Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Travel Opportunities in Sutton One Hundred Years Ago

The CB&Q (Chicago, Burlington and Quincy) Railroad Depot in downtown Sutton, just west of Saunders Avenue.

The annual Clay County Field Day was held in Clay Center in 1911 on a rainy Saturday just after the end of the school year. More than 2300 spectators came to watch the day’s athletic events. Fairfield and Sutton were especially well supported by a large fan base. How did they all get to Clay Center that morning? Sutton fans arranged for a special train from Sutton to Clay Center for the day. About half of the Fairfield fans took the regular early morning passenger train to Clay Center, the rest slept in and took the 10 o’clock train.

Also that spring, my grandparents, Cecilia and Fred Johnson and Cecilia’s father, Adolph Aspegren got on one of the east bound trains in Sutton and went to Chicago to visit three of Cecilia’s brothers. Several days later Fred and Cecilia returned to Sutton on a Burlington train. Adolph stayed a few more days before coming back to Lincoln where his wife Emma met him for a day of shopping before returning to Sutton that night.

A couple of years earlier, Melchoir Figi left Sutton by train heading for Switzerland to visit his mother for a few weeks.

One of our visitors to the Sutton Museum told of riding the train from Sutton to Verona for her piano lessons. The fare was a nickel each way.

Papers in the early 1900’s frequently mentioned that local merchants left by train for St. Joseph, Kansas City, Chicago or other destinations to purchase stock for their stores for the upcoming season.

Farmers drove their cattle to the rail side stock yards west of town, loaded the animals on a rail car, climbed aboard and accompanied the cattle to Chicago for sale – “Hotel Beef” they proudly advertised their product.

Weekly Burlington ads in local newspapers told of vacation destinations in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Other adds touted eastern vacation spots.

Five trains a day, in each direction on the main Burlington route, stopped in Sutton for much of the developing years. The local route from McCool Junction to Fairfield was also operated by Burlington for much of its existence but was called, wait for it … “The Pook-Eye.” That would have been the track used in the Field Day story above. A little help here please: (1) Why was it called that? (2) Did we really call it that? And (3) is that the way you’d spell it too?

After reading these and other newspaper accounts about travel by Sutton folks one hundred years ago, it occurs to me that our grandparents and great-grandparents had more flexible travel opportunities than we have today here in Sutton.

That seems like a radical suggestion, but consider how we would replicate the Johnson – Aspegren trip to Chicago. Three people en route to Chicago could easily drive the 500 miles each way but they would probably have to all travel together both ways. Though I very much enjoy driving, many people are not so fond of it and would definitely prefer to sit back on a train.

We do have a train option today. Our three contemporary travelers could drive to Hastings any night and catch the 1:42 AM eastbound Amtrak train arriving in Chicago at 2:50 PM – not very flexible or convenient.

Most of us would probably drive to the Lincoln Airport or Omaha’s Eppley Airfield and fly to either O’Hare or Midway in Chicago. Again, our three contemporary travelers would likely have to travel together getting to the airport and in Chicago.

So, our contention here is that the 1911 rail system on the plains gave our Sutton ancestors a superior choice in travel than we have today. Assuming for a moment that the contention may be true we can ask if the situation is reparable; that is, could we regain rail service as our ancestors enjoyed a century ago?

First, let’s return to the Amtrak situation. We have a powerful economic ideology in this country that all endeavors must be profit-making. We are selective in applying that ideology, but Amtrak certainly gets hammered in this regard. There are repeated calls to de-fund, close down or otherwise limit Amtrak as it requires “government subsidies.” That call is strengthened by an unwillingness to consider broadly defined cost accounting but we don’t have time/space to go there right now. Suffice it to say, roads, bridges, air traffic controllers, airports, maintenance, etc. need to be included in the equation. In any event, passenger rail service will not likely support itself out here on the plains in the near future.

The depot baggage cart from the Sutton Depot - a prized item of the Sutton
Museum. Two immigrant trunks are on the cart. Is this the same cart as
pictured above? Could be, if the wheels were changed at some point.
If you’ll indulge a couple of personal experiences, I’ll describe what rail travel can look like. After I’d “enjoyed” eleven years of a typical thirty-mile California driving commute, the public sector initiated the ACE (Altamont Commuter Express) train paralleling my drive. (http://www.acerail.comTalk about subsidized! These $14 million trains were given to the system. The revenue from fares was only expected to provide 50% of operating expenses – salaries, fuel, track use fees, etc. Why would the government do such a thing? Answer: to preclude (at least delay) having to build another eight lane road across a mountain range (albeit, a small range, but still…). This was, and continues to be, a cost effective transportation “system.” The more congested that I-580 became, the more passengers rode the rails prompting additional trains. As they say, “Cheap at half the price,” actually far less than half.

The other personal experience comes from sixteen major and several minor train trips in Europe on trains from the Eurostar, to Regional systems to metros. The European rail infrastructure is a legitimate “Wonder of the World. European public transit systems fully meet the needs of a high percentage of residents – owning a car is less common than here and even for a car owner, the train is generally faster, more convenient, comfortable and a whole lot cheaper.

A rail system much like today’s European system seems to have been working well one hundred years ago right here in Nebraska.

This article first appeared in Sutton Life Magazine in July, 2011. For more information about this local Sutton publication visit www.suttonlifemagazine.com of contact Jarod Griess at neighborhoodlife@yahoo.com or 402-773-4203.

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