Springfield, its railroad and the people who keep the story alive

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Springfield’s passenger depot, presumably soon after its construction in 1926. 

Lonely and forlorn, yet full of history and promise, the train whistle has accompanied an untold number of people and goods to Springfield since the first locomotive rolled through in 1873.

Max Jahn, one of the driving forces behind Springfield’s Railroad Historical Museum, is pictured in May 2015.

One of those people was Max Jahn. The year was 1951 when he moved from St. Louis to the Ozarks with the St. Louis-San Francisco Railway, affectionately known as the Frisco. “A job came open in the diesel shop over here on Kansas Avenue yard for a clerk secretary to the master mechanic,” says Max, who was asked if he’d like the position. “I didn’t know what the wife would think about this, moving her and the kids, because she was from St. Louis. So we talked it over and she said, ‘Well, yeah, we need a change.’ So that’s when we moved to Springfield and I took that job.”

Max actually began his career with the railroad three years earlier. He was hired as a call boy – a job that today is simply referred to as a caller. “Now you’ve got girls doing it, so they can’t call it the other,” he says with a chuckle.

As a call boy, it was Max’s responsibility to get the crew – generally consisting of a conductor, engineer, fireman and brakeman – to the station. “’Call ‘em’ means you call ‘em to work,” he says. But these calls weren’t done on the phone. “You had a mile radius that you had to walk. Some of them had phones but they still made you walk after them.”

Postcard perusing: the Frisco in Springfield 

It was during the early days of that job when one of Max’s strongest railroad memories occurred. “I was breaking in, which was learning your job,” says Max, who notes that such experience wasn’t paid back then. “You had to break in on your own time.”

His shifts were from midnight to 8 a.m., and one particular morning he went out to call a five-man crew who soon left on a train. “About 2 or 3 a.m. we got a call there at the yard that that train had gone in the river,” he recalls. The bridge had washed out, catapulting the train off the track. Max rode out to the site of the accident with a foreman who asked if he’d like to go with him to check out the situation.

The trip wasn’t a fun one. All three men up front – the engineer, fireman and the head brakeman – were killed in the accident. “With an engine like that, you didn’t survive those back then,” says Max. “Diesels, they survive some of those. But not with a steam engine. You got scalded to death, usually, because that fire and everything. I always felt, in the back of my mind, how happy everybody was before that and all of a sudden…

“It kind of hurts you.”

Of course, Max has good memories of the railroad as well. And today, at nearly 86 years old, he’s still one of the leading members of Springfield’s railroad community. On most Saturdays in summertime, he can be found at the Railroad History Museum at Grant Beach Park, teaching visitors about the railroad in his own special way. As he notices a family walking in front of the train’s crossing signal, he silently pushes a button on a small remote control in his hand. The sirens go off, halting the visitors in their tracks. “They think they’re doing it,” says Max, a mischievous smile on his face.

Springfield’s Railroad Historical Museum 

But then he gets back to his story.

Before getting the secretary job in Springfield, Max was required to further his education. “I went to business college at night to learn shorthand before I came here,” says Max. “That was part of the deal.”

After that first position in Springfield, Max was promoted several times before landing his final job as a water and fuel engineer. Looking back, Max says this job was his favorite. “I was pretty much my own boss and got to see parts of the country I would’ve never got to see on my own,” he says. “You know, it was paid for. It was interesting and I learned a lot about the United States and about other railroads.”

Max retired in 1985, but he never really got out of the business. It was around that same time that he became heavily involved in the railroad museum, and he’s been there ever since. Today, he serves as president of the local chapter of the National Association of Railroad Referees (NARR), as well as the museum’s secretary-treasurer. He and a group of approximately 15 volunteers – many of who he worked with on the railroad – staff the museum, which draws young and old alike on Saturdays from May to October. “Once they see it, they just can’t believe it,” says Max. “It’s amazing how many people don’t even know it’s here. (They) live in Springfield and have lived here for years, and they don’t even know we’ve got a museum.”

The Frisco and Springfield 

Volunteer Tom Buyan explains parts of the locomotive to some of the museum’s young visitors.

