Sunday, January 31, 2010

Sutton's War with the Burlington Railroad

The railroad was important on the prairie, probably critical to the success of every settlement that tried to become a town. Sutton’s fight to secure its railroad and a station is almost a classic tale.

The Burlington & Missouri Railroad laid its first rail in Sutton on August 12th, 1871. Mr. Wilsey, an attorney from Crete representing the railroad met with Luther French in his dugout and negotiated a contract deeding a right-of-way through town to the railroad in exchange for the promise of a Sutton depot.

The railroad parked a boxcar in Sutton and called it a depot. It was known as “124” and that number was painted on a bleached buffalo skull nailed to one end of the car.

Shortly after that, Mr. French sold his interests in Sutton to the Clark brothers. This deed was filed before the French-railroad deed voiding the agreement for the depot and apparently upsetting railroad officials.

These officials denied the existence of the town of Sutton and certainly of any station. The fact that Sutton had a number of saloons seemed troublesome too. And the claim dispute between homesteader Vroman and alleged claim jumpers, Maltby and Way was a complication as well.

In December, the railroad moved the boxcar depot with the buffalo skull to a new town 4 miles east called Grafton, site of four houses and a general store of Marthis & Robbins.
                                   
The town citizens deputized Mr. T. Weed in January, 1872 to go to Crete offering the railroad one-half of the unsold Clark, Maltby and Way eighties plus Maltby and Way threw in twenty acres of their best land for the depot: Col. Doane representing the railroad wanted two-thirds of the unsold lots and the depot land. The deal fell through.

I. N. Clark was negotiating with other railroad representatives at the same time with no better success. Winter was setting in and the settlers were dependent on the railroad for fuel and food. The town’s love-hate relationship with the railroad was well underway.

Accounts of this story often include another “issue”. Railroad officials had a “call system” in mind for naming stations alphabetically as they moved west – Ashland, Berkes, Crete, Dorchester, Exeter, Fairmont, Grafton, etc. No Sutton.

An important revenue source for the railroad was the U.S. Mails. But train crews would not stop to pick up and leave mail at Sutton as stopping would enable passengers to get off and on the train making the stop a “station”. Mail car workers and postmaster A. C. Burlingame worked out a system in which mail was thrown from the moving train and mail bags were grabbed from Burlingame’s hands. Soon Burlingame tired of this dangerous procedure and just left the mail in his post office, as was his right.

Burlingame reported all this to the Postal Department and the government ordered that the railroad was responsible for getting mail from Burlingame’s post office to their station in Grafton at a cost of $400 a year.

The railroad response was to put up a crane opposite Gray’s lumber yard expecting the postmaster to hang his mail bag so they could grab it as the train went by. A few days later the mail car worker spotted the first bag on the crane and grabbed it only to be nearly pulled from the car by the weight – of a dead dog in the bag.

Next, the railroad’s watering tank near Harvard was dry and the company offered to stop at a tank near Sutton and have the mail exchanged there. This required the Post Office to provide the mail carrier to the water tank under the rules.

Sutton settlers’ patience finally ran out. One night they took teams to Grafton where they had previously purchased every building including the general store. The next morning the train crews found just one company-owned building at the Grafton site, not even old “124”.

George Bemis memorialized that night’s work with a poem, “Grafton to Sutton”. Visit www.suttonhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com to read the poem.

Sutton got its depot in 1873. The buffalo skull from “124” was preserved by the Sheridan family. Max and Regina Leininger promised “Aunt Nellie Sheridan” that some day it would become a Sutton Artifact in a museum. You can visit the skull in the front porch at the Historic House at 309 N. Way Ave. just a few dozen yards north of where that first mail bag surprised the fellow in the mail car.

This posting first appeared as an article by Jerry Johnson in the December 2009 issue of Sutton Life Magazine, 510 West Cedar, Sutton NE 68979

1 comment:

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