The 21.7-mile railway was built in 1867 by the Boone County and Jefferson City Railroad at a cost of $512,000. It linked Columbia to the line running from Centralia to St. Louis and the country’s railway network.
Two years after construction, the company met financial difficulty and sold the line to William Burr for $30,000, according to a COLT report. After several transactions, the railway was purchased in 1875 by Wabash Western Railroad and changed its name to Wabash Railway.
Today, the historic stone building still known as Wabash Station in downtown Columbia serves as the terminal for the municipal bus fleet. In the late 19th century, the Wabash was composed of a wooden freight house, turntable, gas works and a fine passenger station.
In the early 1980s, the railway’s last private owner, Norfolk Southern Co., wanted to close the line due to slow business. The city of Columbia hoped to retain the railway, but there were no private bidders to take it over without charging the city a fee, according to the Columbia Water and Light Centennial Celebration report.
The city purchased the rail line in 1987 and operated it as a division of the Water and Light Department because more than half of the traffic was coal from Kentucky to fuel the city power plant.
Although COLT’s business has more than doubled since it became a city entity, its operating income has never been enough to cover spending. The net income of COLT in 2004 was $150,000.
Maintaining the track and rail cars against depreciation, however, cost $230,000 a year.
Without enough cash, the railroad has had to defer some maintenance -- a situation that should change as income from COLT picks up steam.