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Off the Main Lines: A Photographic Odyssey

Off the Main Lines: A Photographic Odyssey

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by Don L. Hofsommer

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In this visually stunning and comprehensive photographic essay, railroad historian and photographer Donovan L. Hofsommer records the end of branchline passenger service, the demise of electric railroads, the transition from steam to diesel power, as well as the end of common carrier freight service on the Colorado narrow gauge. Off the Main Lines carries readers


In this visually stunning and comprehensive photographic essay, railroad historian and photographer Donovan L. Hofsommer records the end of branchline passenger service, the demise of electric railroads, the transition from steam to diesel power, as well as the end of common carrier freight service on the Colorado narrow gauge. Off the Main Lines carries readers along out-of-the-way railways in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana, and South Dakota to see the changes that occurred on these lines from the 1940s to the 1990s.

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Off the Main Lines

A Photographic Odyssey

By Don L. Hofsommer

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2013 Donovan L. Hofsommer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00868-8




The steam-car civilization came to Callender, Iowa, in the fall of 1870 when Des Moines Valley (DMV) pushed its existing line from Keokuk to Des Moines northwestward from Iowa's capital city through Perry to Fort Dodge. Kesho, the original townsite, simply picked up and moved across the tracks to the west and rechristened itself Callender. Early train service included a through-passenger run from Keokuk plus scheduled freights.

Des Moines Valley unfortunately was unhealthy. Out of it in 1874 came two roads: Keokuk & Des Moines (K&D), which inherited DMV's avenue between those points, and Des Moines & Fort Dodge (DM&FtD), which acquired the northern section through Callender. DM&FtD advertised itself as "The Fort Dodge Route – The Great Throughfare between Des Moines and the North and Northwest." Heady stuff that, but, in fact, the company was no more robust than DMV, its predecessor. Giant Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island) took lease of it in 1887, the lease in 1905 passing to Minneapolis & St. Louis (M&StL), which some years later bought the property.

M&StL itself was hardly robust and nearly devoid of baubles and cotillions. It slumped into receivership in 1923 and in the next decade barely avoided dismemberment in a way that would have left Callender devoid of rail service. The railroad patched and scrimped, however, economizing as best it could. Ministrations of Lucian C. Sprague and an improved economy eventually saved it. Out of receivership in 1943, the company was without bonded debt. Sprague announced that M&StL no longer stood for "Misery & Short Life," but, rather, "Modern & Streamlined." The Sprague management fell to outside raiders in 1954, and that, in turn, set up sale of the road to Chicago & North Western (C&NW) six years later.

Train operation on the line during our time at Callender was at best humble – one passenger train and one freight train in each direction per day, all at night, plus an occasional troop train or an extra freight. Gas–electric cars trailed one or two weary storage mail cars and a venerable coach on the Minneapolis–Albert Lea–Fort Dodge–Des Moines passenger run. Consolidation (2–8–0) steam locomotives drew the Fort Dodge–Des Moines freights.

M&StL for me was the "home road." And it always would be.

The depot at Callender by 1963, when this view was made, was tattered. It would only get worse. Indeed, its glory years, when it served very clearly as the community pivot, were well passed. But what glory years they had been.

In 1949, M&StL shifted its Minneapolis–Des Moines passenger schedule from night to day. Train 1, up from Des Moines, pauses at Callender at 10:30 on this warm summer morning in 1950.

Callender was one of forty-four station stops for train 2 on its daily 299-mile trek from Minneapolis to Des Moines. Agent Earl L. Lund doubled as mail messenger, moving pouches, sacks, and parcels to and from the post office. The S. Hanson lumberyard is out of sight to the left of the depot. The north elevator and bulk plants are seen along the house track in the background. Summer 1950.

Train 2, heading for Des Moines, rolls past Callender Grain's south elevator, where Frank Peterson was manager and where Paul Dallman and his section gang killed time on occasion. Earlier in the day, corn had rattled down the elevator's spout to fill boxcars on the house track. Note the stacks of boards for grain doors necessary in coopering the cars. Summer 1950.

Train 2, headed by GE-27 and now powered by a Caterpillar D-397 engine, purrs over a well-groomed if lightly ballasted track south of Callender on an idyllic day in August 1954. The rich soil of the area promised bountiful agricultural tonnage for M&StL.


