U.S., MoPac And Amtrak Missouri River Eagle History: A Workhorse Train That Won The Day, Part One

By David Peironnet, Guest Commentator; September 17, 2021

Not many people remember Missouri Pacific Railroad’s Missouri River Eagle. Certainly not many remember it affectionately because it didn’t amount to much in the last couple of years before Amtrak.  

Even in its best years, the Missouri River Eagle never stood out. It didn’t quite fit into any category. It didn’t serve a single corridor but rather two corridors kind of stuck together. After arriving in Kansas City from St. Louis, the Missouri River Eagle headed north to Omaha.

That odd combination represented its greatest strength. 

Like Santa Fe’s Texas Chief (described in the Texas Chief Part III, appearing May 19, 2021), the Missouri River Eagle was a lot of things to a lot of different people. It just wasn’t just one of those many things. It was a workhorse. It did all those different things for all of those different people all of whom had different transportation expectations.

The Missouri River Eagle was a nice train that did several different things crammed together into a single consist – and not a long consist, at that. 

For those of you who never heard of the Missouri River Eagle or may have heard of it – but that’s about all, it is for you whom I have prepared this article. It’s a fascinating background – through politics, war and peace – leading up to the creation of the Missouri River Eagle.

The Pacific Railroad of Missouri was organized in 1848, over a dozen years before the outbreak of the Civil War to build a railroad from St. Louis to the not yet incorporated town of Kansas located across the state. The first shovel of dirt was not turned for nearly three years – until 1851, slightly more than a year after the town of Kansas became a city when incorporated by the Missouri legislature into the City of Kansas City.

Progress was exasperatingly slow in construction of the line. Nearly two decades passed between the Pacific Railroad’s organization and when it actually reached Kansas City. 

There were two factors causing this glacial progress.

First, railroads in pre-Civil War America were still primitive. The Pacific Railroad was organized less than 20 years after the Baltimore & Ohio first initiated service. Rapid technological advancement took place between the late 1820s and the late 1840s, though a lot more changes were needed to make railroading a paying proposition in most parts of the U.S. Additionally, radical changes in the region’s economic situation were also needed before a line between St. Louis and Kansas City would become viable; changes brought about by the Civil War, itself.

Events leading to the Civil War, and the war, itself throttled railroad building in Missouri though ironically became the very catalyst which drove explosive growth starting in the post-Civil War era.

In the positive column, there was much land to be utilized and many resources to be exploited between St. Louis and early Kansas City. However, no imperative for rapid development existed before the Civil War’s end. There was not much in the way of investor interest in potential railroad territory that was so easily served by the Missouri River, itself.

The second factor was the emerging “border war” along the Missouri/Kansas line. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 set out a path for statehood for those two territories, but the Act made things more politically complicated instead of setting a course for eventual statehood. After much maneuvering, Kansas entered the Union in January 1861 as a free state.

As to railroading, prospective investors were not surprisingly horrified because of the violence a political solution had brought, and as such were unwilling to invest money in building railroads in an unstable environment.

As to everything else, long-term policy formation grew directly out of these events. The unrest and bloodshed brought about by the political solution and the Civil War had a profound impact on policymakers in Washington. While intended as a wartime response, those decisions led directly to rapid post-Civil War development. That led years later to the Missouri River Eagle.

As a nation-building measure, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress were absolutely determined to build a transcontinental railroad and build it through territory controlled by the Union regardless of the outcome of the war.   

Were there to be one nation or two at the end of the Civil War, Union leaders became cognizant of the economic and strategic impact of completing the first railroad to the Pacific. Lincoln and Congress understood having a transcontinental railroad under their control was essential, rather than letting the Confederacy build a line first should the outcome of the war be a split nation.

Lincoln and Congress thus authorized the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 making a priority of getting construction underway even while the Civil War was at its worst. The Union Pacific began building west from Omaha. An alternative route was also authorized, mostly to become a feeder to the Union Pacific but capable of building all the way west should circumstances necessitate. 

That was a line from the confluence of the Missouri River and Kansas River (the Kaw River) at Kansas City. It became known as the Kansas Pacific, which was adopted as its formal name after the Civil War (a brief review of the Kansas Pacific appears in A Tale of Two Cities, Part II, appearing February 9, 2021).

Control of the Missouri River between St. Louis and Kansas City became a military necessity for three reasons:

First, protecting the Kansas Pacific building west from Kansas City.

