Father Burlington and his child, McCook

Monday, April 21, 2014
Marion McClelland, from MHS Yearbook

Note: Harry Culbertson, a long-time railroad man in the early days of the last century wrote extensively about the railroad coming west in the 1880s and '90s and its effect on the development of McCook. Much of the material about the railroad in those early days in Marion McClelland's Master's Thesis book, "Early History of McCook, Nebraska" is taken from Mr. Culbertson's early works.

By the 1890s, McCook was well established as a division point on the Burlington Line between Omaha and Denver. The railroad was responsible for a great deal of the population and payroll for the new little city. The real Estate arm of the Railroad, Lincoln Land Co., had laid out the new city and largely determined which way the city would grow, through the sale of building lots. McCook had weathered a crippling strike by Burlington Engineers in the late 1880s, and along with the railroad, McCook citizens were looking forward with great enthusiasm to a rosy, prosperous, future.

Between May 25 1882, when the first residential and commercial lots went on sales (at a price of from $40 to $1,500), and July 1, 1882, more than 100 new buildings ("of good quality") were in the process of being built in McCook. There were three banks, two hardware shops, three grocery stores, three general merchandise stores, one clothing store, one meat market, three hotels, three lumber yards, two drug stores, one furniture store, one shoe shop, one printing house, two real estate offices, and one jewelry store.

At the same time, the railroad was also busy building. The heart of the railroad's McCook operation was a new, 25-stall roundhouse, where a small army of mechanics worked to keep the trains rolling. But there was also something for the traveling public to admire. A new, red, two story depot was in the works. The lower level would serve as a waiting room, express and baggage room, warehouse, and ticket office. The upper floor was for the division offices and the telegraph office. Since all trains, both passenger and freight, changed crews in McCook, an eating house was built across the street from the depot. Trains traveling west of Chicago did not carry a dining car at that time, so passenger trains passing through at meal times stopped in McCook for 20 minutes, giving the passengers time to eat. The ground floor of the eating house housed the kitchen and the dining room. The second floor of the building had rooms for the train men who laid over between runs.

In those early years, there were two westbound and two eastbound trains each day, carrying about four cars each. The arrival of a train was a big event and townspeople would meet the trains, and stay until the train departed. The cars were painted light yellow and the locomotive was quite small, but with an enormous smoke stack. Each of the cars was equipped with hand brakes, located at the platform of each car. Setting these brakes required the strength of both the conductor and the brakeman to operate, slowing the train into the station.

(In 1884, the first Burlington train to be equipped with the "new air brakes" passed through McCook on a demonstration run to show off the new invention. One passenger on this train was George Westinghouse, the inventor of the air brakes, which invention is generally regarded as one of the most important of rail travel safety inventions.)

In 1893, 516 McCook men were employed by the passenger and freight departments of the railroad, and their collective monthly pay amounted to more than $22,000.

Not counting the main line through McCook, there were over five miles of track in the McCook rail yard, employing some 23 yard men. For the year, 1893, there were 29,000 cars of freight, in or out, handled by the McCook crews. These cars represented a wide array of products: Shipments from McCook, included broom corn, flour, wheat, flax, corn, oats, rye, cattle, and hogs. Shipments into McCook included: coal, lumber, implements, barb-wire, lime, beer, furniture, salt, oil, flour (10 times the amount of flour exported), apples, stone, canned goods, immigrants, and general merchandise.

Though the railroad had actively worked to bring immigrants to the McCook area since the 1870s, by the '90s it had perfected its methods and opened an extensive campaign to attract settlers to our region by flooding the U.S., Canada, and Europe with thousands of pamphlets, printed in German, French, Welsh, Bohemian, Norwegian, and Swedish, as well as English.

The railroad recruited more than 100 agents to get out the story of the new frontier -- Nebraska. These men worked mainly east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River in the United States -- but also, foreign offices were opened abroad -- in Germany, England, Scotland, and Sweden as well. Father Burlington was careful to see that crop samples from the rich soils of eastern Nebraska were prominently displayed at agricultural fairs in the U.S. and abroad.

The railroad did such a thorough job of promotion that by the 1880s the main stream of immigrants coming from the East to Nebraska had been diverted from the old immigrant highway along the Platte, in the 1870s, to lands in southern Nebraska, on either side of the Burlington and Missouri Railroad line.

In the 1890s, the Burlington & Missouri Railroad greatly enlarged the (already impressive) Burlington shops in McCook. The plan was that the McCook shops would be able to do all rail repair work, short of general rebuilding of a locomotive -- this work was to be done exclusively the shops at Havelock, a suburb of Lincoln. To enable these changes, the McCook shops were equipped with wheel mounting machinery, a wheel press, axle lathe, boring mill, and other sophisticated machinery. McCook welcomed these improvements with open arms, as it signaled the company's need for additional (well-paid) men to operate these machines.

In 1896 the Burlington Railroad conducted a giant tour of the Republican and Beaver Valleys, for 75 or 80 land agents, venture capitalists, and reporters from the AP (Associated Press) and the UP (United Press), from Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Ohio. These fellows were guests of the CB&Q Railroad, who was determined that their guests should be properly impressed, with glowing particulars concerning this part of Nebraska.

The next year, in 1897 the railroad made a similar excursion, bringing the land agents, and probably most importantly, farmers looking for a better situation. This special train consisted of one day coach, two Pullman sleepers, and one car for railroad officials. Local land agents conducted these visitors (via carriages) to favorable settlement sites in the areas northwest and southwest of McCook. It had been an especially abundant crop year in 1897 and the agents were careful to point out the abundance of local produce. "The excursionists were astonished by the evidences of the wheat crop and corn prospects, and filled with wonder and pleasure."

"Throughout the years the history of 'Father Burlington' and the history of his 'Child McCook' went hand-in-hand and they realized they must meet the future together."

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