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Kindnesses on the Omaha Road

Everyday railroaders helped a small-town boy become a lifelong railfan
Omaha Road 4-6-2 No. 500 departs Minneapolis with a train for Superior, Wis., in August 1950.
Bob Borcherding
At nearly 70 years of age, I am still enthralled at the passage of trains. Today’s trains—often featuring high-horsepower diesel locomotives, radio-controlled helpers, rotary-dump coal cars by the unit-trainload, and containers carrying products from halfway around the world—bear little resemblance to those of my childhood experiences which solidified my fascination with railroading.

However, as I reflect on this, the common denominator seems to be massiveness and purpose. The size, power, and determined forward progress of trains (most of the time) appears today to be about the same as it did in 1947 to a young boy of 9. I grew up many miles from big-time railroading—in Adrian, Minn., on the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha (the “Omaha Road,” a semi-autonomous Chicago & North Western subsidiary) branch line from Worthington, Minn., to Sioux Falls and Mitchell, S.Dak.

In the late 1940s, this branch saw a daily Worthington-Sioux Falls way freight turn, plus occasional extras. In addition, there were two daily passenger trains, one of which carried a Sioux Falls–Minneapolis sleeper connecting with the overnight Omaha–Twin Cities
Nightingale at Worthington. While these may have not been as well known as the 20th Century or Super Chief, their passage will remain forever in my childhood memory.

Most freight trains through Adrian were powered by Omaha class I-1 or K-1 4-6-0s, while the passenger trains were usually drawn by the magnificently proportioned I-2 or K-2 4-6-2s. (The Omaha was unusual in employing locomotive class designations that sometimes used the number—rather than the letter—to identify the wheel arrangement.) Those trains were wonderful, but it was the Omaha’s people that really crystallized my fascination with railroading. These were the enginemen of those locals who responded to a small-town boy who tried to meet most of their trains when school or paper route didn’t interfere.

I got to know most of those Worthington-based crews, and especially a wonderful, grandfatherly engineer named Ed Miller. Ed occasionally invited me into the cab of those I-1 and K-1 Ten-Wheelers while the way freight switched the local grain elevator.

The engine crews offered those wondrous cab rides over the strenuous objections of the depot agent, who (quite properly) took the position that railroad yards were off-limits to a 10-year-old. However, to my delight, the engine crews maintained that the locomotive cabs were their domain, not the agent’s, and simply suggested that I exit the cab on the opposite side of the depot when they left town! By the time the departing train cleared the depot, I had hightailed it to a location well out of sight of the agent. In later years I became a good friend of the by-then-retired depot agent, and we would laugh about our little “cat-and-mouse” game. 

The local switching cab rides eventually evolved into a magical 1948 trip on the engine of the way freight all the way to Sioux Falls and return, including lunch at the local eatery with the crew while the Ten-Wheeler was turned and serviced at the Weber Street roundhouse. Later, there was an exhilarating ride in the cab of a majestic K-2 Pacific to Luverne, Minn., on the afternoon passenger train, and, on one occasion, in the cab of one of the Omaha’s deafeningly loud gas-electric cars. In each instance, my loving and understanding mother retrieved her soot-faced but happy boy as he exited the cab. Boyhood never got better than that—I was truly in “high clover.”

About the time I entered high school, Ed Miller died of a heart attack trying to extricate his train from a typical southwestern Minnesota snowdrift on the Omaha’s Heron Lake–Pipestone branch. I’m sure I was the only non-family 14-year-old with tears in his eyes at Ed’s funeral in Worthington that day—but Ed surely knew why. Thank you, Ed Miller, for the joy you brought to my life.

First published in Summer 2007 Classic Trains magazine.

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