St. Francois County Railroads




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Reprinted by permission of J. Clyde Akers, County Supt. of Schools

     The State of Missouri was very slow in the construction of railroads. By 1851 there was not a single mile of railroad in the entire state. There were several causes for this lack of progress in transportation facilities. The people of the state were naturally conservative; the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and their tributaries formed natural highways through the state; and there was a lack of money among the small population then in Missouri, which was only 323,868 in the year 1840.

     In 1836 there was held the first railroad convention in Missouri, which met at St. Louis. This group of fifty-nine delegates from eleven different counties (St. Francois County was not represented) recommended that two lines of railroads should run out of St. Louis. One was to go west for the purpose of opening up an agricultural region and the other to go south and west to the valley of Bellevue, just west of St. Francois County. This road was to extend into Crawford County for the purpose of developing the mineral area near the Meramec Iron Works. Nothing came of these proposals, but they formed the basis for future railroad construction in the state.

     Congress in 1841 granted five hundred thousand acres of public lands to the state, hoping to encourage railroad building, but the sale of this land was apportioned to the various counties of the state and St. Francois County used her portion for the construction of county roads.


     It was not until 1851 that the people of Missouri again became interested in railroad construction. In this year the state legislature granted state aid to two companies and by 1860 bonds had been issued in behalf of six different firms. One of these was the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad Company. This was the first company which actually built a railroad in Southeast Missouri, and, of course, in St. Francois County. It was hoped that a railroad from St. Louis to Iron Mountain would facilitate the transportation of the iron known to exist in these mountains. The development of these mines had been greatly handicapped due to the slow and costly method of transporting the ore overland by means of the Old Plank Road to the River at Ste. Genevieve.

     A survey was made from St. Louis to Iron Mountain in 1852 by J. H. Morley. In January, 1853, a board of directors was chosen for the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Company and a second survey was made. The cost of constructing these first railroads in the state was much greater than had been anticipated. At three different times the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Company was granted state aid, which in all amounted to $3,600,000. By 1859 the road was finally built to Pilot Knob. Due to the enormous expense it was unable to pay the interest on its bonds and on Sept. 22, 1866, the railroad was sold at public auction, the state being the purchaser. Three commissions appointed by the governor operated it until Jan. 12, 1867, when it was again sold, this time to McKay, Simmons and Vogel, for $350,000. They later transferred it to Thos. Allen, who more than anyone else, brought it to a state of efficiency and service to the people of Southeast Missouri. Mr. Allen placed the road on a paying basis and served as the president of the company for many years.

     The first extension of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain south was that which came to be known as the Belmont Branch. This line was built from both ends towards the middle and was completed on August 14, 1869, when the last rail was laid in the middle of a tunnel in Bollinger County. When completed it covered a distance of one hundred and twenty miles from Bismarck to Belmont.

     The main line extended to Poplar Bluff and a line was built from Bird's Point in Mississippi County to Poplar Bluff, known as the Cairo, Arkansas and Texas Railroad. It remained a separate organization until 1874 when it was consolidated with the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern.

     The main line of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railway enters St. Francois County at the extreme northwest and goes through Blackwell. Then running into Washington County it re-enters our county a few miles north of Bismarck, only to enter Iron County a few miles south. It again runs through a portion of St. Francois County near Middlebrook. The Belmont Branch runs south and east from Bismarck, touching DeLassus and Knob Lick. The St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad is today a part of the Missouri Pacific System.


     Prior to 1856, the year in which the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad was completed from St. Louis to Pilot Knob, Farmington people went by stage to Ste. Genevieve and took the boat to St. Louis. After the railroad was built there was a stage to Iron Mountain and a hack from Farmington to Libertyville.

      There had been agitation for a railroad to come through Farmington as far back as 1869. In this year the Belmont Branch of the Iron Mountain was built and due to the defeat of a bond issue for $30,000, the road went two miles west of town. The next effort was made by the Chester, I.M. & Western Road, which was graded from St. Mary's to a point just west of Farmington when it went bankrupt and was never finished. Again in 1887 an effort was made to build a narrow gauge railroad from DeLassus to Farmington but it also failed. Finally in 1902 the Southern Missouri tried to get the people of Farmington to secure for them a right-of-way through the county, provided the company would build a switch in here, but the people of the community had begun to take new interest in an electric railway.