If Minneapolis & St. Louis was for me the home road, Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific was the ancestral taproot.

Rock Island was, as Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter so aptly put it, "a mighty fine line." It brought to Iowa and gave utility to all four of my grandparents, those on my father's side settling at Dysart and those on my mother's side locating at Dows, both stations on Rock Island's southeast–northwest artery across the state. Other relatives of my father migrated farther up the line to take residency at Trosky, Minnesota, and in the 1920s, Rock Island provided transportation for Dad and other members of the Dows High School team to wrestling matches at other towns.

My own life had corresponding ties to the "mighty fine line."

I warmly recall standing in or near Grandfather Lars Schager's barn southeast of Dows at evening milking time, gazing across open fields at train 20, a three-car passenger train headed by a strange-looking power unit that burbled and gurbled its way through the night toward Cedar Rapids. In later years, I rode that train and looked across those same fields to the Schager place, imagining that Grandpa was looking back at me.

Rock Island's line through Dysart, Dows, and Trosky was completed by Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern (BCR&N) and associates in bits and pieces during the years 1873–84 and was operated as BCR&N's Pacific Division. Indeed, when Rock Island gained control of BCR&N, and M&StL briefly, as well, it did have aspirations of making good on the "Pacific" in its corporate title by way of a northwest passage. That did not happen, of course, but this part of BCR&N did provide a wonderfully rich source of traffic. Rock Island purchased BCR&N outright in 1903.

At the outset of World War II, Rock Island scheduled a daily "passenger motor" and one freight in each direction through Dows on the Cedar Rapids–Sioux Falls run, plus a daily-except-Sunday mixed from Iowa Falls through Dows and then up a spur to Belmond and Garner to Lakota. The passenger was trimmed back from Sioux Falls to Estherville in 1950 and eliminated altogether in 1956. In 1950 and for several years thereafter, the mixed to Lakota originated and terminated at Dows.

In time, the "mighty fine line" stumbled and fell, sad to say. Other roads picked at the carcass. C&NW took what it wanted, including portions of the former BCR&N, like the line through Dows. Then, in a monumental strategic blunder, C&NW abandoned the portion from Dows through Popejoy and Burdette to Iowa Falls.

The standpipe at Dows was little used when this autumnal view was made in 1951. But CRI&P maintained water facilities there even after steam disappeared so that hogs moving in carload lots (likely to slaughter at the huge Wilson & Company packing plant in Cedar Rapids) could be showered and cooled on the hot and humid days of summer. The combine at right was assigned to mixed-train duty on the seventy-one-mile branch from Dows through Garner to Lakota. No. 20 on this day is a bit off the advertised schedule, due out 5:37 PM but actually departing at 5:51. In a few minutes, it will pass in sight of the Schager farmstead southeast of town.

Motor 9007 began life as a humble mail car, but an enterprising Rock Island in 1937 converted it into a gas–electric unit that was dieselized three years later to produce 800 horsepower. On February 21, 1954, it put in a familiar appearance on train 20 near Graettinger, Iowa. Rock Island in 1950 had suspended passenger service above Estherville to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but trains 19 and 20 still offered connections by way of the Zephyr–Rocket at Cedar Rapids to and from Chicago (via West Liberty) and St. Louis.

Rock Island's financial fortunes were as dreary as the weather on this raw February day in 1970 when this drag rumbled through Dows. The impressive depot structure later became an Iowa Welcome Center.


Iowa predecessors of Illinois Central (IC) in 1869 completed a line from Dubuque to Fort Dodge, pushing westward a year later to link Sioux City, in that way structuring an important horizontal thoroughfare from the Mississippi River to the Missouri. Later on, affiliates fleshed it out with a line from Cherokee to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and another south-westward from Cherokee to Onawa. The western-Iowa system was rounded out at century's end with a strategic arm from Tara, just west of Fort Dodge, to Council Bluffs and Omaha. IC's flagship passenger train was the overnight Hawkeye, heavy with "head-end" cars of mail, express, and baggage as well as coaches and sleepers. The Iowan handled daylight chores until it was discontinued in 1949–50. Freights, especially time freights (IC dispatch trains) proliferated. IC was the premier handler of meat and packing-house products across Iowa billed from on-line plants like Tobin at Fort Dodge, and it likewise wheeled huge volumes of "green freight" (perishables, fruits and vegetables) received at Council Bluffs from Union Pacific (UP), with these trains often running in multiple sections. Among Fort Dodge railroads, ICwas the only one signaled, with ABS (automatic block signal), but only up the hill to Tara and to the east. It changed crews at Fort Dodge and boasted a large engine facility and impressive depots for passengers and freight.

