Vol. VII, No. 2, Fall 1993 / Winter 1994

The Railroad Comes to Phelps County, Missouri, 1860-1870

Written and compiled by John F . Bradbury , Jr.

John Bradbury is an historian and an archivist in the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection, University of Missouri, Rolla.

The coming of the railroad to Phelps County had an impact which, in 1990, is difficult to imagine. The rail line began as the Southwest Branch of the Pacific Railroad, became prominent as part of the St. Louis-San Francisco (Frisco) Railway, and is now part of the Burlington Northern system. The road was an important force in the creation of the county itself, and the towns of Rosati, St. James, Rolla, Arlington and Jerome are direct legacies of railroad construction and increased land values along the right-of-way. Dillon, which no longer exists, and Newburg, founded in 1883, owed their disparate fortunes to developments along the railroad. Rural inhabitants of Phelps County were deeply effected. Those near the settlements along the Little Piney and Dry Fork creeks could look forward to ready markets for cash crops instead of almost wholly subsistence farming, and the owners of improved farms saw their land increase in value.

Entrepreneurs and businessmen stood to benefit greatly. At the Maramec Iron Works, east of St. James, William James, an enthusiastic promoter and investor in the line, saw in the railroad a solution to the crippling expense of freighting the finished products of his furnace and forges. The railroad also affected the road network of the area.

The earliest wagon roads had radiated like spokes from a hub at the Iron Works, passing through Lake Spring, Hartville, and the Gasconade River country to markets and shipping points and markets at Potosi, St. Louis, Springfield, and Hermann. Once railroad construction began on a direct line linking St. Louis and Springfield, the most important roads became those connecting with the rail line.

This distinct shift in the economic trade axis can be seen in the operations of the lead mining firm of Blow & Kennett, which operated far to the southwest of Phelps County in Granby, Missouri. Lead mined at Granby had been laboriously and expensively hauled to shipping points on the Missouri and Osage rivers. The Blow & Kennett freight book (available on microfilm at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection--Rolla) shows that the firm's output was redirected toward the Southwest Branch as soon as it came within reach. By October 1860, Blow & Kennett's products were consigned to the railroad agent at Dillon; by December of the same year they were shipped to the railhead at Rolla.

The rail line attracted businessmen whose livelihoods depended on direct connections with the railroad. Edmund Ward Bishop, founder of Rolla, and Andrew Malcomb, one of the builders of the Phelps County courthouse, first came as railroad construction contractors. Homer Fellows and Robert McElhaney, general merchants and wholesalers, and Union army veterans, began business after the Civil War at St. James and Rolla before moving to Springfield. Franklin Hoke Barnitz, originally from Pennsylvania, capitalized on his experience as a Union army teamster to operate a freight business first from Rolla and then Little Piney. He hauled from the railhead to points in southern Missouri, northwest Arkansas, Indian Territory and Texas. Many other entrepreneurs came to Phelps County in order to follow the "main chance" and in so doing contributed to the area's economic growth.

Waynesville-Big Piney Leaves Big Piney at 6:00 a.m. daily except Sunday and arrives at Waynesville 11:45
Leaves Waynesviile 1:00 p.m. and arrives Big Piney at 6:00 p.m.
H.E. McDaniei & Son Proprietors
Intermediate points: Bloodland, Tribune and Wildwood
Return by: Wharton and Bioodland
--Ad in Old Stagecoach Stop Gazette I, 1, reprinted from Pulaski County Democrat, August 1, 1902.


Laying track. Date and location uncertain. Western Historical Manuscripts Collection; University of Missouri, Rolla.
The railroad which ultimately traversed Phelps County began in 1855 as the Southwest Branch of the Pacific Railroad. Construction commenced at Franklin (now Pacific), where the branch line left the parent road, the Pacific Railroad of Missouri. The line reached St. Clair in 1858, and by early summer of 1860 had arrived at present-day Rosati on the eastern edge of Phelps County. The tracks were pushed to St. James in July and to Dillon in September. The first locomotive, at the head of a construction train, pulled into Rolla on December 22, 1860. Regular passenger service to the county seat began nine days later.

The editor of the Rolla Express, Charles Walker, himself a newcomer to the area, kept hls readers apprised of the road's progress. Along with the other residents of Phelps County, Walker anticipated an era of prosperity based on the railroad:


..Rolla will be the centre for the Southwestern trade of this State and Northern Arkansas. All the big ox-wagons and fine mule teams that swarm past our office windows every day, on their way to Dillon for freight will before many days back up to this place to load. Every one of these people and wagons, all these oxen, mules and horses are to be accommodated. Besides, newcomers are every day drifting this way, some prospecting, others to sojourn with us for a season, and some to make it their permanent abode. ROLLA EXPRESS, December 3, 1860


Last Monday evening, about 5 1/2 o'clock, the citizens of Rolla were greeted by the arrival of the first passenger train of cars, at the snug little depot which has, within a short time, been erected at this place . .[The] citizens of Rolla are glad...to be benefited by the trade which will naturally develop here. We notice that already quite a number of good buildings are being erected about the depot. Messers. Faulkner & Graves, Campbell & Co. and others who follow the road have already commenced moving their goods to this point. Business houses about the depot are growing more numerous, every day. It [is] a season, now, when business on the road is always light, but the preparations are being made for a large increase.

