Author tracks history of Columbia-to-Centralia rail line

Monday, April 30, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:54 a.m. CDT, Monday, April 30, 2012
Marty Paten stands Thursday on the Columbia Branch Railroad where it connects to the Norfolk Southern main line that runs from St. Louis to Moberly. Paten wrote a book on the Columbia Branch Railroad, which runs from Columbia to Centralia, that he hopes to publish in the near future.

COLUMBIA — Silhouetted against the falling sun, Marty Paten stood between the tracks in Centralia at the switch where the railroad to Columbia begins curving away from the mainline. 

"This would be the beginning," Paten said.

Then and Now

The railroad between Columbia and Centralia was initially 21.7 miles long. For much of its history, it was owned and operated by Wabash Railroad, author and historian Marty Paten said. The railroad carted cargo and carried passengers, many of whom were students going to college in Columbia.

Without the line, MU would likely have relocated. The railroad brought many students into town and put it on the map, Paten said.

Passenger service stopped in 1969 because automobiles had become affordable and popular. The train didn't allow "as much flexibility," Paten said. By the mid 1950s, the cost of operating trains was going up, while demand for passenger trains was falling.

Today, the Columbia Branch Railroad is owned by the city of Columbia, which operates the Columbia Terminal Railroad. The line runs about three days a week and is operated by the Water and Light Department.

"Since the City of Columbia took ownership of the line in 1987, rail traffic has continued to increase," said Connie Kacprowicz of the Water and Light Department. Last year, she said, the rail line carried 1,403 carloads for 13 customers.

Columbia also rents out the COLT Railroad line to the Columbia Star Dinner Train.

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"And over there," he pointed, "there used to be a turntable, which is what they used to use to turn the train around."

The turntable, along many of the depots that were built along the railroad, has disappeared.

Paten has dedicated the past 14 years of his life to chronicling history in Boone County and has written a book about the rail line that connects Columbia and Centralia. The book should be released at the end of May, provided he gets enough pre-orders.

"The Columbia Branch Railroad" is 384 pages long with 960 images that include maps, documents and photographs. The book tracks the history of the rail line from 1836 to 2011. In the second half of the book, Paten uses photos to show the history of the railroad.

"It's like a photographic tour," Paten said. "It's neat to see what it used to look like and what it looks like now."

The history of the Columbia Branch Railroad, a 21-mile short-line known these days as the Columbia Terminal Railroad, or COLT, has included murders, robberies, arson and even Sasquatch and Jesse James sightings.

Paten chuckled as he recounted how, as a boy, he played sheriff, hunting for Jesse James at a little pond near Brown's Station — the site of an old depot along the line. Later, Paten heard a story that someone almost caught Jesse James at the same pond years before.

At first, Paten wasn't sold on the story. But in the course of his research on the railroad, Paten interviewed 80 people, some of whom had their own Jesse James stories to tell.

Reason to write

Paten, 49, is the site administrator at IBM for Columbia and Jefferson City and is married to Lisa Paten. Together, they have four children — Hannah, Andrew, Grant and Rachel.

He didn't allow his historical research to interfere with family time. He only worked on it in the early morning and late evenings, which is why he said it took so long to finish.

"A lot of this project is for my kids," Paten said. Preserving the past, especially oral history, is important. "In another 10 years, we won't have those first-hand accounts anymore."

Paten's interest in history dates to his childhood. Growing up at Brown's Station, Paten had direct contact with the railroad and stories from the past.

"I've always had an interest in American history," Paten said. "I had a real desire to learn the truth and to find the truth objectively, and I decided it would be more fun to write local history books."

"What made America great" was a theme he used to focus his investigation. "The railroad was one of those things," Paten said, which is why he settled on "The Columbia Branch Railroad" as his first book on Boone County history.

Paten also has a personal connection to the railroads of Boone County. His great-great-great grandfather, John McGee, a notable man at 6 feet 11 inches tall, worked on the North Missouri Railroad, which connected with the branch line from Centralia to Columbia. McGee's wife, Millie McGee, was a cook. She worked on the cooking car, which followed the rail-gangs as the track was laid to feed the workers.

The writing process

Paten's research took about 14 years, but it wasn't limited to the railroad. There were several subjects that Paten knew he wanted to write books about: the Boonslick Trail, the Civil War and the Centralia Massacre. As he researched the railroad, he kept other topics in mind.

Local historian David Sapp said Paten goes deep with his research.

"He really digs out all the references he can, and he's got a very nice collection of artifacts associated with the railroad," Sapp said. "We have a transient community, so we need to keep those stories alive."

In addition to conducting 80 interviews, Paten accessed primary sources, including news articles and the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection through the State Historical Society of Missouri. He also used maps and other documents to make sense of contradictions he found within newspaper accounts.

Paten was even able to get his hands on some of the old railroad records. When Norfolk and Western merged with Wabash Railroad in October 1964, many of the records were going to be thrown out. Some employees saved the records and gave them to Paten.

"It's been a miracle getting those records," Paten said.

Paten is the founder of Boone County Historical Investigation Services, and he established his own publishing company to research, write and release his first book. Paten decided to self-publish after two publishers planned to edit out much of his content. His company, HAGR, was named using his children's first initials. 

"The Columbia Branch Railroad" costs $39.95 and is available for pre-order online and by order form at the Boone County Historical Society, Village Books and the Centralia Public Library.

Utility services specialist Connie Kacprowicz pre-ordered a copy of Paten's book for the Columbia Water and Light Department, which operates the branch railroad as a city enterprise.

"It's nice to have that historical information," Kacprowicz said.

"It's not just a railroad book," Paten said. "It's a Boone County history book."

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Richard Saunders April 30, 2012 | 10:51 a.m.


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