     The St. Francois County Electric Railway Company was formed in March, 1901, by Peter Giessing, H. Sleeth, J. P. Cayce, W. R. Lang, M. L. Clardy, John Giessing, Thos. Land, Louis Miller, W. F. Doss, A. T. Nixon, J. M. Morris, Dr. E. C. McCormick and others. At the first annual meeting of the board Peter Giessing was made president and J. W. Buck, secretary, and actual work was begun in 1902. The W. D. Boyce Construction Company, St. Louis, had the contract to supervise the work. The power house was erected, machinery installed and the road completed from DeLassus to the powerhouse, a distance of four and twenty-six-hundredths miles, when the money gave out because the company was unable to sell all of the bonds. The people of Farmington had spent in all about $125,000 on the project. $57,203 was paid for the right-of-way on which to build the tracks.

     The first electric car to run on the streets of Farmington was at 10:11 Sunday morning, July 24, 1904. Thos. Lang, Sr., turned the motorman's controller which started the journey from DeLassus to Farmington. The car was in charge of Motorman E. C. Rickard and Conductor Guy Tullock. In six minutes the city limits had been reached and the first stop was at the Presbyterian Church. At the post office there was a stop of several minutes for a photograph contest. John Doughty won the prize of ten tickets for the best amateur photograph of the first car. The run continued to the power house and an inspection was made. At eleven o'clock a return to the depot was made in time for all to attend church who wished to go. Those who rode on this first trip were all the principal business men, stockholders, representatives of the press and officials of the city. By night about seven hundred persons had availed themselves of a ride on the new car. The first firm to get freight was the Giessing Milling Co. It was a shipment of oats and corn.

      An interesting item in the paper at this time reported the first reaction to the new car. "No runaways have occurred in town as yet; the horses as a rule seem not to pay much attention to the car. The greatest danger seems to be from boys jumping on and off the car while it is in motion."

     In February, 1904, the unfinished railroad changed hands and was called the St. Francois County Railroad Company. In this same year they extended the tracks to Esther. This company wound up in receivership in 1909, and in August, 1910, the property was sold to Wm. Harlan, under foreclosure proceedings. In this same year the road was incorporated. In July, 1912, the railroad was bought by the Mississippi River and Bonne Terre Railroad. At this time the cost of the complete railroad was valued at $366,170.

      When completed the electric railway connected the county seat and the Lead Belt with the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad at DeLassus. It also made connections with the Mississippi River and Bonne Terre Railroad at Flat River and the Illinois Southern at Esther. Due to the great population in this section the railroad received heavy traffic.

     On January 1, 1926, the electric railway was taken over by the present ownership, which consisted of twenty business men of Farmington. These men put up a working capital of $20,000 as a goal. These men, owning various portions of the stock, are: M. P. Cayce, president; G. H. Giessing, vice president and business manager; G. B. Snider, F. W. Schramm, D. F. Giessing, C. E. Rozier, W. R. Lang, P. A. Shaw estate, L. H. Williams, W. C. Fisher, Morris Brothers, George Tetley, C. A. Tetley estate, Harry Denman, O. J. Mayberry, B. T. Gentges, C. Y. White, E. J. Lawrence, Henry Giessing and Klein Grocer Co.

     Since the electric railway has been taken over by local businessmen there have been a considerable number of projects which have been carried out for the betterment of the system and for the community as well. In July, 1926, the trolley lines, poles and equipment were removed between Flat River and Esther. The track belonged to the Mississippi River and Bonne Terre Railroad between these points. In this same month the first gasoline motor car for the section men was purchased for $262.00. In December of this same year a piece of right-of-way was bought at Hurryville for a new connection with the Missouri-Illinois Railroad. This was at a cost of $175.00. In March, 1927, this new connection was made at Hurryville, costing $7,165.00. In order to secure cheaper current than that produced at the power house it was necessary to construct a converter house of brick for the purpose of converting the alternating current of the city of Farmington to a direct current, which was necessary for the use of the car line. The cost of this structure, which stands just south of the depot, was $809.00. Later a Westinghouse rotary converter costing $4,733 was placed in this building. During the years 1927 and 1928 the city of Farmington was paving some of the principal streets of the town and the electric railway put in two hundred and fifty-four square yards of concrete in front of the station on North Washington Street and eight hundred fifty-nine square yards of amesite paving was placed between the tracks from the railroad station to the corner of Washington and Columbia Streets. Later this amesite paving was continued to the city limits at the hospital gates. The total cost of all this brick and concrete fireproof paving exceeded $7,000. In 1927 a vault for the protection of the railroad records was constructed in the south end of the depot. The outer door of the vault was taken from the vault of the old Bank of Farmington.

