The impact of the railroad in the development of rural America cannot be overstated. Nearly all towns in Daviess County were built around railroad depots. Transportation for developing commerce depended on trains, both to ship farm products and livestock out as well as to bring manufactured goods and products here. Trains impacted the very fabric of every community, bringing national figures like William Jennings Bryan here or delivering disadvantaged children from the cities seeking opportunities in rural Midwest small towns via the “Orphan Trains.” And in 2017, railroads still impact decisions here as Daviess County seek ways to replace bridges on low-traffic roads using railroad flat cars.
The influence of railroads here began soon after the Civil War. By 1869 a narrow-gauge railroad called the Chicago Southwestern was rolling through Daviess County. Then in 1898 the Rock Island took over, making Altamont the site of the largest coal shoot between Kansas City and Chicago. For many years Altamont was the railroad’s headquarters for bridge gangs, line crews, coal chute workmen, water works, section crews, round house operators, car repairmen and depot agents — working around the clock. The Rock Island built 13 houses for railroad workers, eight of which still stand in Altamont today. Meanwhile, the Omaha & Chillicothe Railroad was in operation in 1871, putting “Pattonsburgh” on the map in northwest Daviess County.
Gallatin’s prominence was fueled in no small way as the crossroads of two railroads. The impact of rail commerce led to the relocation of a college from Edinburg, MO, to Gallatin (1893-1918). Nationally known McDonald Tea Room built its reputation by attracting salesmen traveling on the railroads who then boosted the restaurant’s reputation across the country. The stopover at Gallatin allowed vaudeville entertainment acts from Chicago one last dress rehearsal before performing for audiences at Kansas City – much to the delight of Gallatin folks hungry for amusement at local meeting halls.
The Rock Island depot at Winston has survived because it was turned into a community museum by the Winston Historical Society. Railroad tracks bisecting the county were torn out during the early 1970s; the last Rock Island train came through in March, 1973. Other depots are now non-existent or in a state of slow decay.
Of all the water tanks, coaling docks, depots, tunnels and turntables built to support the rail lines, only one track is still active here today – the Chicago Rock Island & Pacific near Lock Springs in the extreme southeast corner of Daviess County. Just south of the county on this same line is the newly constructed 110-car shuttle-loader grain storage facility, built by MFA Incorporated and MFA Oil Company. The new facility, capable of handling 14 million bushels of grain annually, opened in 2017. It provides direct access to the Union Pacific Railroad and four-lane Highway 36 to Interstate 35.
RAILROAD GHOST TOWNS
Perhaps no railroad impacted North Missouri more than the construction of the Hannibal-St. Joseph Railroad south of Daviess County. The railroad anchored the Pony Express to St. Joseph, MO, and changed commerce routes by freight wagon not just in Daviess County but throughout the entire region. Wherever trains rolled, communities developed …or else obliterated.
Local communities which became ghost towns due to decisions made by the railroads include:
- Jackson Switch… Blake… Once about halfway between Jamesport and Gallatin, Jackson Switch was renamed as Blake when the Chicago & Southwestern Railroad designated it as a flag station for its passengers
- Pattonsburgh… Elm Flat… About 1835 Matthew Patton built the first water-mill in Benton Twp. on Big Creek. Patton Mill later changed to Pattonsburgh. The spite of a railroad official, in charge of the 1871 construction of the Omaha & Chillicothe Railroad, doomed the town when the tracks skirted the river bottoms to arrive at high ground three miles to the southeast. The tracks then illogically turned back south to end on the bank of Big Creek in a low, undesirable site thickly covered with elm trees. A box-car depot was erected, named Elm Flat. Businessmen removed to the “Flats,” and thus removed the name “Pattonsburgh” on the map.
- Boxtown… In 1825 business coming up the river from Brunswick created a trading center on Lick Fork Creek at a grist mill called Boxtown in Harrison Twp. But then the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad laid tracks just two miles to the south, eliminating Boxtown’s future.
- Old Greasy… For over 40 years the settlement between Springhill in Livingston County and Mill Port in Daviess County was known as Old Greasy. In 1871, the St. Louis & Omaha Railroad bypassed this settlement, making way for the rapid development of Lock Springs
- Victoria… This Jefferson Twp. community, named for the English queen, saw its trade diverted when the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad was built. Victoria ceased to exist as early as 1880.
- Bancroft… Located in Lincoln Twp. in northeast Daviess County, this town gave way to Gilman City about 1890 when tracks for the Omaha & Quincy Railroad were laid just a mile away.
Very little land in northern and northeastern Daviess County was purchased by private owners before 1850. Most of the better land in the county was sold under the Pre-emption Act of 1841 for $1.25 per acre, or donated to help develop the railroads. The last recorded cattle drive from Daviess County occurred in 1849. Railroad shipping greatly impacted the agricultural economy here. N.B. (Pole) Brown became a great cattle shipper when the railroads came. Brown is reported to have shipped 2,000 carloads of cattle during 1870-1880. In 1880 he shipped 400 carloads of cattle from Daviess, Harrison, Gentry and Nodaway counties. Since one carload held 40 head of cattle, Brown would have shipped 16,000 head of cattle during this one year.
Written by Darryl Wilkinson, Gallatin Publishing Company 2017