U.S., The Plainsman History: One of the Best Trains You May Never Have Heard About

By David R. Peironnet, Guest Commentator, March 1, 2021

The Plainsman is like one of those pieces of classical music you hear in a commercial. You’ve heard it. You know it. But if somebody asks you what piece of music it is, you just can’t say.

The same applies to the Plainsman. You may have even traveled that route when the train was known by a different name. And, when you think about it, the name, Plainsman exquisitely describes the territory through which it traveled.

Recognize it now?

Okay, those hints probably don’t help much.

The Plainsman was the last remaining segment of Rock Island’s extraordinary Twin Star Rocket. The Plainsman ran between Minnesota’s Twin Cities and Kansas City.

There was no other route quite like the Twin Star Rocket. It was very long and it ran up and down (well, actually north and south, but it’s up and down if you look at the route on a map). If you set that map at a 45 degree angle, and put a nickel on its edge over Minneapolis and St. Paul then let it roll down, that nickel would roll over the Rock Island Railroad all the way to Houston. That’s over thirteen hundred miles, and for a north and south route, that’s a long, long way. For comparative purposes, you could ride Illinois Central’s Panama Limited from Chicago to New Orleans and halfway back again.

Trains ran in each direction between the Milwaukee Road depot in Minneapolis to Union Station in Kansas City. Minnesota is the North Star State. That is one of the twin stars.

The other twin star was Texas. Texas is the Lone Star State. North Star State to the Lone Star State – and back every day. Hence, the Twin Star Rocket.

By the way, Houston Union Station was the southern terminus. Historians will note that the line between Dallas and Houston was trackage operated jointly with the Burlington Route.

Rock Island’s Twin Star Rocket was the only new streamlined train inaugurated during WWII. Through most of its life, it carried a full dining car, full lounge, chair cars (of course) and Pullmans between Minneapolis and Houston. Additionally, Rock Island carried a Pullman from Minneapolis to Kansas City and thence to Los Angeles aboard the Golden State.

For reasons which will not be detailed here, north/south trains in mid-America seemed to suffer first – and worst.

The Twin Star Rocket‘s through Pullman was cut to a Kansas City to Dallas operation before being discontinued entirely. Interestingly, the Twin Cities to Phoenix and Los Angeles cars (with the cars switched onto the Golden State in Kansas City) ran until fairly late in the game.

The end of Railway Post Office cars in 1967 resulted in a nationwide slaughter of passenger trains, as the mail contracts had represented a huge part of passenger train revenue. The Twin Star Rocket was an early casualty.

The Interstate Commerce Commission none the less ordered the Rock Island to sustain service between the Twin Cities and Kansas City. Perhaps oddly, things looked up for a while.

Rock Island instituted a new train with a new name, the Plainsman. The name “Plainsman” had no historical roots; nothing found ever showed a train called the Plainsman prior to this.

But, it was a good name. It accurately represented a train running, still at a pretty good speed, through the amber waves of grain in Iowa, Minnesota, and even a little bit of the route in Missouri though northern Missouri is more hilly and rocky.

Upon departing Kansas City Union Station for the Twin Cities, the Plainsman crossed the Missouri River and then traveled on joint Milwaukee Road/Rock Island trackage to Polo, Missouri, stopping en route in Excelsior Springs, Missouri. Excelsior was once a prominent resort known as the “Spa of Many Waters.” The town was home to both fine resort hotels including the Elms (now excellently restored and operating as a resort/conference center). There were additionally, several “clinics” where visitors could partake of the “healing power of the waters” though by the mid-1960s, most visitors had departed after health officials concluded that mineral waters were, while healthful in a broader sense, had relatively limited potential as a cure for much anything.

Thence, the Plainsman pointed north stopping in nice agricultural communities as Trenton, Missouri and Allerton, Iowa before stopping in Iowa’s capitol city, Des Moines.

At the end, Rock Island scheduled four trains to arrive in Des Moines not too far apart from one another, thus ensuring connections between the Minneapolis/Kansas City trains and the Chicago/Omaha trains. It was a good idea and actually worked well. For a couple of hours a day, Rock Island’s Des Moines station was just like old times what with people getting on and off, and changing trains. Offering good connections didn’t save the trains, but it improved passenger loads to some extent, just not enough.

North of Des Moines, the Plainsman picked up passengers in some decent sized cities before proceeding to the Twin Cities.

The Plainsman‘s real attraction was its diner/lounge car. In the dining section, there was full linen and silver service. Menus were not truncated at all. Excellent meals were prepared to order by Twin Star Rocket and Golden State alumni, and served by waiters with comparable tenure. 

At the other end, there was a comfortable lounge section with the heavy chairs found on long-distance trains. Full lounge car service was available just a few feet away in the dining section, or a dining car waiter could serve you.

There was absolutely nothing second-class about the Plainsman‘s dining and lounge service.

Coaches were also long-distance veterans. On trips I rode, at least one of the two coaches on the train were still lettered Golden State. Seating was very spacious and comfortable.

A baggage car provided checked baggage and express service to most stations.

On trips I rode, I observed locomotives painted in a rather faded yellow with no markings on the side, though a Rock Island logo on the front. I’ve speculated that the E-units were some which the Rock bought used from the Union Pacific, though I am not certain of this. Perhaps a Rock Island motive-power historian can clarify this point.

Trains ran relatively on time. If there was a delay, it was likely in making connections with one of the Chicago-Omaha trains in Des Moines. Track conditions, while not ideal, were still good so trains could keep schedule barring no other cause.

Crews were still imbued with a long-distance train mentality, and provided fine service to  riders. Somehow the Rock Island maintained good morale among the train crews. A pleasant, helpful attitude on the train persisted to the very last.

One of my clearest recollections of all the trains I’ve traveled came from when I got off the last run north out of Kansas City. I told the crew in the vestibule that I was sorry to see the train discontinued. A dining car waiter responded with a very pleasant, “maybe you can bring it back.” 

That recollection has stayed with me for over a half century now. 

The downside of this is that I have not gotten a passenger train restored to this route, despite my promise to this dining car man that I would, in fact, would “bring it back.”

Maybe I will yet achieve this.  I just haven’t figured how to do it yet. 

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