     In this same year two and four-tenth miles of track, poles, trolley, etc., was retired between Esther and Hurryville. The road at the present time does not operate beyond Hurryville since the new connection has been made there with the Missouri-Illinois Railroad. Today the electric railway owns ten miles of track. This includes eight miles of main line and two miles of sidings such as exists at the State Hospital, two flour mills, Schramm's Ice Plant and coal bins, Lang's Standard Oil Company and at the DeForest Oil Company at Swink's.

     When the electric railway first came into use the depot was in the brick structure which stands just south of the Farmington Laundry and is now occupied by the Ellis Byington Filling Station. This building was constructed by Fritz Brune, who used it for a blacksmith and wagon shop. He leased it for a number of years to the railroad company and after a time it was necessary to have more space for a railroad yard, so in about 1913 the present depot was occupied. This building has an interesting history. It was built by Morris Rosenthal, who later sold the property to J. M. Horn. A few years later it was sold to Sam Crawley. James Highley, father of City Marshal Harry Highley, then purchased it from Mr. Crawley. After the death of Mr. Highley, Harry Highley bought the interests of the other heirs. He says that when he lived there the house stood in the center of the same block where it now stands and beneath it was a basement and spring. Just east of the house was a barn and the whole lot was sort of a bog or pond. Mr. Highley lived here for some time and in 1912 sold the building to George Forster for $3,500, who in turn sold it to the railway company. Mr. Highley says the transaction between himself and Mr. Forster did not take over five minutes.

     Some of the more recent changes and improvements which have been made in the electric railway system are as follows: The old car barns at the power house were retired and a new one was built in the railroad yards at a cost of $4,965. The right-of-way between Esther and Hurryville was retired and it went back to the original owners of the land. At a cost of $80 two and six-tenths acres of land was purchased along both sides of the new connection at Hurryville. In order to handle the business from the Missouri Pacific Railway at DeLassus an extension of the side track was made, increasing the distance two hundred and sixty feet. The cost was $513. Due to the excessive amount of freight hauling there was purchased in 1929 a second hand freight motor car from the Fort Dedge, Des Moines and Southern Railroad at Boone, Iowa. After an overhauling was done the total cost was $4,706. In this same year there was exchanged some power house machinery for a rotary Westinghouse convertor for a consideration of $2,670. A cottage which was owned by the railroad company at the power house was sold to Mrs. Missouri Alexander.

     That the electric railroad is indispensable to Farmington and its surrounding community is shown in the report made to the federal government recently. This report shows that since 1926 the freight tonnage has run from 22,000 tons to 75,000 tons per year. The high mark was just prior to the beginning of the present depression. Before the depression the express amounted to about 800 shipments a month.


     The building of the Mississippi River and Bonne Terre Railroad created unusual interest due to the way it was constructed. Up to the year 1880 the products and supplies of the St. Joseph Lead Co., one of the largest in the world, were transported by means of wagons between the mines and the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railway. In this year the St. Joseph Lead Company built a narrow gauge railroad thirteen and one-half miles long, reaching from the mines to Summit in Washington County, a point on the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad. The cost was divided between the two companies, the St. Joe paying two-thirds and the Desloge Company paying one-third. In 1887 the St. Joe Lead Company purchased the holdings of the Desloge Lead Company, and in an endeavor to find a way to lower the transportation costs a shorter route was sought. So in 1888 a charter was granted to the Mississippi River and Bonne Terre Railway Company and a line was surveyed from Riverside in Jefferson County to the Mississippi River, twenty-five miles below St. Louis, to Bonne Terre. It was constructed as a narrow gauge railroad and completed between these two points in 1890 and the Summit Railroad was abandoned. Four years later the road was changed to standard gauge and later extended from Bonne Terre to Doe Run, crossing the Belmont Branch of the Iron Mountain at Doe Run Junction. The total length of the Mississippi River and Bonne Terre Railroad was, when completed, only forty-seven miles long, but it proved a great factor in the development of the Lead Belt and there was an enormous amount of traffic on the road. It was constructed as substantially as most trunk lines. A branch line was built to Leadwood and there are many additional miles of feeders, switches and sidings. The railroad passed through the important towns of Bonne Terre, Desloge, St. Francois, Flat River, Rivermines, Elvins and Doe Run. At the present time it operates a gasoline passenger train and two round trips are made daily.


