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Making Tracks of Memories

By Andrew Zender

Red caboose
Courtesy of MCRHS

Preserving history keeps traditions alive; educating younger generations about their roots is the life blood of a community's past and future. Although history may exist largely in our minds, real, tangible artifacts still tell thousands of stories. When one of these artifacts is lost, we lose far more than a physical object. We lose our past, we lose who we are.

When faced with this situation, someone must step forward and direct the effort to save something so valuable. It takes a special type of enthusiastic leadership to carry out such a task; it requires a person with commitment and passion for history.

Mrs. Ann Walter of Waterville, the president of the Marshall County Railroad Historical Society (MCRHS), is committed and passionate about an old railroad that was once a central part of her community.

Under her leadership in a two-fold project, the MCRHS purchased 12 miles of historic tracks of the Central Pacific Railroad. It's just 12 miles of very old railroad tracks that go nowhere; but where they've been is a story of a town, its history and the history of a country growing fast and furiously westward.

In 1867, the Central Branch of the Union Pacific built the tracks to a piece of land that was to become Waterville. One of the oldest rails in Kansas, Waterville's railroad station was built to ship cattle that had been driven up from Texas on the Chisolm Trail. The main line stretches from Atchison to Waterville, approximately 100 miles. In 1882, the total length of lines operated by the Central Branch Union Pacific Railroad amounted to nearly 390 miles. It was these rails and other like them that helped the country claim the Great Plains and beyond.

With the primary objective of preserving railroad history of the county and Waterville/Blue Rapids area, the society was founded as a nonprofit organization. Just five years ago, the Waterville community learned that the Union Pacific had begun ripping up old railroad tracks. Walter stated that "there was a growing concern that once the rails were gone, a valuable piece of Marshall County history would vanish with it." Unwilling to allow the historic tracks to be destroyed, Mrs. Walter and the members of the society quickly took action to prevent the rails from being abandoned. With the support of local businesses, community members, U.S. and state representatives, the society was able to raise $45,000 in an astonishing seven days to purchase the track.

The MCRHS has demonstrated extraordinary devotion to the community's history through the second phase of its mission to preserve railroad history: they recently purchased an original 1925 UP caboose, and it has been renovated into a railroad museum. Now among one of the major historical attractions in northeast Kansas, the caboose museum is open to visitors and tourists for local and area wide events. The next step in the project is to restore the track to working conditions and operate an excursion train for local events. Walter said they also plan to implement educational programs so that the local public as well as visitors can learn about and appreciate railroad history in Marshall County.

The citizens of Waterville have great love for their roots. Mrs. Ann Walter and her associates have proven that with sound leadership and a well-planned course of action, a precious piece of history can be recovered, restored, and rediscovered. The railroad tracks in Waterville may only extend 12 miles, but their role in the development of our country is of much greater significance. The Marshall County Railroad Historical Society's dedication to the preservation of history can only serve as an example to all communities and should serve as a reminder to us all to remember where we came from.

 

 

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Last Updated April 6, 2009
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