ROLLA EXPRESS, December 31, 1860

THE WAR YEARS, 1861-1865

Winter weather, an economic downturn, and the specter of imminent civil war halted railroad construction at the end of 1860. The roadbed was partially complete to the mouth of the Little Piney, but the rails ran no further than the Phelps County Courthouse. The terminus of the line remained there for the duration of the war. The railhead gave the town an enormous strategic importance, and it was quickly seized by federal troops out of St. Louis on June 14, 1861. Once secured, the Union military never relinquished control of Rolla. By 1862, the army had constructed warehouses and quartermaster facilities along the tracks at Rolla to accommodate the tons of ammunition, food, forage, and military stores required for the war effort. The railroad functioned so well, in fact, that the army at times actually accummulated too much ammunition and shipped some of it back to St. Louis. The railroad was so indispensable to prosecution of the war that the federal government investigated extending the tracks to Lebanon or at least to the mouth of the Little Piney. Military men enthusiastically supported the idea, but the government ultimately declined due to the expense.


The rebels were aware of the importance of the Southwest Branch to the Federals, but never made an effort to choke off the flow of men and supplies. There was an early and ineffective attempt at sabotage between Dillon and St. James, but it may have been merely a free-lance effort by a local secessionist. There is no evidence that the Confederate army had anything to do with the incident. There were no further local attempts to stop traffic. By autumn of 1862 the railroad maintained regular schedules, offering daily service between St. Louis and Rolla. Traffic was interrupted during Sterling Price's Raid in 1864, but the damage around Leasburg was quickly repaired and the line reopened. By 1865, traffic was running smoothly. A ledger kept by the freight agent at Rolla (now in the C. V. Mann Collection, UMR Archives) indicated that commercial shipments were once again more plentiful than military cargoes during the last months of the war.

This timetable was page one news in the Rolla Express from 22 November 1862 until the newspaper ceased publication in May, 1863. Western Historical Manuscripts, Rolla.


An attempt was made to blow up the train yesterday as it came up in the evening, about two miles beyond Dillon. A keg of powder was buried between the ties, and so arranged, that when the engine passed over it ignited. It was not sufficient, however, to do any serious damage. The engine was raised a little and the hands shocked and probably burned a little. The shock extended to the passenger cars, and it was thought to be the firing of a cannon. The train was stopped and search made for the Rebels who did it, but no discoveries were made.

We have for some time believed it would be the part of wisdom to forward to this place the forces and equipments designed for the south west at as early a day as possible.

And it occurs to us, too, that in this case it would be proper to adopt the plan of Gen. Pope--levying a fine upon the property and effects of those in the vicinity to be released on producing the perpetrators of this murderous design. But a few days ago a man went to Dillon, as we are informed, and cut down a Union flag pole with the flag upon it in open day light, while a widow lady was threatened if a flag was not taken down from her residence.

ROLLA EXPRESS, August 31, 1861


The Southwest Branch was in perilous financial condition by the end of the war. Despite having operated throughout the conflict, the wear and tear of wartime traffic and the damages incurred during Price's raid left the road bankrupt. When the company defaulted on mortgage bonds held by the state of Missouri, the state foreclosed and took possession of the line. Commissioners appointed by the state sold the railroad in late 1866 to a group of eastern and Missouri capitalists headed by John C. Fremont, the famed explorer of the Rocky Mountain West, presidential candidate in 1856, and former Union military commander of Missouri. The new corporation was styled the South West Pacific, a testament to its promise of reaching the ocean at California.

Under Fremont's leadership, construction resumed after a six-year hiatus. The roadbed had been graded before the war, and the South West Pacific had a relatively easy task in laying tracks to Arlington (formerly called Little Piney). The year 1867 was a boom period for the old pioneer settlement. Preparations beganto bridge the Gasconade River, grading crews assembled to continue work across the river, and freighters and teamsters picked up their wagonloads at Arlington rather than Rolla. The future of the line appeared bright. Prospects appeared even better after the Federal government awarded the company several million acres in land grants in 1866.



