Friday, May 18, 2018

Birding the Peoria Road ...

Some have rode the Burlington Route, others have been routed on the Milwaukee Road.  My grandfather ate on the Nickel Plate, and a few took the curves on the Soo Line...but few remember the old Peoria Gateway.  The Peoria  Gateway!?......when I think of Peoria, I don't think of it as the center of anything let alone transportation and the gateway to what?...but...I could be wrong.

Today I was birding on the road bed of the abandoned railway of  one of the most inconsequential railway enterprises that was ever built.  The amazing fact is that this 1400 mile rail system that went from nowhere to the middle of hardly anywhere lasted for 90 years....90 years!

The Minneapolis and St Louis  railroad, the Peoria Gateway was described as a "Spunky Line" and today I was walking the grade between Revillo and Strandburg SD, looking for an eastern towhee.  Old rail beds are surrounded by bushes and those bushes....are habitat for a bird I need in the Rushmore fact I also need it in Illinois, because to be honest, I've never even been to Peoria, having skipped a speech tournament at Bradley Univ. in college.

Today, I went for a walk to see what I could find....

I saw some deer

Some rather common year birds....eastern kingbird

A saw blackpoll warbler females

Bobolink female

Then I heard something in the brush and I tried to phish it up and I waited and I tripped down the grade and then...up it popped......
A brown no towhee for me
Eventually, I ran out of bushes....and didn't experience any ghost trains...luckily enough for me.

And I looked around.

I'm a mile from LaBolt , South Dakota, a town of about a hundred people, and it's own railroad, still in operation--a BNSF branch that also went through insignificant towns on its way to Watertown, South Dakota, so I was thinking why would they put another railroad here?

I thought about it the whole way home. Then I did a little research.

The Peoria Gateway....Their west of Minneapolis main went right where I was standing and until 1960 came complete with passenger service although truth be told, I can't picture a lot of demand except for taking it all the way to Minneapolis.  Strandburg to say Gaylord Minnesota.  Maybe there was a huge appetite for Hauenstein Beer in New Ulm?

After 1940, the western end was Leola, South Dakota....then Aberdeen on to Watertown, Madison, Minnesota, and Minneapolis then you could go dead south towards Mason City Iowa, meander your way through Iowa to Oskaloosa and then you could go east to Peoria.  It would take a few days, but you could go from Northcentral South Dakota to Peoria, I can't picture any doing it though?.

The 1870 charter for this railroad, like many rail charters showed promise and hope.  Hope for profits of Minnesota and Iowa farmers sending wheat to Minneapolis to be milled.
One interesting facts of this road.  In 1886, North Redwood, MN agent Richard Sears, maybe 60 miles down the road bed gets a box of watches.  They go unclaimed.  Using these as seeds, he created a mail order business....Sears Roebuck....go figure?

The railroad began building its "pacific" division in 1906 heading westward from Watertown, and developing towns along the way laying tracks across the prairie, being called a "dirt railroad" as most of the track was not laid with ballast, only dirt....grass growing through the rails....

they reached the Missouri River the next year and founded the station of LeBeau on the east bank.  They began some effort to secure the crossing and made a deal with the Cheyenne River members about development but the Milwaukee Road was also laying track west in the hopes of getting to the pacific and when the bridge in Mobridge was built, the Milwaukee Road then swung a branch line from their main south on the west bank of the river to cut off the Peoria Gateway, founding towns along the line ending in Faith.  The plan worked and the Milwaukee Road blocked a competitor east of the Missouri......The Peoria ended at Lebeau......When Lebeau didn't work out, and the ghost town was flooded when they damned the river at Oahe....the end of the line was moved back to Anaska....a town that literally meant "confusion" in Lakota, and confusing it was, the railroad went from Anaska to Peoria, literally from nowhere to really not much of anywhere.

After the railroads were nationalized in 1917 in one of the worst things  to happen in America as the big roads liked it since the government agreed to pay them profits based on their previous 3 years of earnings, however, the smaller lines like this one got little and when congress voted to give back the lines in 1920, they basically left this one with nothing.  The railroad went bankrupt in 1923 lasting there for 20 years.  During that period, it was marginalized and the government postulated plans to parcel it out, sell it for scrap, just abandon it entirely, or merged but somehow it survived, and then entered the colorful man, Lucian B Sprague, not to be confused with Louis Spray, the man that caught the record Muskie for a long period in Wisconsin.

Sprague became the white knight of this railroad and a legend in the industry.  He even had a name for his road, the "Miserable and Still Limping."   Sprague turned the lemons into lemonade, except that the Gateway didn't even have any lemons....and it made money, somehow, despite it being a road in the middle of nowhere, he found customers, and was liked by his employees.  It eventually exited bankruptcy in 1943 after one of the longest in US history.  Sprague started spending on infrastructure and guess what?  People used the line,  Despite it going from nowhere to no place, it soon was no longer limping......Sprague bought a Stanley Steamer and showed it off along the route, was a marketing genius and he had his own personal train and sped along the route and top speed hauling famous people to Conde to hunt, fish and caroused with loose women and drank with actors and comedians. 

By 1954, the line had no debt, was profitable and serving some of the smallest towns in America.  The only thing he did was to abandon the end and close the line from Conde to Anaska,  Things were going good but then entered big Chicago money and boardroom drama.  A vulture capitalist came in, bought up stock on the cheap, won a proxy fight, and then kicked out Sprague.  Immediately, the line began to lose money, because they didn't care and which was probably the plan.  Having no debt, like a few of railroads, these lines were worth more in parts than from operations so in 1960 it was sold to the Chicago Northwestern and they basically sold off everything.  Passenger service ended in 1960.  The last freight train out of Watertown went through Strandburg in 1974.  The entire pacific main was disposed of.  half for scrap, a part was sold to the Burlington east of Madison, MN and the line in southern Minnesota became one of the most decrepit shortlines ever....less than a 5% of the 1500 miles was even owned by the CNW when it merged with the UP, but that was apparently the plan.....
Everyone made money except the local people.....but to be fair, many of these towns shouldn't have even existed.  Building west of Watertown in the first place was an ill conceived plan...

Towns along the route took a beating over the years.  Anaska now has a population of 40, Lowry, 6, Wallace 84, Bradley 74, and Strandburg sits at 72.  Conde has 140 people down from nearly 600 when the railroad had a junction there in 1910.  many of the other towns are now doomed, with places like Revillo just losing their high school which can only lead to more of a population drop.

all this knowledge and no towhee...oh well....the walk was fun and the history was interesting


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