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Elmer, Missouri - Early History
I've Been Working on the Railroad
Elmer was a railroad town from it's birth. For many years, it was the railroad and the small farms surrounding the town that allowed Elmer's survival. It was a primary means whereby farmers could get their crops and livestock to market and likewise it provided livelyhood to many of Elmer's residents. This author remembers with wonder the sight of those massive steam locomotives barrelling through town, one after the other. Some trains would require six, eight or even ten locomotives to power the string of trailing rail cars that seemed to go one forever. And for most of Elmer's history, the Atchison Topeka & Santa Fe (ATSF) Railroad was the town's prominent employer.
The railroad brought occassional excitement to town as well. Maintenance of the tracks, unlike today, was done mostly by manual labor. Most towns along the tracks had "section gangs", a team of men to handle daily maintenance of the tracks near that town. In addition, teams of workers, commonly called "extra gangs", would live all week in railroad cars and be transported all along the tracks to handle repairs and improvements. These extra gangs would frequently be housed on the side track in Elmer while working on the tracks in that vicinity. And, of course, they would visit the taverns in town in the evening. They tended to be a rowdy bunch with frequent fights and other alcohol related incidents. On the other hand, they brought a nice influx of money into the businesses of the town.
Additional excitement was caused by several (actually four) significant train wrecks in (or very near) Elmer. One such wreck occurred directly in front of the depot, causing considerable damage to the building. Fortunately, the depot agent, Mr. Claude Cochran, had gone home for lunch and was thus spared potential injury. Major accidents in or near Elmer occurred in 1910, 1929, 1935 and 1947. One wreck involved a passenger train and three were only freight. Many stories about these wrecks have circulated over the years. During one wreck, a car load of bacon caught on fire on the curve north of town and they were unable to put it out; so it had to burn out on its own. That was really smoked bacon! The wreck of 1947 contained a load of sulphur that had to be burned, putting off a terrible odor. Another story is that one wreck contained a car load of flour in one hundred pound sacks. One Elmer man, small in stature, decided to take a sack home with him. He started carrying it and part way home became bogged down in the bar pits and had to have help retrieving the flour and himself. The wrecks caused excitement around town and people came from miles around to view the wreckage.
The railroad also played a role in Mercyville's history, although it wasn't the Santa Fe. The Iowa and Saint Louis Railroad (I & St. L) came to Mercyville about 1902. Residents were filled with excitement, thinking this would be a catalyst for growth for the city. The I & St. L was being built to carry coal from the many coal mines in Northeast Missouri. To get from Mercyville to St. Louis, though, required crossing the Santa Fe tracks near Elmer and the Santa Fe steadfastly refused the I & St. L permission to use their tracks, requiring the newly formed railroad to either build a bridge over the tracks or tunnel under them. This was a financial impossibility for the new line and so the I & St. L never got past Mercyville, which basically doomed the line. It did survive until 1936 when the line was abandoned.
Bill Boely was the station master and roundhouse crew for the I & St. L. The railroad had only one train. It left Mercyville early of a morning and returned in the middle of the afternoon, making a round trip to Sedan, Iowa. There was a Y for the train to turn around on. Bill Boley kept the train on schedule with a Dollar Watch, which he kept for one year, bought a new one, and gave the old one to some kid. The engineer was Ben Blackledge and the Fireman was Frank Thomas. Also employed by the company was S. L. Green and R. C. Simmons. The I & St. L also provided passenger service. Charles Thompson recalls his mother telling him that she would pay ten cents each way to travel from Mercyville to Novinger to visit relatives.
Both railroads did provide employment for local residents, although the Santa Fe was by far the major employer. Experiences as railroad employees as told in the Elmer Community History, 1976, are below.