley, which the motorist loses sight of at Galloway. From the Lake Springfield power plant (Kissick) into Springfield the old line is virtually assured of permanent life as an industrial spur.
Because of the thick undergrowth and rather featureless terrain of the region, most motorists drive the Highway 13 route to Kansas City without being reminded that for much of the way they are following and in places are driving squarely on top of the Kansas City, Clinton and Springfield Railroad. Of the three cities in its resonant name, the K.C.C. & S actually entered only Clinton, connecting into the other two by grace of its parent railroad, the Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis.
The K.C. F.S. & M. built the K.C.C. & S. in the unregulated early 1890's almost parallel to and for no other reason than to compete with the Frisco. (The Frisco had achieved its Kansas City link a few years before by building north through Bolivar and Weaubleau-the present "High Line"- to meet and take over John K. Blair's railroad, which Blair had pushed from Kansas City to Osceola.)
So in 1902, when the Frisco bought control of the K.C.F.S. & M., it found itself running three lines between Springfield and Kansas City. The loser, in this surfeit of rails, was the K.C.C.&S.
While it's name survived until after World War II in its southern tip- from Ash Grove to Phenix- the Frisco was chopping away as early as 1908. In that year the Frisco moved its own route onto that of K.C.C.&S. from Osceola to Tracy Junction, abandoning the corresponding part of the High Line. In 1926 the Frisco effected a similar take over between Deepwater and Lowry City and began digging up what was left of the K.C.C.&S. in chunks.
The roadbed can be followed easily north from Ash Grove to Phenix, Walnut Grove, Eudora, Aldrich and Fair Play. From that point highways 13, 35 and 71 visit every town along its route as far as Belton, where the K.C.C.&S. headed west to join its parent railroad at Olathe, Kansas.
If the proud name of the Kansas City, Ozarks and Southern Railroad never fell from the lips of the mighty, it was because the mighty seldom journeyed the 15 miles between Ava and Mansfield, Mo. That was all there was to the K.C.O.&S.
Its life was short, from 1909 to 1935. A single small boy could stop it cold any night -and did, many nights - by soaping the rails on Mansfield Hill.
Dogpatch and Toonerville wouldn't have put up with its service but the K.C.O.&S., usually called the Ava Southern, did its appointed rounds and is remembered with humorous affection.
The little railroad was born swathed in a shenanaigan, for its builder, a St. Louis entrepreneur named J. B. Quigley, had vowed it would be an electric line. Trolley poles were actually erected halfway to Ava; local investors liked the idea because of the novelty of the electric power, its cleanness and reduced fire hazard.
The letter, if not the spirit, of the understanding was satisfied when the line opened by one round trip of a battery powered rail vehicle the size of a small auto. The intended power plant was never built and electric power was heard of no more on the K.C.O.&S. although the line did fall back on every other kind of propulsion under the forgiving sun.
The line was surveyed by Quigley's sons, Bill and Lewis, in a bizarre series of steep hills and tight curves. The charitable view is that the Quigleys just couldn't afford the fairly modest cutting and filling needed to lay an orthodox track through the hills. As it was the K.C.O.&S.'s rented second hand little steam locomotive (it had two during flush periods) could barely wrestle one heavily loaded freight car over the line. It could manage two heavy cars by pushing one up each hill then backing down to pull up the second.
Garfield Henson, maintenance foreman, who was with the railroad through its life, recalls that J. B. Quigley regarded two and a half hours as "plenty good time" for the 15 mile run. Quigley was fearful of accidents such as the one that gorily festooned the Ava end of the line with cattle and pieces of a runaway stock car.
Oscar D. Moore, who like Henson stayed with the K.C.O.&S. from start to finish and is now farming near the old roadbed, was the line's locomotive engineer.
He drove -- and constantly repaired -- all the strange machines Quigley lugged home from other railroads scrap heaps. One was a three- cylinder steam logging engine with a driveshaft and gears, tractor fashion; another carried a handful of passengers both in front of and behind a jaunty vertical steam boiler.
In the last decade of the line's life, when the town of Ava owned it, the rolling stock dwindled to the "Bluebird" a bus like passenger vehicle with a gasoline engine.
With all the odds against it, the Ava Southern did an honest and useful job of hauling Ava's produce to the world; in a peak year of the early '20's, when the line was even making money, it hauled 350 carloads of tomatoes out from Ava's cannery. Its gradual death desolated nobody and, amazingly, it had only one fatal accident on its record. That was when a passenger tripped while making a flying leap aboard the thing with the vertical boiler.
A less colorful but much busier line in the pre-Model T age was built by the Frisco from its main line at Aurora north to its K.C.F.S.&M. main line at South Greenfield. The track remains as an industrial spur from Aurora to Mount Vernon; the roadbed of the rest can be found not far from Highway 39 and passing through Miller, Olinger and Pennsboro.
While the 3 mile Cassville and Exeter Railway was widely publicized during its later years as the nation's shortest line, it was not unusual in the free and easy days for a very short terminal or connecting railroad to thrive independently; the line connecting North and South Springfield (the "East Belt") was one of these. The Cassville and Exeter somehow survived into the 1950's the corporate frictions that assimilated its cousins into bigger lines.
A flock of rail lines on the eastern and western periphery of the Springfield region was built to serve mines and logging camps; of them, only the Salem, Winona and Southern (Winona to Angeline) and the Sligo and Eastern (Bangert, Sligo and Bixby, in the timber and iron country southeast of Rolla) were substantial enough to be remembered by Springfield traders.
At present no ghost miles are being added to the region's rail network and the existing lines are for the most part paying their way in freight rates; at the edge of Springfield the Frisco is currently laying a two-mile connecting line (the "New East Belt") in hopes that new industry will build there.
If you hanker for a woodland stroll on one of these old paths, remember that they have reverted to the farms they were cut from long ago; most farmers are tolerant of unarmed hikers, though. Except on the devil-may-care Ava Southern, crossties have been removed along with the rails, so that the footing is smooth, but the walker must scramble and wade where a trestle used to stand.
At the end of such a day, you'll have bramble-scratches. You'll also have looked at vistas that perhaps caught your grandfather's eye and heard -- if you're imaginative -- the echoed clank of rolling legions on America's Appian Way.
Explore other shortline railroads in Shortline Railroads of Arkansas by Clifton E. Hull or The Leaky Roof by Mahlon N. White or A Missouri Railroad Pioneer: the life of Louis Houck. You can also read about the restoration of abandoned railroad beds as trails in The complete Katy Trail guidebook : America's longest rails-to-trails project.
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