U.S., Wabash and Union Pacific History: A Tale of Two Cities, Part Two

By David R. Peironnet, Guest Commentator; February 9, 2021

A Tale of Two Cities
Wabash/Union Pacific City of Saint Louis and UP City of Kansas City
Part 2: Westward expansion, bombs bursting in air and trains gliding on an ocean floor

Getting from Kansas City to the Rocky Mountains once required a boat. No, wait. The Rocky Mountains hadn’t been built yet.

One may ask what the middle Cretaceous period has to do with a train running from Kansas City to the Pacific. The answer is more than you might suspect.

What is now Kansas was at the bottom of an inland sea about a hundred million years ago. The Rockies didn’t begin forming until about twenty million years later. As the Rockies began rising, so did the entire continent. Sea water from the inland sea drained out leaving abundantly rich soil. Also, very flat land – flatter than a pancake flat – the kind of flat land that enables passenger trains to scream across the high plains at very high speeds.

Trains had always scorched the ballast across Kansas, and that was before trains in post-WW II really began speeding up.

Competitive pressures were on the railroads to run fast trains, and the former ocean floor, now known as Kansas became prime territory where railroads could take the time out of timetables.

Santa Fe was well known as a speed demon. The post-WW II Rock Island was a substantially rebuilt railroad, taken from bankruptcy into a highly successful reorganization under John D. Farrington. The Missouri Pacific didn’t go to California but it did offer the only true through service from St. Louis to the Rockies. The MoP upped its game even more when the Colorado Eagle entered service during WW II.

By the end of WW II, the weakest link in the market from St. Louis, Kansas City and the west was …. yup …. the Union Pacific Railroad.

During the 1930s, it didn’t appear that UP would be last to the table. In 1935, the UP initiated its first ever streamliner, the City of Salina going west from Kansas City all the way to Salina, Kansas.

The M-10000, an aluminum, articulated train, made a nationwide tour illustrating trains of the future. Then it was put into the unforgiving test of daily operations. UP’s line westward from Kansas City was chosen as the route for the M-10000’s real test for several reasons:

1) A speedy route where trains could be tested under normal operating conditions,
2) Operating conditions which included the extreme heat of summer on the plains, the extreme cold of winter on the plains, plus blizzards, floods, and even tornadoes.
3) Less traffic density of other UP lines (as the Overland Route) in case of equipment failure,
4) Almost everything else UP’s engineering staff could ever need in the way of maintenance facilities, and
5) Close enough to Omaha for UP engineering staff to move back and forth easily, even if that meant having to ride the CB&Q or the MP to get back and forth to Kansas City.

Upshot: the City of Salina was an incredible success as an experiment. It proved itself. In its roughly seven years of service, the M-10000 ran nearly enough miles to equal two round trips to the moon. Not bad.

But, by the first days of WW II, the City of Salina was worn out. Later incarnations of aluminum streamlined trains included refinements which emerged as what UP wanted.

The City of Salina didn’t turn out to be the train of the future but it was extraordinarily successful as an evolutionary link between the steam-powered heavyweight past and the streamlined future. Every one of the Union Pacific’s “City” trains and by extension everybody’s streamlined trains were derived in some way from the UP’s bold experiment.

But, that doesn’t tell the tale of what UP wanted for its lines west of Kansas City. The City of Los Angeles, the City of San Francisco, the City of Denver, the City of Portland – all ran west of Omaha on the Overland Route.

Upgrades to service on lines west of Kansas City had to wait until after WW II.

It wasn’t the first time that lines west of Kansas City had lower priority.

The line through Kansas was always an odd appendage for the UP. Built as the Kansas Pacific Railroad, it along with the UP were federally chartered lines authorized by the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 as signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln.

Although Congress’ preferred route was that of the Overland Route west from Omaha, Congress hedged its bets. Congress was determined to constrain the spread of slavery, an objective far from any certainty in the darkest days of the Civil War. Ensuring the option of a second transcontinental railroad route was good strategy, and also a way of limiting slavery in Kansas and Colorado.

So in the depths of the Civil War, construction of the Kansas Pacific began in September, 1863, actually beating the Union Pacific by several weeks.

Construction began simultaneously with one of the most terrible battles of the Civil War, the Battle of Chickamauga. Nearly 35,000 souls perished in that hideous bloodbath, a scene of destruction second only to Gettysburg in loss of life during the entire War Between the States.