Second, protecting the Union Pacific building west from Omaha, only about 185 miles north of Kansas City. Even if the Union were to hold Omaha, if Kansas City were taken by the Confederacy, it would be entirely too easy for them to attack rail lines serving Omaha from that relatively short distance.

Third, Union headquarters were at Fort Leavenworth, on the banks of the Missouri River only a few miles north of Kansas City (Leavenworth County, Kansas is now considered part of the Kansas City metropolitan area).

The Confederacy was no less aware of these strategic considerations as the Union. The Battle of Westport (inside today’s Kansas City) is sometimes known as the “Gettysburg of the West” and represented the Confederacy’s determined effort to gain control of the west. About thirty thousand men were engaged, a far greater number than the local population of the time.

The Union prevailed and in so doing maintained control over most of Missouri. This became relevant only about seven months later when the Civil War ended, and national priorities shifted to consolidating control over the west. Building rail lines across Missouri became one of those priorities. 

Whereas the economic value of railroads across Missouri was less than evident before the Civil War, end of the Civil War made railroad building a high priority. 

Up to that point the Pacific Railroad of Missouri completed a few miles of track in and near St. Louis. After the Battle of Westport, construction resumed then proceeded rapidly after the Civil War’s end. The Pacific arrived in Kansas City after the Civil War ended. 

Investors in the Pacific Railroad of Missouri told contractors to build, build, build, which they did. Unfortunately, contractors took shortcuts which have aggravated railroad operating men every day since, including today.  

Contractors laid as many miles of track as they could as they were paid on the basis of miles of track completed. Contractors built around hills rather than to cut through them. This avoided the expense of moving a lot of earth while inflating the bill for additional miles of track.   

Even more significantly, contractors for the Pacific Railroad took advantage of any flat land they could find, even if it meant building directly beside streams and even the Missouri River.

Passengers on Amtrak’s Missouri River Runner delight in the scenic views today along the Missouri River, especially in and around the Missouri capital of Jefferson City. A somewhat different perspective is held by today’s Union Pacific Railroad engineering department which can only wait in horror whenever the Missouri River threatens to overflow its banks, which it still does more frequently than anyone might prefer. 

On more than a few occasions, the Mighty Mo has seized control of railroad right-of-ways for the movement of millions – billions – trillions – of gallons of H₂O gathered from the Missouri River’s enormous watershed all the way from western Montana.

Over subsequent decades the Missouri Pacific Railroad spent vast amounts of money to realign the route. There are, none the less, still vexing curves and hills along the route which today’s Union Pacific might be happier to not deal with.

In the 1860s, the priority was to get it done, not do it right. Contractors built a line to serve as many communities as quickly as possible and arrive in Kansas City as quickly as possible.  That was their objective, and they did it.

With this being the background, the question now turns to how competitive forces in the 1930s presaged preceding inauguration of the Missouri River Eagle.

By the 1930s the Missouri Pacific became the dominant carrier of both freight and passengers between St. Louis and Kansas City though not by any large margin. Competitors conceded nothing. 

The Wabash was a particularly aggressive competitor with a history of superlative passenger trains and fast freights (A Tale of Two Cities series, Part I appearing January 28, 2021 addresses the history of the Wabash/Union Pacific and later the Norfolk & Western/Union Pacific operation of through trains between St. Louis and the Pacific coast).

The Burlington Route, which did not even own a Kansas City to St. Louis line, partnered up with the Alton Railroad to initiate the Ozark State Zephyr in 1936, and the General Pershing Zephyr in 1939.The Alton Route ran these Zephyrs mornings from Kansas City Union Station to a point just west of Mexico, Missouri at which point the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy took it to St. Louis Union Station. In the afternoon, the trainset returned to Kansas City.

Those trains represented a direct assault on the Missouri Pacific’s primacy. The CB&Q and its much poorer partner, the Alton, were based in Chicago of all places. Chicago. Chicago.

Even the MoPac’s fiercest competitor, the Wabash was headquartered in St. Louis. Missouri Pacific’s hometown bastion was under attack by heretics; infidels.

Oddly, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific, which had built the last of the Kansas City to St. Louis lines, had already abandoned hopes of being a major player in the St. Louis – Kansas City market by the 1930s. They ran a couple of leisurely locals on this route even though it was by far the best engineered line of them all. 

The challenge for the Rock Island was that their line, while easier and cheaper to operate and maintain, was longer than that of their competitors. Even worse was the fact that it had the misfortune of missing any town of much population. The Rock Island could get a few carloads of corn out of Versailles, Missouri and some lumber going into Eldon, Missouri, but for the most part, the line needed overhead business between St. Louis and Kansas City. That market never developed for them.

