Column: Getting from here to there and back by train

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 27, 2006

Ed Shannon, Tribune feature writer

February is transportation month for Albert Lea’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. With this in mind, here’s a factor about railroad trains the younger generations may not quite comprehend. It’s based on the fact that there was a long period of time from over a century ago and up to the Korean War era when folks could travel just about anywhere in the nation on passenger trains.

During those days when roadways were unpaved, the automobiles were crude machines on wheels, and airlines were a future dream, the only logical and most

comfortable way to travel was on trains. Thus, a person could get on a passenger car at the railroad depot in Wells, Alden, Ellendale, and even Conger and travel to Albert Lea. At one of the three depots in Albert Lea a person could get on a train and travel to New Orleans, Los Angeles, Seattle, Denver, Quebec City, Chicago, New York City and even Miami.

Riding the rails for folks with tickets was based on coach cars like those shown in

films based on the olden days. A better class of accommodations were in the Pullman cars; those with compartments and overnight sleeping facilities based on bunk beds.

Also, many of those passenger trains had special dining cars. And in later years of rail travel there were fast moving luxury passenger trains sometimes called streamliners. A local example was the Rock Island Rocket which used to be one of Albert Lea’s rail links with the rest of the nation.

During this phase of our nation’s transportation history, travel by train to just about any locality was possible on passenger trains. Yet, this travel could involve riding on several railroads, some degrees of discomfort, layovers at depots between trains, and going on obscure branch rail lines to the desired destinations. Thus, folks could come into Albert Lea on a Rock Island train, then ride on a Milwaukee train to either Freeborn or Waldorf.

Now buses and aircraft serve as the prime links between the larger localities. The smaller communities which used to be on railroad

branch lines have to now rely on cars and trucks as their transportation connections with the rest of the nation.

Today, one could assume the railroads are just transporting coal from the mines to the power plants, and grain from the elevators to the final destinations. In reality, our nation’s railroads were for many decades responsible for conveying people, most of the freight, and even the mail from place to place. And the first two factors became even more important during the times of war.

The use of railroads for military purposes started during the Civil War and continued with

the Spanish-American War, became very important during World War I, really intensified in the World War II era, and continued on through the Korean and Vietnam Wars and even up to the present conflicts.

During wartime the railroads were used for moving troops and equipment from place to place and to the ports of embarkation for overseas destinations.

Right about here could come a very logical question. Why did this form of transportation between communities almost fade away?

One logical answer is to be found with the paved roadways, interstate highways, and at the large airports.

Another often overlooked answer is based on the belief by all too many railroad firms that passenger trains were money-losing ventures. The real profits, they felt, were based on the freight business. Adding to all this was poor service with both aspects of the rail business. And as many Albert Lea residents in the past have observed, the conditions of the railroad trackage and equipment has certainly emphasized these factors.

There will be more information about the importance of railroads here in Albert Lea in the next issue of the Sesquicentennial Edition of the Tribune which is based on the February theme of transportation.

(Tribune Feature Writer Ed Shannon’s columns run Friday.)