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Small town railroading in the early 1950s

By | May 2, 2014

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Corning, Iowa, is a small town that was served by the former Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s main line. This view looking east shows the wide curves that allowed the Zephyrs to speed through town at 80 mph. The crossovers helped the local freight do its switching.
Henry McCord photo
For many years small towns were a major source of traffic for railroads all across the country. Long before anyone ever heard of freeways, the railroads moved all sorts of carload and less-than-carload lot (LCL) freight that kept the local businesses and nearby agricultural economy going.

A local station agent-operator was the railroad’s representative who worked in the station. As the title implies, a small town agent-operator usually wore two hats. As an “agent,” he took care of the company’s financial business, selling tickets, arranging freight and express shipments, billing the customers, receiving payments, making bank deposits, and maintaining financial records. The “operator” (originally known as a telegrapher or telegraph operator) handled the operating paperwork related to train movements for the dispatcher. In busy locations, this job was often separated into two positions.

Corning, Iowa is a small town located on the former Chicago, Burlington & Quincy’s main line between Chicago and Denver. In railroad terms, it’s on the Creston Division at milepost 413 east of Omaha, Neb. According to a 1955 CB&Q employee timetable, this portion of the main line was double track, with a passenger speed limit of 79 mph and a freight maximum of 50 mph. The photo above, taken in the early 1950s, captured many typical features.

The depot was located on the south side of the tracks with a short passenger platform on the north side. According to the timetable, 16 first-class passenger trains passed through Corning daily, but only two had potential stops. It’s interesting to note that the night train had a scheduled stop when the depot was closed, but the daytime train had a conditional stop while the depot was open and the agent was present to flag the train for passengers.

In this double-track territory, CB&Q trains operated on the right-hand track following timetable and train order rules. Automatic block signals helped maintain the spacing between trains. One of these automatic block signals is just beyond of the east crossover. The eastbound and westbound train order signals (semaphores) are located on each side of the main tracks.

A double-ended siding diverges to the left from the westbound main. A derail with an angled safety rail is just beyond the switch. A pair of stockcars are spotted at a small stockyard, with an oil distributor just beyond. The far end of the track has a couple of gondolas with a pile of ties alongside. Crossovers were located at each end of the depot area. With appropriate permission from the dispatcher, a local freight could run around cars, or use the opposite main track to clear a scheduled train on this busy route.

A second double-ended siding loops behind the depot to serve as a team track where trucks can handle small shipments. An unloading platform was provided adjacent to the grade crossing.

The Red Star Mills elevator looks like it was one of the town’s largest customers. A driveway passes beneath the delivery canopy, while a loading spout angles down to load boxcars spotted on the adjacent team track.

The timetable also notes that Corning had another important feature that isn’t in the photo. It had a siding, 132 cars long, between the main lines in the straightaway just west of town. Manually operated turnouts at both ends allowed trains to enter this middle siding from either end “as the way is seen to be clear.” Then spring switches at the opposite ends allowed a train to depart from the passing siding and return to its proper main line without stopping.

Agency work. The agent regularly contacted his customers to inform them of arriving loads and gather orders for empty cars. He also inspected any empties that had been released by a customer and filled out a car condition report. He called his car orders in to a car distributor at a nearby yard so an appropriate car would be reassigned or sent out in the next day’s local freight. Later on, the agent made up a switch list so the local’s conductor would know what work needed to be done in town.

Meanwhile, he checked on any outbound loaded cars, closed the doors, applied the door seals, and prepared the waybills and other paperwork needed to get the cars picked up and on their way.

In short, the small town agents were the railroad’s primary salesmen. A good one was a major asset to the company and his customers, but someone who didn’t care usually didn’t last long.

For more information on modeling this era, see Model Railroader’s special issue How To Model Railroads of the 1950s

8 thoughts on “Small town railroading in the early 1950s

  1. Enjoyed this article very much. It is the type of theme that I am building into my layout. Thanks for shareing.

  2. In the article it states "(the Agent) inspected any empties that had been released by a customer" and "he checked on any outbound loaded cars, closed the doors, applied the door seals," My question is where did he perform these chores? Did he go over to the customers or did he wait for the cars to be pulled by the local? I agree with Gerry Baldwin, a track plan would have helped this article. Good article. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Agree … would love to see a track plan for this. It looks like the oil dealership, the stock yard, and possibly another industry share one double ended siding. It seems like that would be a switching pain.

  4. Interesting photo, but I think the compass directions are incorrect. Looking at Corning in Google maps, the track curves the wrong way if the photographer is facing east. Looking west in street view from the overpass, the track curves to the left as in the photo and the Red Star Mil is still on the right. It’s hard to see unless you move a little south on the overpass, but from the corner of Adams and 5th it looks to be the same building.

  5. Agent would inspect the loaded contents in the car, close and seal the doors at the customers location. Then go to the station and complete the paperwork before the local arrived. Same on released cars, he would inspect the empty for dunage, shipper is suppose to clean out car, or damage before releasing the car back into service

    I would like to see more articles like this showing line of road industries and descriptions.

    Pete Silcox

  6. I think if you alter the early 50’s “modernity” of a couple of the buildings and vehicles you could easily place this scene in the early 20th century.

  7. Dave – I disagree. The captions must be correct. Look at the shadows of the truck and poles. They would point to roughly North, making the photographer face East. As to Google Maps, Red Star Mills/Feed is still on the South Side of the Tracks. The Quincy St. bridge appears to have been built/rebuilt since the 1950’s and the bridge the photographer was on is probably long gone. Finally as to the curve, when the double track mainline and adjacent sidings were removed, the single track main was likely straightened out through here eliminating/minimizing the curve.

    Otherwise, cool article on small town traffic. There are a lot of modeling ideas here.

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