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BUSH, Ill. • The engineer eased open the throttle of old No. 124, bound for the Dupo yard. The grimy, hissing machine lurched forward at the head of a funeral train.

The locomotive was one of the Missouri Pacific Railroad’s last 11 steam engines, all used to haul coal from Southern Illinois mines. On April 7, 1955, it led them coupled together to the scrapping shop. Only No. 124 and its helper, No. 40, had steam up. The rest rumbled silently behind.

“At least they’re being spared the indignity of having a diesel pull them on that last mile,” said Paul Childers, a maintenance worker. It was thoughtful of Childers to consider the engines, because he and 19 others were losing their jobs. Their skills were no longer needed in Bush, a tiny station serving mines north of Carbondale. Modern diesel engines were taking over.

As No. 124 chuffed the 112 miles to Dupo, people gathered at crossings and station platforms to wave goodbye. William Bradley, a brakeman on the last run, said of the less-romantic diesel, “It doesn’t seem like a train the way it used to be.”

Pity his friend Childers was wrong about the indignity. No. 40 ran out of water just south of Dupo. A diesel switcher had to lead them into the graveyard after all.

By 1955, the St. Louis-based Missouri Pacific had eliminated steam except in Southern Illinois. Streamlined diesel-electrics began pulling their best passenger trains in 1940, and the “Mop” bought diesels in earnest after World War II. In 1953, after dousing steam service in St. Louis, the railroad demolished its roundhouse at Chouteau and Compton avenues.

For more than a century, the thunder of a steam locomotive meant power and freedom in a restless, growing nation. Farm kids could scan the shimmering rails and dream about New York or California. Steam could get them there.

Folk singers and poets shared Bradley’s lament, but not railroad executives. Steam locomotives required prodigious amounts of fuel, water and attention. They needed coaling towers, water tanks, service shops and thousands of employees to clean fireboxes, grease drive rods and flush boilers. Diesels needed cheap fuel oil.

The Pacific Railroad, forerunner of the Missouri Pacific, fired up its first locomotive in St. Louis in 1852. Its tracks never reached the Pacific Ocean, but the system eventually connected St. Louis to New Orleans, El Paso and Denver. For decades, it was the city’s biggest company. Its headquarters at 13th and Olive streets, built in 1928, towered over downtown.

The Mop bought its first diesels in 1937. Three years later, when it displayed a new blue-and-white passenger diesel at Union Station, more than 23,000 lined up see the future. By 1951, two-thirds of the railroad’s engines were diesels.

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The Frisco Railroad phased out steam in 1952, the Wabash in 1953, the Pennsylvania in 1957. When No. 124 made its last run, only the Baltimore & Ohio occasionally ran steam into Union Station.

One year later, the Missouri Pacific had a robust fleet of 900 diesels. The railroad was absorbed by the Union Pacific in 1982.


Read more stories from Tim O'Neil's Look Back series.