The St. Louis to Kansas City market was thus the Missouri Pacific’s to lose, and management had no intention of letting that happen. Despite suffering one of their several bankruptcies in 1933, MoPac receivers scrounged every dollar available for capital improvements and reinvested it.

Only a few years into its long bankruptcy and before WW II, Missouri Pacific introduced its first fast, streamlined, dieselized Eagle trains. First in the streamlined fleet was the Missouri River Eagle (originally known merely as The Eagle which initiated service in 1940). 

The name “Eagle,” was evocative of the many American bald eagles frequently seen along the Missouri River during migration, though today, climate change and an abundance of dining opportunities have lured a fair number of bald eagles into year-around living in Missouri’s lake areas. 

Large fish, not to mention a variety of tasty woodland creatures can be easily grasped by the eagles’ talons. The Osage River below Bagnall Dam is nothing short of an all-year, all-day, all-you-can-eat Smörgåsbord for flying raptors. The dam’s hydro-electric generators stir up the waters beneath the dam, and the fish scurry around eating bugs, plants, and one another. Big, juicy paddlefish come close to the surface and become the chef’s suggestion for eagles. What’s more, local turkey buzzards clean up any mess left by the eagles. Turkey buzzards don’t even expect a tip, something which is otherwise unexpected in areas infested with tourists.

Thus, The Eagle was inaugurated in 1940 though was renamed the Missouri River Eagle when it was joined by the Colorado Eagle in 1942 between St. Louis/Kansas City and Pueblo/Colorado Springs/Denver. Construction of new streamlined trains were mostly sidetracked at the beginning of WW II when manufacturing facilities were converted to production of wartime goods. However, the Colorado Eagle was sufficiently close to completion that it was allowed to be finished.

This meant that the MoPac could offer two streamlined, dieselized trains daily in each direction between St. Louis and Kansas City. The balance of power thus shifted back to the Missouri Pacific where it stayed, at least until the Wabash combined forces with the Union Pacific to initiate the post-war streamliners to the Pacific coast.

What was remarkable about the Missouri River Eagle was that it did something which had rarely been done before, though made perfect sense, that being to consolidate two routes which were not particularly related to one another into a single train. The second route segment was Kansas City to Omaha. By combining the routes, the MoPac was able to improve utilization of their costly capital equipment.

What’s more, the move improved service for passengers who were traveling from places like Jefferson City, Missouri to destinations such as Atchison, Kansas. There were not a large number of passengers who needed an uninterrupted journey on the Missouri River Eagle‘s “L” shaped route. But those passengers who did found the uninterrupted journey to be far more comfortable and convenient.

From the outset, MoPac offered full dining car service and first class parlor car service on The Eagle in addition to the coaches and baggage/Railway Post Office cars on the train. Equipment utilization and labor productivity improved at the same time passenger comfort and travel time were bettered.

Everybody won on this one. Well, except the MoPac’s competitors in two markets instead of one: St. Louis to Kansas City and Kansas City to Omaha. Their enthusiasm was muted, to say the least.

The Eagle/Missouri River Eagle annoyed the you-know-what out of the Burlington Route. Not only did The Eagle upstage the Burlington/Alton Route Zephyrs between St. Louis and Kansas City, the Kansas City to Omaha route was the very corridor where the CB&Q operated its first-ever streamliner, the Pioneer Zephyr (known in later years as the Silver Streak Zephyr and the Omaha Zephyr). 

Even the Burlington/Alton Route’s silvery, glistening Zephyr was out-sparkled by the even newer Eagle. The “Q” thus reallocated its resources in the post-WW II era in favor of greener pastures such as the Kansas City to Chicago American Royal Zephyr. The General Pershing Zephyr continued running a few more years, but capital for upgrades went elsewhere.

MoPac thus simultaneously bested its Chicago based competitors and re-asserted dominance in the highly competitive St. Louis to Kansas City market. Additionally, the MoPac must certainly have reveled in its newly found competitive capacity against the Burlington Route on the Kansas City to Omaha route. MoPac, which was still operating under bankruptcy supervision struck two successful blows for the St. Louis team – all in one train.

And that leads us to post-WW II expansion, then declining days of the Missouri River Eagle. More to come in the next part of this series.

That will come in the Missouri River Eagle, Part II.

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