The Wabash Trace Nature Trail follows a former section of the fabled Wabash Railway’s main line to Council Bluffs, Iowa. The route was originally constructed by a predecessor system during the 1870s, which was later folded into the Wabash that decade. At its peak, the railroad boasted a large network throughout the Midwest, stretching more than 2,000 miles and becoming well-known because of a popular folk song called the “Wabash Cannon Ball.” The song’s popularity would spur the railroad to launch a train by the same name after World War II. For many years, the Wabash operated profitably but was eventually caught up in the early merger fervor of the 1960s when it was folded into the growing Norfolk & Western Railway. As traffic declined on the Council Bluffs route, it was abandoned during the 1980s.
The earliest beginnings of what became the Wabash Railway began in 1834 when the Illinois State Legislature authorized building a railroad between Danville and Quincy (the Northern Cross Railroad). Construction began in November 1837, and service began on the first 8 miles between Meredosia (about 50 miles east of Quincy) and Morgan City behind 4-2-0, the “Rogers,” on November 8, 1838. It was the first steam locomotive to operate in the state. The system eventually opened to the Indiana state line at Danville in December 1856. By then, the road was known as the Great Western Railroad of Illinois. At around the same time, this system was acquired by the Toledo, Wabash & Western Railway (TW&W), which by 1856 stretched from Toledo, Ohio, to Attica, Indiana. In conjunction with the Great Western, it was operating from Lake Erie to western Illinois. During the 1870s, new lines were opened to Hannibal, Missouri, and East St. Louis. In 1875, the TW&W fell into receivership and emerged in 1877 as the Wabash Railway Company.
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The system would soon come under the control of Jay Gould, noted rail tycoon who envisioned completing a true, single transcontinental system of which the Wabash and other properties would be a part. Gould controlled the St. Louis, Kansas City & Northern (StLKC&N), running northwesterly between St. Louis and Ottumwa, Iowa, as well as westerly from Moberly to Kansas City. It was reorganized in 1872 from the bankrupt North Missouri Railroad, and in October 1879, completed a new route between Brunswick, Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa, where a connection was established with Union Pacific. (This corridor is what now makes up the Wabash Trace Nature Trail.) Gould also controlled the UP and on November 10, 1879, he formed the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific by merging the StLKC&N with the Wabash Railway. Unfortunately, his aggressive push toward expansion overextended the company’s finances, and it went bankrupt in 1884. Much of the original system was reorganized as the Wabash Railroad Company on May 27, 1889. By then it had gained access to Chicago and Detroit.
During the end of the 19th century the railroad also boasted the unique advantage of operating through southern Ontario, thanks to a friendly connection with the Grand Trunk Railway between Windsor and Fort Erie. Such a routing provided the Wabash with a shortcut between Detroit and Buffalo, the only U.S. railroad to do this aside from the New York Central. The company continued upgrading its system, but by the early 20th century, its network was essentially in place. Given its regional nature, it acted primarily as a bridge road, ferrying traffic to the major cities along its system via interchanging with all the largest carriers in the Midwest.
By 1950, the Wabash network covered 2,393 route miles and its slogan, “Follow The Flag,” were well-known. The logo was a red, white, blue, and gold flag that adorned its equipment had first been copyrighted by the company in 1894. It suffered one other reorganization in 1933 during the Great Depression, emerging on January 1, 1942, again as the Wabash Railway. The company fielded only modest passenger services but did have several named trains on its timetable, including the “Midnight Limited” and the “Detroit Arrow.” Two of its top trains included the “Banner Blue” and “Blue Bird,” serving Chicago and St. Louis, while the two notable runs to serve the Council Bluffs–Omaha route were the “Omaha Limited” (St. Louis–Omaha) and “St. Louis Limited” (Des Moines/Omaha–St. Louis). Ironically, the best known within the fleet was the “Wabash Cannon Ball,” which did not even exist until popular demand saw it inaugurated in 1949 as a daytime service between Detroit and Chicago. The name dates back to a popular folk song released in 1904 by William Kindt (some accounts claim it was first written in the early 1880s). Under the Norfolk & Western, which first leased the Wabash in 1964 (and later fully acquired the company), two attempts were made to discontinue the train. Public outcry, however, kept it in service until the start of Amtrak on May 1, 1971.
During 1982, the N&W and Southern merged to form today’s Norfolk Southern. In the summer of 1983, the railroad requested permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the former Wabash’s main line to Council Bluffs. The plea was granted in December and the tracks were later pulled up in 1988.
Iowa railroad attractions include the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone; Delmar Depot Railroad & Military Museum, located in Delmar’s restored Milwaukee Road depot; the Hobo Foundation in South Britt; the Iowa Trolley Park in Clear Lake; Midwest Central Railroad in Mt. Pleasant; RailsWest Railroad Museum and Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs; Trainland U.S.A. in Colfax; and Trains on the Farm in Clarksville.