COLUMBIA — Trains have been rolling into Columbia since 1867, when the Columbia Branch Railroad was finished.
Since that time, the rail line has gone through several different eras of ownership. Tuesday, the railway celebrated 25 years of operation by the city of Columbia at a ceremony at the COLT Transload facility in north Columbia.
"This railway line has been a vital part of the city and the county since 1867," Peter Davis, a member of the COLT Railroad Advisory Board, said. "We're trying to keep it vital."
In 2008, when the recession began, the Columbia Terminal railway saw a drop in business, COLT marketing manager Tina Worley said.
Some of that business is starting to return.
"We've seen the lumber business come back," Worley said.
The increased building of single-family homes has led to the increased need for lumber, though demand has yet to return to pre-recession levels, she said.
"A lot of potential traffic that is coming into Columbia relies upon construction," so if construction in Columbia increases, railroad traffic should, too, Worley said.
The celebration included a brief presentation to recognize the individuals who have helped to sustain the 145-year-old railway and culminated with a short trip on the line to the recently constructed railway overpass that spans U.S. 63.
"The COLT railway is unique in that it is owned by a city government," said Chris Spiceland of the Norfolk Southern Railroad, which connects to the COLT rail line.
Spiceland said most of the other 252 "shortlines" that connect into the Norfolk and Southern railway are privately owned.
Since the city took over operation of COLT in 1987, traffic on the line has increased from 600 freight cars per year to more than 1,400 cars in 2011, according to Columbia Water and Light. The railway primarily hauls steel, coal, plastics, wax, lumber, scrap metal and paper.
Dick Malon, who was the director of Columbia Water and Light when the railway was purchased by the city, said the line is an "integral part of Northern Boone county."
"Two industries solely rely on rail," Worley said: JM Eagle, a plastic and PVC pipe manufacturer, and Honeywell International Inc., a grease and oil manufacturer.
Marty Paten, a Columbia resident and author of a recently published book on the history of the Columbia Branch Railway, said the railway was bought by the city to maintain the industries that rely on the railway and to boost the economy.
"The Columbia branch was the lifeline for the city," Paten said. "And in a way, it still is."
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