Both the Overland Route and the Kansas Pacific built west with minimal delays. However, as the Union Pacific progressed quickly towards the Nebraska/Wyoming line, financing of the Kansas Pacific slowed. The KP was viewed as an alternate routing but that declined in importance as continued west, essentially unhindered. The KP continued to Denver, and the Denver & Pacific built north from Denver to meet the UP in Cheyenne, but at a slower pace.

All the history books say the Union Pacific/Central Pacific railroads linked the nation at Promentory Point, Utah in 1869. There were gold spikes, silver crossties, and lots of champagne. Photographs were taken and everyone celebrated. The Atlantic and the Pacific oceans were irrevocably linked with an unbroken pair of iron rails.

Or so we have been taught to think.

The Kansas Pacific route actually beat the Union Pacific/Central Pacific on a technicality. You couldn’t really go from the Atlantic to the Pacific by rail through Omaha. A river ran through it.

Between Council Bluffs, Iowa and Omaha, Nebraska, everybody and everything had to get off the train, get on a boat, cross the Missouri River, and only then get back on a train and resume their respective journeys.

The Kansas Pacific/Denver & Pacific achieved in 1870 what was not attained on the Overland Route until 1874 when a bridge was finally completed across the Mighty Mo.

The Kansas Pacific started in Kansas City where it made connections with lines east, notably the Hannibal & St. Jo, a subsidiary of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. The Q inaugurated its bridge across the Mississippi River in 1867 so crossing the Missouri was the last true hurdle in an all-rail route to the wild, wild west.

The first bridge across the Missouri was at Kansas City, the Hannibal Bridge which opened in 1869. It was an engineering marvel. Octave Chanute devised the first ever caisson enabling workers to dig down through the river bottom’s mud to bedrock. As the Kansas Pacific connected in Kansas City, it was truly the KP which became the first all rail route across our nation.

In other news, the infamous robber baron Jay Gould got control of the Union Pacific in 1873 and then bought control of the Kansas Pacific the year after. Gould didn’t want some pesky Kansas Jayhawkers competing with the UP so it seemed sensible to buy out the competition. Ever since, UP’s line across Kansas was a sort of secondary main line and for most of those years, passenger service reflected the line’s secondary status.

That’s not to say that trains as the less than imaginatively named Pacific Limited was a slouch operation. But it was no Overland Limited, and barely worth a footnote in discussing trains with delicious names as the Santa Fe DeLuxe, the Santa Fe Chief, and the Rock Island Golden State Limited, especially given that the Santa Fe and the Rock Island dominated the Kansas City and west market.

However, in the immediate post-WW II era, the Union Pacific was Hell-bent for election, and chose to expand their reach into Saint Louis and Kansas City markets, territory which had been essentially unchallenged and awarded by default to the competition.

UP joined up with the Wabash to initiate a new streamlined passenger train from St. Louis to Pacific Coast destinations. They offered a fine service with no change of cars and no change of trains in Kansas City to both coach and Pullman passengers.

Suddenly, the Chief and the Golden State Limited discovered some competition which had been there before mostly in name and not much else.

The City of St. Louis sought to change all that. Suddenly, a streamlined train with lightweight coaches and extensively modernized heavyweight Pullmans, lounge cars, and diners opened the gates and yelled “all aboard!”

This was not one of the better days at 80 East Jackson nor LaSalle Street Station. Some real competition was now out there.

UP and Wabash threw some serious money at their Streamliner City of St. Louis. Heavyweights were replaced with all new lightweight cars as they rolled out of manufacturing facilities run by Pullman-Standard, American Car & Foundry, and even Budd. New diesel-electric locomotives showed up, and then dome coaches and dome lounge cars in the mid-1950s.

UP maintained good track. Combined with not much traffic scheduled in the late night hours, eastbound and westbound editions of the City of St. Louis had the railroad mostly to themselves as they screamed its way through Kansas cornfields. Few managers asked hogheads how fast they were really going. Trains pulled into Salina and Topeka and Kansas City Union Station on time or pretty close to it. What other questions were there?

Full dining car service on the City of Saint Louis was comparable to that of the City of Los Angeles. The same went for dome lounge service. As to what passengers enjoyed, adherence to UP’s excellent standards was without exception. Period. End of subject.

Throughout the 1950s and even into the 1960s, the Domeliner City of St. Louis didn’t feel the stress of subsidized highway construction, though flying machines, also heavily subsidized, sucked away some of the Pullman business.

And that, sadly, brings us to Part 3 of A Tale of Two Cities, the Post Office: higher rates and slower delivery plus the end of Pullman coming soon to a website near you.

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