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Column: When passenger service reached the end of the line

WORTHINGTON — Lately I was thinking of the day the Minnesota Railroad and Warehouse Commission came to Worthington to consider whether there should be passenger trains. The Chicago & North Western had decided to eliminate passenger service, and the railroad did everything it could to discourage passenger travel. They ran rusted, old, cold coaches that must have been shuffled from an Old Coaches’ Home. They scheduled trains at inconvenient hours. 3 a.m. No matter, C&NW trains ran very late. There were no diners, nor even urns of coffee. Worthington people — people through all the region — responded by saying, “We don’t want to ride your old trains any more.” The railroad responded, “No one will ride our trains any more.” It was 1956.

0 Talk about it

Actually, both sides were ignoring figures. Records show that in 1955, at least 50 people still passed through the Worthington depot every day. Twenty thousand individuals rode a train to and from Worthington that year. By then the railroad may have been thinking of rounding up a chain of dilapidated, abandoned stage coaches to replace the broken-down passenger coaches. Maybe a line of stage coaches would discourage those rugged people at Worthington and Windom and Sibley.

C&NW said its passenger income was smaller than its passenger expenses. No one paid this much attention. Railroads counted depots as passenger expenses although freight was stored in a part of many depots. Telegraph offices were in the depots. Local rail honchos had offices and desks in the depots. Restrooms were in the depots; rail workers came and went.

The Railroad Commission meeting convened in what was, at that time, the Community Room on the second floor of City Hall. I was assigned to report the sessions.

The first question asked each witness was, “Did you come here by train?” The question seemed fair and to the point. It was not. The Worthington train arrived (about) 3 a.m. The hearing was at 10.

People defending trains were heartened to learn they had a business ally. Representatives of the Keith W. Merrick Co. at Sibley, specialty graphic designers and printers for funeral directors across the nation, made a substantial case for the amount of business their firm brought to the trains and their dependence upon trains for quick delivery.

The session seemed unfair. There still were families without automobiles, but none of them appeared. Men wanted not to tell state commissioners, “I don’t have a car.” In that time many women had no car. Many had never learned to drive. They rode trains to visit Twin Cities grandchildren. They didn’t want to lay out this case to state officials. It was given to women in that time to mind the family pantry, and Worthington still sustained a city bus service. Women rode city buses for groceries and rode city buses to the trains, but they did not want to testify about this to official commissioners.

There also was great enthusiasm for automobiles in that time. It was one of the years of the tail fins. Whole blocks were excited when a new family car appeared. “We don’t need trains.” Worthington had its airport. “If we can’t ride trains, we will fly.” And Worthington did come to have air service.

I was reminded of all this when I saw a notice that Benjamin Heineman died 17 months ago at age 98. Ben Heineman became president of C&NW in that year, 1956, and he ordered an end immediately to all Midwest passenger runs, the first railroad to do this. In just one day Heineman rolled in C&NW’s diesels from across the country and replaced all the steam locomotives which brought commuter trains into Chicago’s North West station after Mayor Richard Daley growled about smoke and fumes. Heineman replaced all of Chicago’s commuter trains with double deck streamliner cars. Chicago hailed Ben Heineman as a corporate hero. Worthington, Windom, Sibley, Brewster paid the price. Public transportation came to be erased across all of southwest Minnesota.

Ben Heineman was tagged a business genius. He put the C&NW in the black. He later became chairman of Lyndon Johnson’s White House Conference on Civil Rights. But those who remember will remember that in one time Ben Heineman was a dirty name at Worthington.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.