The Chadron Railroad
With a little help from dedicated lovers of the locomotive, the 'engine that could' is getting Chadron Railroad back on track.
NNW is reviving a Chadron rail industry that in the 1970s had hundreds of workers.
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(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
FOR A FEW twisted moments it may have seemed like a rolling April Fools’ Day hoax when the train chugged past downtown Chadron on April 1, 2010, on railroad tracks that had been virtually abandoned for nearly two decades.
But the locomotive had reason to whistle a happy tune. This was the opening journey for the Nebraska Northwestern Railroad, a small but dedicated band on a mission to pump new life into Chadron’s once-thriving railroad industry. The tracks seemed destined for the scrap heap months before.
After three years of moving past obstacles, NNW now handles daily railcar and equipment repairs in the landmark roundhouse it restored, and the team is rolling forward on miles of new track it laid down from a $6.2 million federal grant. The growing shortline railroad now has three of its very own locomotives as well as nine local employees. It’s also hired several more high-paid workers at its Chadron headquarters from an Alabama contractor that brings in coal trains for a growing car-repair business, and in March it was honored by the Nebraska Business Development Center during a ceremony at the state Capitol in Lincoln.
When Nebraska Northwestern was formed in 2009, its four key players were staring into a deep and dark tunnel. That massive wooden roundhouse built early in the 20th century had for many years been filled with locomotives that were repaired day and night. Suddenly, the 20-foot-tall building was empty. Its former owner, Chicago and North Western Railway, decided to close up shop in the early 1990s, and the building’s only tenants remaining were the rapidly growing weeds filling up the railyards.
The fledgling railroad was facing miles of abandoned, brokendown track it would need to travel in Dawes County. The bumpy trail stretched five miles west of Chadron to Dakota Junction and another 20 miles southwest to Crawford. Despite the awesome challenges, Nebraska Northwestern became that little engine that could.
This railroad quartet was singing out over the potential of an emerging niche market with their purchase of the rotund roundhouse that could house 13 locomotives in its stalls. There was also a large railyard to store hundreds of cars and an 80-foot-long turntable that would get the local stalled train industry reversing directions in a hurry.
These men all heard that same message of hope rolling closer and closer: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”
ONE OF THOSE guys fueled by the power of positive thinking was Nebraska Northwestern’s president and chief investor, Jack Nielsen of Alliance. He was an Army veteran and a former IBM employee with a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Nebraska who came back home to found Diamond Hill Farms, a potato- and grain-farming operation. For decades, the sound of a tractor in a field was the steady beat of his life, but trains had always been music to his ears.
As a young boy, Nielsen loved the sound of steam engines huffing and puffing through western Nebraska. He can still see himself back in high school, loading up crates of potatoes from his father’s farm onto the freight trains in Alliance. He worked four years in the railroad industry to provide extra funds to help his young farm business grow after it endured severe hail storms.
“When I first went and looked at the facility in Chadron I said to myself, ‘Somebody’s got to do something with this,’ ” Nielsen recalled. “The roundhouse was sitting there, the turntable was there. Then just looking at it you had to say, this should not be allowed to go away.”
Nielsen grew concerned in 2005 by the abandonment of 40 miles of track from Merriman to Rushville that was being sold for scrap iron. Two years later, nearly another 40 miles of track just east of Chadron was torn up and sold, derailing a popular 12-mile scenic dinner train tour. Nielsen feared the remaining 25 miles of rail in the region would soon be lost, too. There would be no light at the end of the tunnel for an agricultural industry in northwestern Nebraska that would be forced to pay higher trucking fees to move their crops, he said.
“The cheapest way to move any kind of product is steel wheels on steel rail,” Nielsen said. “Since I’m a farmer, I’m always interested in controlling transportation costs. The track from Gordon to Chadron should never have been abandoned. The people that are really paying for that abandonment now are the farmers up there because they no longer have the rail option.”
Meanwhile, in Chadron, another big thinker also believed in a little engine of hope pushing uphill. Terry Doyle grew up in Chadron and spent nearly five decades in the railroad business. He was the third generation of Doyles to work for C&NW in a railroad family that began when his grandfather stepped off the boat from Ireland in 1885 and was given a one-way ticket from New York to South Dakota with the promise of a job working on the railroad all the live-long day.
After graduating from Chadron State College in 1963, Doyle hopped aboard the family tradition of life on the rails. He quickly got on track for a career in management and saw the best of times for the Chadron railroad industry. The passenger line had halted by 1960, but the town had hundreds of railroad jobs in that golden decade to follow.
“It was bustling,” Doyle said. “There were three full shifts in the roundhouse, a car-repair shop, two yard-engine shifts, and even a Bridge and Building division. It was right at the peak, and then we saw it go downhill.”
Doyle foresaw the end of the line two years before its actual demise, and in 1991 left C&NW to start a 17-year career with the Federal Railroad Administration. When C&NW abandoned the Chadron rail line in 1993, hundreds of jobs went with it.
“It was like a mass exodus from Chadron,” said Doyle, who is now the vice president of operations at Nebraska Northwestern. “Once the railroad’s gone, it’s gone forever.” But the Chadron railroad was still a survivor, and so, too, was Doyle. In 2006, he was sitting at his grandson’s high school graduation in Gordon when he felt a lump under his chin. He had Stage 4b throat cancer.
“Ain’t no Stage 5,” he said. “I was one of the lucky ones. I never have a bad day now. I stay away from pessimistic people. I love every sunset and every sunrise.”