The Rolla Steam Mills, owned and operated by a company organized scarcely a year since, is first in importance in this immediate section, being the most complete manufacturing establishment of its kind in the Southwest. The Dunmoor Mills and Woolen, Carding, Spinning, and Weaving establishment, situated at St. James, is one of the most important and costly manufactories in the State, and is now in successfull operation. In connection with the mill at the Iron Works, Flint's, Snodgrass', and Coppedge's mills, in different portions of the county, they furnish a home market for surplus grain of all kinds, not only for this, but for adjoining counties.

The Meramec Iron Works, situated in the Southeastern portion of the county, is kept constantly running, and furnishes work for a large number of laborers and artisans.

In addition we have Tobacco Factories, Wagon and Plow Factories, Chair and Furniture Factories, Carding Machines and Woolen Factories, Saddle and Harness Manufactories, Tin and Hollow Ware Manufactories, Saw Mills, Breweries, Distilleries, &c;.. &c;., furnishing employment to a large class of our ciitizens, and a home market for our products.

The various branches of business, such as Dry Goods, Groceries, Hardware, Drugs and Medicines, Boots and Shoes, &c;., are well represented, and at Rolla and Arlington a large wholesale business is done. ROLLA HERALD, July 1, 1869


The tide of immigration to Phelps County never quite reached the levels anticipated by promoters. A few Germans came immediately after the war, including Henry Cleino, a Union army veteran who had seen duty here during the war and who was later elected Phelps County Sheriff, and Ernest Soest, a dealer in ice and beverages who was the first distributor of Anheuser-Busch beer in the area. In the late 1860s, the American Emigrant and Aid Homestead Co., subsidized by the railroad companies, attracted over 160 Danish and Swedish families to the county, most of them settling in Rolla township. During the 1880s and 1890s, the county was graced by the immigration of Germans to the Dry Fork and Elk Prairie communities, and by Italian families to railroad lands at Rosati. Phelps countians have the latter to thank for the excellent wine-making traditions of the region.

Of course, not all of the prognostications of Phelps County boosters were realized. Jerome never became "the largest manufacturing town in the state," nor do the area's vineyards "supply St. Louis and other points with all the wine they need," as some expected. However, there were other economic benefits generated by the railroad. Reasonable rates helped keep the Maramec Iron Works profitable despite its antiquated technology, and induced William James to organize the Ozark Iron Works and to build a larger furnace along the tracks west of what became the town of Newburg. Inexpensive railroad transportation also made possible the later exploitation of other iron deposits in Phelps County, as well as a brief lead min ing boom and still later the production of fire clays. The timber resources and farm products of the county also traveled to markets by rail.

Receipt for goods received at "Terminus South- West Pacific R. R. at Little Piney." Western Historical Manuscripts, Rolla.


The town of Newburg is another example of the effects of railroading in Phelps County. It was created in the 1880s solely to serve the needs of the Frisco railroad, whose heavier trains needed "helper" engines to surmount steep grades on the main line to the east and west. Railroad jobs attracted many people to Phelps County and many of their descendants continue to live here. After its fitful beginnings of 1860-1870, the railroad ultimately fulfilled much of its promise. There is no question that Phelps County's heritage would have been poorer without it.


Both Rolla Herald and Rolla Express are important sources of information on Phelps County's early days. The Franklin Hoke Barnitz papers and the Blow and Kennett shipping ledger, part of the Western Historical Manuscript Collection--Rolla, and the Clair V. Mann Collection of the University of Missouri--Rolla Archives provide specialized information. Histories of immigration, railroads, and the state of Missouri which have provided important general information for this article are:

Russel L. Gerlach, Immigrants in the Ozarks (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1976)

H. Craig Miner, The St. Louis-San Francisco Transcontinental Railroad (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1972)

William E. Parrish, A History of Missouri, Volume 11I, 1860-1875 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1973)


Owen Greelish Commits Suicide in a New Way

Just after 7 o'clock last night persons about the Laclede Hotel and on the street were horrified to see a man jump into the smokestack of an eastbound freight engine standing at the new watering place at the east end of the depot. The man climbed up on the rear-end of the engine and up on top of the headlight and deliberately jumped feet first into the smokestack. For a few moments the upper part of his body remained in view over the top of the smokestack and then sank out of view. As soon as possible the train men unbolted the smokestack and it was tipped back over on the boiler. The body had settled down so that about half of it was in the smokestack and half in the lower part below. A rope was passed around the body and it was pulled out but life was extinct and the flesh burned.

From letters found in his clothing the suicide is supposed to be Owen Greelish and has a brother living in Chicago and another in Leavenworth, Kan. Messages were sent to them, but up to the time of going to press no word has been received from them.

The method adopted by suicide to end his life was a most sensational one--and probably the first time such a means has been resorted to--Lebanon Rustic.

--from Old Stagecoach Stop Gazette, Vol I, No. 1 reprinted from Pulaski County Democrat, Aug. 1, 1902.


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