The Chadron Railroad
With a little help from dedicated lovers of the locomotive, the 'engine that could' is getting Chadron Railroad back on track.
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Doyle saw a sunrise possible for the empty Chadron roundhouse as well as the railyard leased to Nebkota Railroad, which was owned by statewide grains dealer West Plains Grain.
Progress stalled until Doyle formed an alliance with the farmer from Alliance. Soon, a four-member investment group was assembled, including Doyle’s brother, Pat, a longtime locomotive engineer. George LaPray, a local railroad executive at Nebkota, also was on board and would become vice president of administration. The group’s railroad dreams became reality with the purchase of the Chadron western line – including 7.5 miles of track along with the roundhouse and railyard – from Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad in December of 2009.
The team recruited Nebkota’s general manager, Roy Fitzgibbon, a lifelong Chadron resident whom Doyle first hired at C&NW in 1973. When the railroad left town in 1993, the workers hopped off the Chadron ride to find other jobs in the industry. Everybody but “Fitz.” He grew up here, where his father was the popular registrar at the college, and Fitz was going to stay working on the Chadron railroad even if he had to push the trains himself.
“He was the last man standing after everyone else pulled out,” Doyle said.
With Fitz on board, the momentum kept rolling, but a growing eyesore blocked railroad operations. It was a shock for Doyle, who decades ago remembered how his workers prided themselves on not allowing a single weed into Chadron Yard.
“When I was down there I was up to my knees in weeds,” Doyle said. “It was unsafe as well as unsightly.”
“That whole piece of railroad had just suffered from absolutely no maintenance for 30 or 40 years,” Nielsen said. “It’s a lot like a farm. A farm has to be tended to every day. We fundamentally had two objectives: One, was to maintain the rail markets for wheat; and two, was to make sure the railroad was not torn up.”
The wheat market has yet to get on board for the railroad, but the other mission to save the Chadron railroad seems to be on track. The “Little Engine That Could” picked up speed when Doyle printed a sign in town delivering the NNW message. The sign had a picture an old steam engine next to one of NNW’s trio of locomotives, and the inspiring slogan: “Preserving Our Past. Building On Our Future.”
JUST FOUR MONTHS after the company began, plans to preserve and protect moved forward as Doyle’s years of government experience helped NNW navigate through federal red tape to secure that $6.2 million grant in 2011. Nebraska Northwestern got $4.9 million from the Department of Transportation and funded the remaining 20 percent of the costs through investors for the project to replace track and ties, and repair bridges.
“We’re the envy of just about every short line in the country,” Doyle said. “We were in business for less than a year, applied for a grant, and got awarded $6.2 million.”
“It was kind of dead back then when we took it over and now we have trains running every day,” Fitzgibbon said. “Yes there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
“It’s fun to see activity back at the railroad and see people in the yard,” said Colette Fernandez, Chadron’s Chamber of Commerce director. “It had been vacant, kind of abandoned. It feels good to have the roundhouse back open and the locomotives going out to get the cars that they need to work on.”
Fitzgibbon says Nebraska Northwestern has already replaced 5 miles of track, put in 7 miles of new ties, and continues to repair 20 bridges. Fitzgibbon is used to towering tasks. He once hovered in a crane above the 140-foot-high Valentine Railroad Bridge while helping his crew repair each tie across the tracks of the state’s tallest railroad bridge.
“He pretty much single-handedly rebuilt that railroad for us,” Doyle said. “When Roy retires, it’s going to take four people to replace him.”
The ride started out bumpy with some local critics upset that NNW got the federal grant. City Manager Wayne Anderson appreciates the local jobs and positive economic impact NNW is delivering for the community.
“Not everyone has the same vision or the ability to see things as they can be,” Anderson said. “I think they had a hard start in town here, but they’re committed to the project and to see it through.
“It has been a boon to the community and I think people are really starting to see that,” Anderson added. “The track was going bad and they’ve fixed that. We’ve got a rail service into a small community, and that’s almost becoming nonexistent in the state.”
Mayor Karin Fischer also is quite happy the group brought Chadron a slice of that federal stimulus pie.
“There are few communities that got money and for us to be one of them was, I thought, a huge plus,” she said. “Some people may continue to be unhappy with the situation for one reason or another, so it’s a little early to tell where were going with this. I know they have good intentions. There’s a lot of potential there. Sometimes that may not be realized, but our hope is that it will be realized.”
Although he still hopes the train business for wheat will begin to grow, Nielsen is more upbeat over the economic potential for storing train cars until the coal market picks up steam.
“Our yard is full of cars,” Nielsen said. “We’ve had as many as over 700 cars in the yard, which is really jamming it. The trains are moving every day. There are days that we have all of the traffic that we can handle. We simply couldn’t put another train on there if we had to.”
For Doyle, he still loves seeing those sunrises and sunsets, and there is one sound above all that is music to his ears in Chadron.
“When I go down there and hear a train whistling through town,” Doyle said.
And echoing on in the distance is that determined NNW refrain: I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.
(This story originally appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)