In the past, Springfield was smaller – and the railroad was much larger. “Springfield was the main hub for the Frisco Railroad,” says Tom Buyan, a retired locomotive engineer who worked with the Frisco and its subsequent names for 38 years. Today, he’s a volunteer at the museum and says he loves the connection it provides. “(It) keeps things alive and lets younger generations know how things really worked.”

When asked about how the railroad impacted Springfield’s past, Tom points to the vast number of people involved. “It was difficult to run through Springfield and not meet somebody that didn’t know somebody or have a relative or a friend that worked on the railroad,” he says. “Back then, it was the (city’s) largest employer.”

Tom also voices his belief that the railroad really “made” Springfield, especially in its early days. “I think that Springfield would not have the notoriety that it has today if the railroad had not been here,” he says. “If you look back at history, this whole north part, there was no rail service.” With the Frisco’s arrival, however, Springfield instantly connected with the rest of the country. Places such as Dallas, Kansas City and even Birmingham were suddenly only a train ride away.

The railroad’s presence not only helped Springfield with regard to industry – it also increased the town’s population. “People not only in Springfield worked for the Frisco railroad, but there were people who came from other locations,” says Tom. It often turned into a family affair, with sons of railroad employees jumping into the family business as Tom did. He’s seen firsthand how crucial the local railroad was during World War II, as his father was given a deferment from military service because his job with the railroad was vital to the war effort.

In fact, it could be said that Springfield itself was crucial part of the Home Front’s efforts. “During WWII, between Springfield and St. Louis was the busiest single line railroad in the country,” he says, listing the troop trains, oil trains and trains carrying merchandise and other war materials to the East Coast. “It was unflipping believable.”

Frisco hospitalThe railroad was also beneficial to the people at home. “It was just a proud thing to work for (them),” says Max, who says that the salary rate, insurance and hospitalization were substantial benefits. The Frisco even operated a hospital for its employees from 1899 to 1922. It was such as great place to work that when employees were laid off (a term which, according to Max, originated with the railroad), many simply took part-time jobs while waiting to be rehired. “The minute the railroad called them back, they jumped at it,” he says.

Most of the railroad’s local construction occurred in the early 20th century. The railroad’s headquarters were in Springfield, and were housed in the Frisco Office Building at the corner of Jefferson and Olive Streets. Later, the Frisco Building was constructed near Chestnut Expressway and Highway 65. North, South and West shops offered regular and scheduled maintenance to trains, employing vast numbers of people. “They’d come in 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, regular service,” says Max. “Some of ‘em were just overnight. But major (repairs) would take weeks.”

Gradually, however, things began to change. The North and South shops disappeared in the 1950s as steam trains were replaced with diesel engines. In 1950, the developments spurred the West shop’s conversion into a diesel shop, which was the largest on the railroad’s line and handled all of the Frisco’s major locomotive repairs. It was closed in 1996 and has since been removed. Passenger travel ceased in the late 1960s, and the last depot was torn down (to the dismay of many) in the early morning hours of a Sunday in 1971. “I can still remember, just like it were yesterday, the cigar smoke of the depot,” says Tom, who also recalls eating at the depot’s Harvey House restaurant and waiting for his father to come in on the passenger train from St. Louis. Between 1980 and 1981, the Frisco merged with the Burlington-Northern Railroad, beginning a new chapter in Springfield’s railroad history.

Besides the office building at Chestnut and Highway 65, basically all that remains of railroad in Springfield is a crew change point under the Kansas Avenue viaduct. “Most of the engines are just in and out now,” says Max. “They just run ‘em in there, service ‘em and give ‘em all the supplies they need and that’s it.”

But the railroad hasn’t disappeared. “It’s still a focal point,” says Tom, noting that trains are from other places such as Wyoming, Kansas City, Thayer, Memphis and down to Tulsa and Birmingham still regularly run through the city. The focus is just a bit different. “It’s still a vital portion, but the coal business is the big deal in Springfield, Missouri.”

Want to learn more?
Springfield’s Railroad History Museum (1300 N. Grant St., Springfield) is open every Saturday, May through October, from 2 to 4 p.m. Entrance is free, although donations are accepted. The museum contains a locomotive, baggage car, commuter car, caboose, chock full with railroad memorabilia, books, articles and photos. In 2016, a 1800s-inspired depot will be added for visitors to see and learn from. For more information about the museum, call 417-865-6829 or connect online or via Facebook.