I remember so vividly those hazy, seemingly endless bygone days of summer. I was a little barefoot tyke, running and playing the gravel streets about the sleepy little village where I was raised. Those days back then, those were the days of the monstrous steam locomotives, the “Iron Horses” of yesteryear. For this old codger, that was over sixty years ago now. The village was Russellville, one of the many stops along the old Missouri Pacific Bagnell Branch line. My chums and me, we’d be climbing trees or playing cowboys and Indians, when far away the familiar sound of the old train whistle would come drifting. Right then we’d turn, to scurry uptown, to the railroad depot, there to watch wide-eyed as the train came chugging through. Perhaps we’d place a penny on the rail, but mostly, we’d be there to experience that spell of magic – over and over again – the ground trembling and shaking beneath our feet, the belching and clanging, and that unforgettable smell of sulphur as the smoke swirled all around, usually engulfing us. Ahh, to this day, and in my memory do those magic moments remain. By simply closing my eyes, and after all these years, I can still hear, see, smell and feel the might and majesty of the old Iron Horse, a magic spell brought by its very presence.
The glory days of the Bagnell Branch Railroad came near the end of the nineteenth century, early into the twentieth, from 1882, when it opened, through the 1930s. Missouri Pacific Railroad finally abandoned the old line in 1962. Many folks today aren’t aware the train ever passed. Others have heard old timers tell, or can only vaguely recall those halcyon days themselves. The boom years were during the 1890s when railroad ties were in great demand, and again during the 1930s when Bagnell Dam was constructed, creating Lake of the Ozarks. Those were also the boom times for the little villages all along, including Russellville. The village of Bagnell was once known as the “Tie Capital of the World,” when huge rafts of crossties were floated down the Osage River to Bagnell. In the ‘30s, when the Osage River was impounded, that project was the largest of its kind in the world. Anyway, by the time I was old enough to recall the days of the railroad, the old Bagnell Branch was on its way out. No more daily passenger service. No more lumbering loads of ties going through. This was back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Little did I know – the times, they were a’changin’ forever. Now-a-days the only trains rolling the old Bagnell Branch line are the ghost trains of the past. Their far-off whistle – only the lingering haunt of the trailing wind.
I can also oft’ remember wondering where those rumbling old trains came from – how did they get here, where did they go? So, no doubt you won’t be surprised, that after all these years, after all this time – curiosity finally got the best of me. Ahh indeed, it’s sure time to find out. It’s time to look, to discover – it’s time to walk the old MoPac Bagnell Branch line. And so, on November 19th this year that’s exactly what some friends and me did, a three-day trek. It was lots of fun.