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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales of Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

“This Railroad is Actually a Nuisance”— The St. Francois County Electric Railway

St. Francois County Electric Railroad car.png
State Historical Society of Missouri.
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St. Francois County Railroad Company streetcar at Terminal Station, boarding passengers. Charles Trefts Photographs (P0034)

The story of transportation improvements in the mid-1800s until World War I is a story of railroads. Routing of railroads made the difference between prosperity if a line went through a town or stagnation if the railroad bypassed it. By 1900 electrified lines offered a new option that lacked smoke or diesel emissions and offered rapid acceleration, fast braking, and the ability to change direction without turning a locomotive around. Most were urban passenger trains, also called trolleys. The vision of promoters was eventual connections between cities that were relatively near each other for passenger transportation. In practice, few went beyond a single city.

One such company was the St. Francois County Electric Railway. The company began in 1901, and construction in 1902. Financial problems and changes in ownership plagued the company, so completion occurred in 1904. Much fanfare marked the first run, including a photography contest for the best amateur photo of the first car.

The original route ran from Farmington to connecting railroads at Flat River via Hurryville, Esther, and Delassus, with grand plans of eventual trolley extensions to St. Louis. The railway was initially a popular success. Miners could live in Farmington and take the trolley to work in Flat River and return by evening. Connections with other railroads allowed shipments in all directions from Farmington, and spur lines led to many local businesses. A primary spur went to the state hospital, where coal deliveries provided revenue for the line.

Chronic financial problems hampered the railway until the Mississippi River and Bonne Terre Railway purchased it in 1912; its value at the time was over $366,000. It returned to local ownership in 1926 when a consortium of local businessmen purchased it. This group made improvements and adjustments to the routes and added a gasoline-powered engine. The line peaked at four electric cars.

The electrified railroad companies had their heyday in 1900 to 1930. While they were a great idea in many respects, they began shortly before the rise of automobiles. Once federal, state and local governments established a network of roads in eastern Missouri, the grand plans for the St. Francois County Electric Railway were doomed.

Business on the line peaked in the late 1920s, when it carried as much as 75,000 tons of freight each year. The Great Depression slowed business, but passenger and freight service continued and the railway was essential for the operation of many Farmington businesses.

After World War II, the road system expanded, private automobile ownership increased, and the demand for coal dropped. The line started losing money in 1947 and thereafter only showed a profit in 1951--the same year its last passenger boarded. The railway discontinued electric trolleys and only a diesel engine remained.

By the time the railway folded in 1958, the line ran only through Farmington between the settlements of Hurryville and Delassus. Its largest contract at the time was hauling coal to the state hospital in Farmington. Tracks had always run down city streets in Farmington, and interference with traffic moved the railway President, Dr. L. M. Stanfield, to observe to a newspaper reporter that “this railroad is actually a nuisance.”

The last run ended at the courthouse on November 15, 1957, and the last freight was a grain shipment for the Farmington Milling Company. With the last load hauled on the route, a carload of cement for C. E. Trogdon Construction Company, the dream of a network of electric trolleys in St. Francois County ended for good.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.