Follow the Flag A History of the Wabash Railroad Company by H Roger Grant
Follow the Flag A History of the Wabash Railroad Company by H Roger Grant
Follow the Flag A History of the Wabash Railroad Company by H Roger Grant
Follow the Flag A History of the Wabash Railroad Company by H Roger Grant
Follow the Flag A History of the Wabash Railroad Company by H Roger Grant
Follow the Flag A History of the Wabash Railroad Company by H Roger Grant

Follow the Flag A History of the Wabash Railroad Company by H Roger Grant

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Follow the Flag A History of the Wabash Railroad Company by H Roger Grant
Follow the Flag A History of the Wabash Railroad Company by H Roger Grant
Hard cover with Dust Jacket
Copyright 2004
291 Pages  
OneThe Wabash Emerges East of the Mississippi River3
Two-The Wabash Emerges West of the Mississippi River28
ThreeThe Jay Gould Years51
Four-The Wabash Matures76
Five-"Follow the Flag"109
SixReorganization, War, Boom and Bust133
SevenDepression, Rebirth and World War II164
EightThe New Wabash191
Nine-A Fallen Flag228

I have long found it amazing that the Wabash Railroad has never been the subject of a serious book-length study. Here was a company that from the 1880s to the 1960s operated between some of America's largest cities: Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, St. Louis and Omaha. As such, the Wabash occupied a unique position by running east and west of both Chicago and St. Louis, the nation's two principal rail terminals. Yet I do not mean to suggest that this strategic railroad has been completely overlooked. However, for more than fifty years the focus of railfan publications has been pictorial and not textual. In the early 1960s, though, a longtime Wabash employee, J. Orville Spreen, wrote several publishers, asking them whether they would be interested in a history of a "prominent mid-western railroad." Unfortunately, Spreen's project withered, yet fortunately his extensive research materials later were deposited with the Western Historical Manuscript Collection at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His papers constitute the largest single holdings of diverse Wabash items.
Historians have missed a golden opportunity to explore a major American railroad. The Wabash developed into a significant interregional carrier, contributing mightily to the development of its multistate service territory and becoming an important player in the industry. Even though the company descended into several lengthy bankruptcies, it never sank to the status of a truly woebegone property or the butt of cruel and tasteless jokes. It would not be farfetched to argue that the Wabash is a highly representative American railroad. The company grew out of antebellum efforts by state governments to shatter the tyranny of isolation with the iron horse. Although the particular experience of the Northern Cross Railroad, the first unit of the Wabash, ended unhappily for Illinois taxpayers in the 1840s, other segments appeared during the next several decades and encountered better fates.
It would be Jay Gould, a giant of nineteenth century railroading, who in the 1880s assembled the modern Wabash system. Although Gould encountered difficulties, and the Wabash did not always prosper, this skilled capitalist had the good sense to see that this carrier entered strategic railroad centers, including Chicago and Omaha, which ultimately provided strength. Unlike some contemporary roads, the Wabash was much more stem than branch and twig and certainly did not run from "nowhere to nowhere in particular." The company not only was an active participant in the era of system building, it entered the twentieth century in an optimistic and expansive mood. Management endeavored to make the railroad an attractive avenue for people and goods and told the public that it was wise to "Follow the Flag." The road participated fully in what business historian Albro Martin has aptly called the second building of American railroads. Unfortunately, George Gould, Jay Gould's son and principal heir to his vast transportation and communication empire, lacked the talents of his father. As a result, the Wabash suffered, most of all from a costly building foray into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Despite the setback, the property reorganized and pushed ahead, but with repeated challenges. Neither the industry nor the Wabash was immune from the sting of harsh progressive era regulatory statutes; intermodal competition, first from electric interurbans and then motor vehicles, particularly automobiles; two disruptive wars and several severe economic downswings; and later the albatross of archaic labor work rules. After World War II, the Wabash coped reasonably well with its problems and rightly considered itself to be one of America's better railroads. It dieselized and adopted other replacement technologies that brought about much-needed trimming of costs and enhanced efficiencies. The company prospered and gained acclaim for its sleek streamliners and its dependable and often fast "Red Ball" freight trains. Then the Wabash became a "fallen flag." As railroad consolidations intensified, the company fortuitously entered the orbit of the Norfolk & Western Railway, a prosperous and determined carrier. Differing from some neighbors, the twilight years of the Wabash were not dominated by corporate instability, bankruptcy and economic heartache.
Authors usually have personal stories to explain why they selected their topics. I am no exception. I enjoy working on railroad company histories, especially their human dimensions. I found the personal side of the Wabash exceedingly fascinating, especially its network of company hospitals and the shopmen's strike of 1922. Creating a well-researched and readable book that appeals to an audience that is both professional and popular provides me with enormous satisfaction. Moreover, I like carriers that I can visualize. I certainly can do this with portions of the Wabash. It was one of three steam roads that once served my hometown of Albia, a small county seat in southern Iowa. I must admit that the Wabash locally lacked the pizzazz and the majesty of the Burlington Route, with its Zephyr streamliners, yet it was a reliable carrier with a punctual early morning and late evening passenger run that provided me with some memorable train-watching moments. I can still recall those big, black 2-8-2's Wabash steam locomotives and, later, the brightly painted blue and white diesels that powered the daily single freights as they snaked through town. I often watched the train that came up "from the South" with a string of forty or fifty cars that its crew would leave for the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway (M&StL). An hour or so later this important interchange partner would take these freight cars to the Twin Cities and other points north. And daily the reverse pattern occurred; the M&StL always left a substantial train for the Wabash to handle southbound for Kansas City, St. Louis and other destinations. There was always that mid-morning and late-afternoon banging and clanking of couplers and repeated whistling, indicating that the Wabash freight had either arrived or would soon leave town.
The Wabash has disappeared as a corporation, along with much of the trackage that I once knew. Portions of the "Good Ole Wabash," however, remain in active service, providing valuable arteries for modern freight commerce between Kansas City, St. Louis and Detroit. For decades, this railroad loomed large in the lives of thousands of Americans, and my book may keep alive some aspects of its rich past.

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