DM&FtD reached the latter place in 1870 from Des Moines, Iowa's capital; it passed to control of M&StL in 1905. M&StL itself completed a route to Fort Dodge from Minneapolis and Albert Lea in 1881, pushing on to the south for the purpose of reaching coalfields at Kalo and Angus during the next season. By the mid-1940s, M&StL's passenger service was down to a nightly train in each direction from Minneapolis to Des Moines and another between Fort Dodge and Winthrop, Minnesota. Freights were made up in the yard for Des Moines, Albert Lea, and Spencer. Crews changed at Fort Dodge, the road sported an ice facility to protect perishable lading, and locomotives were serviced at a ramshackle roundhouse. M&StL used IC's passenger station.

Chicago Great Western (CGW) predecessor Mason City & Fort Dodge (MC&FtD) connected those two communities in 1886, and in 1903, CGW forged its own route from Fort Dodge to Council Bluffs. Its stub-end passenger facility was at the eastern boundary of downtown. Crews changed elsewhere, and CGW had only abbreviated yard facilities. In 1947, CGW carded double-daily passenger operation on its Minneapolis–Omaha line through Fort Dodge, along with two two-time freights and one local in each direction. A special feature was CGW's very substantial bridge overIC, M&StL, and the Des Moines River.

Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern (Fort Dodge Line) was the latecomer. By construction on its own and by acquisition of existing properties, a new route linking Fort Dodge and Des Moines was cobbled together in 1907. Fort Dodge Line later added a line eastward to Lehigh and Webster City. Electrification followed. In 1948, it scheduled four daily passenger runs from Fort Dodge to Des Moines, with freights operating for the most part at night.

During the mid-1940s it was virtually impossible to be outside at Fort Dodge and not hear whistles, bells, or engine exhaust from some part of town. IC was majordomo, all steam with the most melodic of steamboat whistles, Pacifics and occasionally a Mountain on passenger assignments, Mikados and Mountains on freights, with barrel-chested 0–8–0s and perky 0–6–0s in switching and helper service. M&StL featured gas–electric cars on passenger runs, 2–8–0s on freights, a diminutive General Electric switcher that exposed the city to the forthcoming era of dieselization, and an 0–6–0 held in reserve. CGW used 4–6–0s and 4–6–2s on passenger runs, with 2–8–2s assigned to freight. Single cars normally were adequate on Fort Dodge Line passenger runs, although there were times when demand required cars in multiple, while freight motors handled switching duties and the usually scheduled nocturnal drags.

Illinois Central was majordomo at Fort Dodge. Crews changed there, as did locomotives, except passenger power. IC's roundhouse-service facility was a busy place as a result. A 1500-class Mikado with auxiliary tank has arrived with a drag from the west and awaits attention. The steam-powered clamshell at right served to clean the ash pits. IC's substantial freight house looms in the background. April 11, 1952.

In early 1952, IC still dispatched its road trains to and through Fort Dodge with steam power, but diesel switchers like 9420 supplanted the usual 0–6–0s and 0–8–0s that increasingly found themselves slumbering in the roundhouse. Late in the afternoon of February 10, the nearly new diesel lines up with 2–8–2s 1501 and 1557 resting together.

Mikados like Lima-built 1534 were ubiquitous. On this October day in 1952, it would wheel train 75 (Dispatch CC3) on the 136-mile dash from Fort Dodge to Council Bluffs, replacing a 4–8–2 that brought the train from Waterloo.

Diesels soon would end the reign of 4–6–2s and 4–8–2s on the Hawkeye, but on March 27, 1954, Mountain 2401 had the honors. The train would make eleven station stops west of Fort Dodge before completing its run from Chicago to Sioux City.

By the late 1960s, Geeps and E-units alternated as power on trains 11 and 12, the Hawkeye, but the evening routine for the eastbound run remained the same at Fort Dodge: a fifteen-minute pause to unload and load passengers, mail, express, and baggage. July 1969.

