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Home / Railroad Stories: The Way It Was / Railfan Stories / Big town, no main lines

Big town, no main lines

By David A. Nealy | March 25, 2020

Sioux Falls may have been bypassed, but five Class I railroads made the South Dakota city seem like Chicago

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The Milwaukee Road was one of the big players in Sioux Falls. One of its hottest trains in the late 1940s was the daily-except-Sunday meat train to Chicago, seen passing a diesel switcher as it departs Sioux Falls. Mikado 508 carries an extra tender to reduce water stops.
Henry J. McCord
Growing up in an obscure corner of far southwestern Minnesota, in Adrian, I belatedly became aware of the fact that my favorite (and only) nearby major city, Sioux Falls, S.Dak., somehow had been skipped by all of the area’s major railroads’ main lines. I’m not sure I understand why, but this neglect might relate to the obsession of the big roads during the late 19th century to drive west and/or northwest through Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and North Dakota to the great promised lands of the western U.S. and Pacific Northwest. South Dakota was not on a natural route to the Far West. In any case, Sioux Falls was bypassed by the main lines of every granger road by a country mile, the closest being Great Northern’s secondary main from the road’s Twin Cities–Fargo, N.Dak., line up at Willmar, Minn., south to Sioux City, Iowa. GN did have an 18-mile branch from Garretson, S.Dak., southwest into Sioux Falls.

Despite this neglect, Sioux Falls eventually did enjoy the presence of five big Class I roads, though all came in on branch lines. In addition to GN, the others were Milwaukee Road, Rock Island, Illinois Central, and Chicago & North Western’s Omaha Road. The Omaha’s branch came west from Worthington, Minn., in 1878 and went through Sioux Falls to Mitchell, S.Dak. Milwaukee Road’s came north a year later from Sioux City, Iowa, through Canton, S.Dak., and Sioux Falls, going on to connect with an east-west branch west of Pipestone, Minn. Rock Island arrived in 1886 from Iowa Falls, Iowa, via Sibley, Iowa. GN built into Sioux Falls in 1888 and on south to Yankton, on the Missouri River, and a year later, IC came up from Cherokee, Iowa, a town on its secondary main to Sioux City.

Ultimately all five roads established stations, yards, and engine terminals in Sioux Falls, and it seemed like a thriving city from a railroad observer’s viewpoint. At least it did to a visiting 10-year-old railroad nut in the late 1940s. Why, Sioux Falls could have been Chicago! By then the Rock Island and IC were pretty much afterthoughts, but GN, Milwaukee, and the Omaha were pure delights.

The Omaha’s yard, adjacent to the handsome brick GN station, was an exhilarating experience, regularly offering 0-6-0s, 4-6-0s, and 4-6-2s. The nearby Omaha roundhouse at Weber Street was another wonderful place. GN’s engine terminal was a little farther north, but among other things it hosted marvelous Belpaire-boilered class H 4-6-2s and some rare motor cars. Milwaukee’s operations a bit closer to downtown were also truly exciting, with a tightly bounded station, yard, and engine terminal that yielded an eclectic array of 2-8-0s, 2-8-2s, 4-6-2s, and new diesels.

The Milwaukee was the clear winner in terms of passenger-train service, offering the Sioux Falls section of the 
Midwest Hiawatha, the Sioux, and the Arrow (sometimes steam-powered) on various routes from Chicago. Second was perhaps the Omaha, with two trains a day connecting with the St. Paul–Omaha main line at Worthington. In those days, these trains carried through sleepers to both St. Paul and Omaha. Off the radar screen to me (and probably most others) at the time were Great Northern locals to Watertown, Garretson, and Yankton, as well as Rock Island’s forlorn all-stops local to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and IC’s mixed train to Cherokee.

My own limited train-riding experiences to and from Sioux Falls included a fantastic cab ride in a K-1 4-6-0 on an Omaha Road freight train from my hometown of Adrian and back, thanks to an engine crew who understood a 10-year-old boy’s love of trains. More than 60 years later, that ride remains a once-in-a-lifetime memory.

Beyond that, my loving and understanding father took me on the train trip of a young lifetime, on the 
Midwest Hiawatha from Sioux Falls to Chicago. The Sioux Falls section joined the big Omaha–Chicago train at Manilla, Iowa. I was too young and dumb to understand all that, but we were on our way the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair! I only regret I was too naïve to inhale all the joys of the journey. How could you not know you were passing the Milwaukee’s Western Avenue engine terminal in Chicago, with your favorite locomotive of all time, an F6 Hudson, in full view, and miss it!

Sioux Falls remains a special place to me in many ways. Railroad-wise, the glory has passed, of course, with RI and IC rails gone. The Milwaukee now is part of a locally owned aggregates railroad, the D&I (for Dakota & Iowa), running from Dell Rapids to the north, through to Sioux City. The road’s 1940s-era passenger station of fond memory is now a bar and grill. The GN line is the only remaining Class I, still a branch of BNSF Railway. My beloved hometown Omaha Road no longer reaches Sioux Falls, but truncated portions of its now shipper-owned southwestern Minnesota line still lug grain cars to connect with BNSF at Manley, Minn.

I know of no other state’s largest city that once hosted five Class I carriers, but all on branch lines. But it matters little, for as I said, at age 10, Sioux Falls could have been Chicago!

First published in Fall 2012 Classic Trains.

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One thought on “Big town, no main lines

  1. Good article as I’ve railfannd Sioux Falls frequently as a C&NW employee and after marriage to visit my wife’s friends as she went to Nursing school there. Also, despite Rock & IC given short shrift in the article, she used IC to travel to/from Nursing (her Iowa home near LeMars, IA) This would have been “66/67. Also Rock’s beautiful depot still there (but repurposed) as well as GN’s. Good frt ops to @ packing plant, etc.

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