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The great Great Western freight encounter

A 1961 day of discovery in Waterloo, Iowa

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Depot and diesel wear different heralds, but nothing is out of the ordinary as a Chicago Great Western freight ambles past the Rock Island station in Waterloo, Iowa, in June 1961.
Richard J. Anderson
A family visit took me to Waterloo, Iowa, on a June day in 1961, but it was good ol’ railfan instinct that made me reserve some time to explore Waterloo’s points of railroad interest, camera in hand. That’s why I was at the Rock Island passenger station on the city’s west side (of the Cedar River).

A distant air horn and the roar of diesel exhaust told me a train was coming. Perhaps I would be lucky and get a shot of units still in the Rock’s original red-and-black “Rocket Freight” paint scheme. By 1961 most CRI&P diesels had been repainted in the somber, solid maroon dictated by rising costs.

Sure enough, a set of somber-colored units did appear, but they were not Rock Island’s. The slowly approaching freight coming along Bluff Street was led by Chicago Great Western locomotives.

Not knowing the city, I wondered if this was a detour move. The patient station agent enlightened me. This was a CGW freight en route from Oelwein, Iowa, to Des Moines and Kansas City. It was where it was supposed to be, on CGW trackage. I learned that the Great Western entered Waterloo on the east side. It continued southwest into town, passing over the IC yard on a bridge and then by CGW’s own Sycamore Street depot at the edge of the business district.

The line crossed IC’s downtown passenger line at grade and then spanned the Cedar River on a bridge. Once on the west side, CGW curved across Rock Island’s Manly-Burlington (Iowa) line and then ran parallel to the CRI&P for several blocks. The two tracks closest to the RI station were the Rock’s.

A timetable in my collection revealed that the Rock Island station was once known as a union depot, with trains of both carriers calling there. The February 1924 Great Western public timetable lists four trains each way, all stopping at both the union depot on the west side and the Sycamore Street station across the river.

In 1961, I was 15 years too late to see a massive 2-10-4, or any other CGW steam locomotive, possibly pulling some of the road’s homemade trailer-carrying flatcars. A visitor today, however, would be 40 years too late to see any trains at all along Bluff Street. The old CGW exists only to the northeast, up to Oelwein, as an “orphaned” Union Pacific branch, and the Iowa Northern, successor to the Rock Island through Waterloo, uses the old CGW bridge and main line, plus the Waterloo Railroad, to circumvent the center of the city around to the east and north.

I was luckier in 1961 than I realized.



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