Chadron was settled in much the same way as many other pioneer towns in the late 1800s, as adventure seekers headed west to make a new life for themselves in the vast territories of the U.S. The early settlers of Chadron actually established themselves five miles farther west than today’s location, but when the iron rails of the railroad were being laid, they hastily packed up and moved east to take advantage of the benefits the Fremont, Elkhorn, Missouri Valley Railroad would bring.
It wasn’t long before the railroad changed hands, and for the next 90 years or so, Chadron’s history was intertwined with that of the Chicago and North Western Railroad.
That storied history will be celebrated this week when railroaders gather for the annual Chicago and North Western Historical Society Convention. The group will visit what remains of the C&NW roundhouse and tour the Dawes County Historical Museum’s railroad collection.
Terry Sandstrom, a former railroader who lives in Wheatland, Wyo., has worked with all of the entities involved since the tour was announced to ensure that the railroad’s history is displayed in all its glory. He’s loaning much of his father’s railroad collection to the occasion. Robert Sandstrom joined the railroad in the 1940s but was forced to retire early after he was in a derailment with a Russell plow and broke his back. Terry followed in his father’s footsteps, joining the railroad in 1965.
“This is all based on my father. My father had an immense love of the railroad,” Sandstrom said. “He’d go to high schools or organizations and talk to whoever wanted to listen to him talk railroad.”
While the Friday C&NW tour of the roundhouse and Dawes County Museum is private, public railroad enthusiasts won’t be left out. The Nebraska Northwestern Railroad and the museum will host public hours after the C&NW convention. The public can stop by the roundhouse Friday between 1-2:30 p.m., while the Dawes County Museum will have an “extended railroad weekend” with hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and again from 1-5 p.m. Sunday.
While the C&NW convention has visited the region previously, it’s not ever been to Chadron. That was something Rick Mills wanted to remedy when the historical society asked him to coordinate this year’s convention. Mills, director of the State Railroad Museum in Hill City, S.D., agreed on two conditions: that the convention include a banquet at Mount Rushmore and a visit to Chadron. The C&NW was integral to bringing Gutzon Borlum and President Calvin Coolidge to the Black Hills, while Chadron served as the Western Division headquarters.
“I always regretted not going to Chadron in 1997,” Mills said. “Chadron was so important to this end of the railroad for so many decades.”
“(The railroad) was the hub at that time and a major employer (in Chadron),” said John Dagen, who joined the railroad in 1958. After railroad school in Minneapolis, Minn., he worked as a relief station agent in Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota, filling in for agents taking vacations.
In 1962, Dagen began work as a train dispatcher and was based in Chadron for about three decades. The C&NW offered good pay and benefits and “railroad payday was a big deal in town. The banks and businesses all geared up for it.”
When the railroad consolidated its administrative offices to Chicago, he and his wife, Junice, considered their options, and he took a job as a yard dispatcher in Morrill instead. He remained there until his retirement in 2001.
Members of the C&NW Historical Society attending Friday’s convention will have the opportunity to visit with men like Dagen, who worked in the roundhouse and the Chadron yards.
There will be an old locomotive on the turntable during the tour, said Jim Collins, general manager of the Nebraska Northwestern Railroad. Chadron is one of only three operational turntables left in the state.
“That’s a big piece of history, and one that we should embrace,” Collins said.
In addition, other historical pieces, including some of Sandstrom’s collection, will be staged throughout the roundhouse; and the former C&NW employees will be able to learn about NNR’s short line business (for more on that see Page B-11 of today’s issue).
“The railroad was a big part of Chadron and we want to appeal to that sense of history,” Collins said. “We try to make sure we’re accessible. Chadron really is here because of the railroad, and we want to make sure we’re here because of the town.”
As of last week, Mills said there were about 160 people registered for the convention, but expected last minute additions could push that number up to 175. They are coming from all across the U.S., and there are even a few from Europe, Mills said.
“Between the two places, I’m just really excited about getting the story of Chadron out to new people,” Mills said.