     The Illinois Southern, an Illinois road with headquarters at Chicago, and owned by John R. Walsh, entered Southeast Missouri. It had been built from Salem, Ill., to a point opposite Ste. Genevieve, Mo. In about 1905 it was constructed through Ste. Genevieve and St. Francois Counties to Bismarck on the main line of the Iron Mountain, thus linking it with the latter. It passed through the Lead Belt and afforded an outlet to Chicago. It was an important link in an east and west line.

     Since no bridge had been built over the Mississippi River at Ste. Genevieve, the Illinois Southern transported its trains over this point by means of a barge, which was so constructed with tracks as to carry a great number of railroad cars at one time. During the World War, when the National Government had charge of the operation of all railroads, there was purchased a steel hull boat which had two tracks and was capable of carrying sixteen cars at one time. This was at a cost of $100,000. After the war had closed and the railroad was returned to its original owner, the operating company was presented with this bill of $100,000, and being unable to pay it was forced into receivership. The government had purchased the boat, but the private company was expected to pay for it, although not contracting the debt. After the reorganization of the Illinois Southern it came to be known as the Missouri-Illinois Railroad. Today it carries a large amount of freight and runs a combination train which accommodates passengers. In 1929 the Missouri Pacific bought a controlling interest in the Missouri Illinois R.R. Co. The latter company subsequently leased the M.R. & B.T. Ry. Co., both of which are now controlled by the Missouri Pacific.


      There can be little doubt but that the greatest pioneer in railroad building in Southeast Missouri was the late Louis Houck. Mr. Houck was a lawyer without a great amount of capital but with a considerable amount of vision. He saw what the construction of a number of railroads connecting important towns in Southeast Missouri would mean to the development of this section of the country. When he started his projects there were only two railroads which touched this section, the Belmont Branch of the Iron Mountain and the Cairo, Arkansas and Texas. Mr. Houck's efforts were concentrated first at points south of Cape Girardeau. Subsequently he had a desire to build a railroad through the counties of Perry, Ste. Genevieve and St. Francois, which up to this time were without adequate railway facilities. Mr. Houck had built a railroad from Chester to Perryville and now to further carry out his purpose, in 1904 he formed a company known as the Cape Girardeau and Chester Railroad Company and built a railroad from Cape Girardeau, by way of Jackson, to Perryville where connection was made with the road from West Chester. This system extending from Cape Girardeau to West Chester was about sixty-five miles long.

     In 1906 the Saline Valley Railroad was incorporated and work was begun at a point on the line of the Cape Girardeau and Chester called the Saline Junction. This was a distance of thirty-five miles from Farmington and it was completed to Farmington in 1912. The entire system had been reorganized as the Cape Girardeau Northern. The road was operated successfully for about five years and served a rural community. Its schedule was rather elastic and time tables were of little value to the person desiring to secure passage on the road. From reliable sources we are told that it was the purpose, at first, of the railroad company to make a round trip each day starting at the southern terminus. This did not work out satisfactorily and the starting point was changed to the northern terminus at Farmington. It was no better. So the schedule was abandoned and those operating the train felt satisfied if a trip one way could be completed in time to start in the other direction by the following day. Safety and not speed was the watchword. The railroad became the laughing stock of the community and it acquired the reputation of having the least number of wrecks but the most "times off the track" of any road in the country and passengers experienced many thrills before reaching their destination. Finally in 1917 the road was abandoned and H. E. Pirkey, a former employee of the Saline Valley Railroad, operated a motor car on the road, carrying mail and produce of various kinds to and from the farmers along the route. In 1927, by which time the road was in the hands of the receivers, J. Paul Cayce purchased for Saline Valley R.R. bondholders the rails of the road from Farmington to a point near Coffman. These were purchased through the Cape Girardeau Court of Common Pleas, which had control of the railroad.

     Several years ago the railroad depot known as "Houck Station" at the east end of Farmington, burned while occupied as a home.

     It was reported that Mr. Houck, when constructing this road, had intended to eventually continue it through the Lead Belt to Festus, but the Mississippi River and Bonne Terre Railway intervened and purchased the St. Francois County Electric line. In fact, Mr. Houck thought he had a contract to sell the entire road to the Frisco, but this sale was never consummated.

Published by THE LEAD BELT NEWS, Flat River, St. Francois Co. MO, Fri. June 10, 1938.