Former resident's love of trains shared
Glimpses of Yesteryear
Monday, December 31, 2012 3:47 AM
Many Spring Valley "old-timers" remember Harry Johnson, mail carrier and devoted local historian. Harry and his parents lived in the palatial home on East Church Street on a nine-tenths acre of beautiful lawn and trees. His dad was a jeweler whose shop was on east upper Broadway.
Harry Johnson and his pet dog, thrilled to sit in the engineer's place, and beam at the photographer.
Born in 1921, Harry was an only child and, as my aunt Harriet Steffens who babysat with him on occasion said, he was "pampered and over-indulged." A bright child, he pretty much roamed at will, enthralled with the trains that passed many times a day only a block north of their home.
As a young lad, Harry often hung around the Milwaukee depot and when the trains stopped to load or unload, he made lasting friends with the engineers, brakemen and conductors, and was sometimes allowed access to the engine cab as you see in the accompanying photos.
Harry attended the Molstad School and the adjacent high school once situated where the 1963 elementary school was recently demolished on South Broadway. He graduated in 1939; worked at various jobs, including for Reid Murdoch farming endeavors and the iron mines south of town, and others until he joined the Army Air Force in 1942, serving until 1946.
He then enrolled at the University of Minnesota and graduated in 1950 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Harry studied journalism and was a faithful attendee at all University musical presentations. Attending the U was something he had in common with my husband, Gordon, also a student there but Gordy was in the school of business.
Harry's "career" was spent with the U.S. Postal Service here in Spring Valley, retiring in 1982 after 30 years of delivering mail door-to-door, especially in the south half of town where we became well acquainted. A competent photographer, he shared many photos with the Spring Valley Historical Society while I was museum director, and more will be shared in this column in the months ahead.
When the Fillmore County Historical Society produced its 1984 history, Harry showed his writing expertise with a story, "Spring Valley's Railroads - Gateway to the World." He claimed the two railroads, the Chicago Great Western (north and south) and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (east and west) made this little valley "glow with promise." Many area settlements died, like Hamilton, Etna and Forestville, when the railroad bypassed them.
Trains could haul tons of freight, farm produce, livestock and hundreds of people at a time, at 50 miles an hour, to far away points. A boon, for sure. It was 1870 when the Southern Minnesota Railroad, later known as the Milwaukee Road, came from La Crosse, working its way west. The work crews stayed at Spring Valley for five years while they built up and down the line the depots, windmills, water towers and sidings. Then, with a great deal of persuasion and considerable cash promises, the Winona & Southwest Railroad came through from Simpson heading down into Iowa, later known as the Chicago Great Western.
Harry went on to relate that wheat was the principal crop of the day, and tons could now be moved to eastern markets. Soon five large elevators were built along the railroad track on Market Street. Farmers who had raised livestock only for their own use and the local meat markets could now ship to packinghouses, such as Hormel in Austin, and stockyards in the southeast corner of town were kept busy with weekly sales.
Produce men in the 1880s could ship via railroad their butter, eggs, produce and apples east to Chicago or west to the Dakotas. Ten years later, there were eight daily passenger and freight trains moving through Spring Valley and everyone was used to the familiar toots and whistles and heeded the "stop, look, listen" signs at the railroad crossings as the tracks separated the town along the creek.
Harry reminded readers that the railroads were doomed by the 1960s because of freight trucks, good highways, automobiles, buses and aircrafts, which offered better and faster service. The Chicago Great Western, now Chicago Great Northern, on the west side of town was the first to petition the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon service to their customers, and by 1977 trains were halted and crane crews picked up the rails.
This action provoked an extended conflict. The Dept. of Natural Resources had plans for a recreation trail, which met with stiff opposition; these plans were finally abandoned, and the rail bed was sold to adjacent property owners.
When I was working at the Standard Oil Terminal east of town (later Amoco Oil, now bp), there was a tank car dock and men often loaded as many as 12 tank cars per day, which were delivered to bulk plants in three states.
The Milwaukee Road continued daily passenger service through 1958, and I remember Kathy Hagen, my next-door neighbor, arranging a train ride for a passel of little boys for her son, Lindsay's birthday party. We hustled the boys down to the depot (where O'Connell establishment is now), and awaited the 'train' composed mostly of a diesel engine, one or two freight cars, and the caboose. Kathy was to buy tickets for all for the ride to Preston, a thrilling adventure.
The depot agent looked with dismay at the work involved in writing out tickets for maybe a dozen passengers, threw up his hands, and declared, "Oh, just get on the train!" And it was quite a ride. Just out of town, going through a grove of trees, the train ground to a halt because something was obstructing the tracks (maybe a fallen tree?), and the boys were sure we were being held up by train robbers. Fun, fun. The Milwaukee Road eventually abandoned all service by 1980.
Harry concluded his Spring Valley train story this way: "Most who grew up in the steam railroad era, which ended about 1950, dream of that marvelous age when melodious train whistles and bells called out over the countryside and hope once again to smell the hot grease, strong black smoke and hot, steam-bathed steel of those magnificent engines."