Clerks in the Railway Mail Service were admonished: "Do not delay baby chicks or the Wall Street Journal." Shipments from the Welp Hatchery at Bancroft head east on Chicago & Fort Dodge RPO 12. July 1969.

General Electric's forty-four-ton D-842 often found yard duty for M&StL at Fort Dodge. At left is one of the road's Russell snowplows, to the right, one of its Alco road switchers with Chicago Great Western's impressive bridge in the background. November 6, 1952.

Alco 1,000 hp road switchers held all M&StL freight assignments at Fort Dodge during the first half of the 1950s. Four of them (one is hidden) await calls on the north side of the ramshackle roundhouse on a sparkling June morning in 1951. In the background at left is CGW's substantial bridge over IC, M&StL, and the Des Moines River.

M&StL held trackage rights over Illinois Central between Tara and Fort Dodge, five miles. Here, train 1 hustles east, away from Tara, downgrade into the Des Moines River Valley at Fort Dodge. August 1952.

Since 1901, M&StL had utilized IC's impressive passenger facility at Fort Dodge. Up from Des Moines en route to Minneapolis, train 1 warms in unseasonable sun on February 10, 1952.

In 1948, M&StL purchased elegant stainless steel coaches that bobbed incongruously behind its venerable GE cars. On May 15, 1954, GE-26 heads train 1 up the valley of Soldier Creek (above) and out of Fort Dodge (overleaf).

In the days of steam, northbound M&StL freights often required a helper up the hill out of Fort Dodge, and on this May day in 1954, Alco 1050 has its hands full with a heavy train 51, headed for Albert Lea, Minnesota.

This August day of 1954 was steamy and hot, but passengers enjoyed air-conditioned comfort in the coach trailing GE-27. Train 2, south of Badger, is about to roll down the valley into Fort Dodge.

Chicago Great Western's double-daily passenger service at Fort Dodge in 1948 included the Twin Cities Express, up from Omaha to St. Paul and Minneapolis on a daylight schedule. It backed into the Central Avenue station to exchange passengers, mail, express, and baggage late in the noon hour. The stop was adequate for Engineer Herbert B. Fuller to "oil" the moving parts of his iron steed and take up conversation with the young kid who seemed to show up automatically at train time during the summer. And it was the kind and generous Fuller who brought that kid passenger timetables he had gathered up at the ticket windows of the Burlington and Union stations in Omaha before he headed his train out of town. July 1948.

Brakeman B. W. "Barney" Bird drops off the locomotive, and a carman crouches to inspect train 50 as it eases into the Fort Dodge Yard to complete its trip from Albert Lea. January 1961.

CGW was fully dieselized by November 30, 1952, when this Alco road switcher on the freight turn from Clarion performed yard work at Fort Dodge.

Wartime demand for passenger transportation caused Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern to schedule four daily runs on its eighty-five-mile route between Fort Dodge and Des Moines. That pattern obtained after the war, too, but by 1951, that service was halved. Car 74 waits at the Fort Dodge terminal on May 10, 1953, for the afternoon trip to Iowa's capital city. In the background is the loop track to turn the cars.

The afternoon car for Des Moines departed at 4:10 on April 11, 1953.

Shadows were lengthening for FtDDM&S passenger service on this splendid May day in 1954 when car 82 with train 4 eased up and out of the Des Moines River Valley near Shady Oak.

With passengers and mail aboard, veteran and well-known Conductor Albert P. Butts could get on with his bookwork. The run to Des Moines took two hours and forty minutes with a ride that was as much up and down and side to side as it was forward. Visitors often found themselves up front with the motorman.

One or both of the two four-motor, eighty-ton giants slumbering in the East Fort Dodge Yard on February 10, 1952, would likely head for Boone and Des Moines after dark on routine freight assignments.

FtDDM&S dieselized in 1953–55, principally with seventy-ton units from General Electric that could be run in multiple for freight service or singly as switchers. East Fort Dodge, February 1963.


Excerpted from Off the Main Lines by Don L. Hofsommer. Copyright © 2013 Donovan L. Hofsommer. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Donovan L. Hofsommer is Professor of History at St. Cloud State University and president of the Lexington Group. He is author of Steel Trails of Hawkeyeland (IUP, 2005) and (with H. Roger Grant) of Iowa's Railroads: An Album (IUP, 2009).

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