The Chicago and North Western Railroad has deep roots in the surrounding area, and Friday hundreds came together in Chadron to celebrate the role it played in its long and storied history.
The last time the Chicago and North Western (C&NW) Historical Society had held a convention near the Black Hills was in 1997, and when society president Mike Lenzen contacted Rick Mills, executive director of the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, regarding another convention in the area, Rick, who had helped organize the convention in Rapid City in ’97, had some criteria he wanted met.
“I said, on three conditions…one, South Dakota has a new state railroad museum in Hill City I’d like visited…two, a lot of people said they missed seeing Mount Rushmore; and I said the third thing we didn’t do in 1997, is we didn’t go to Chadron,” Mills says.
“Chadron was so important as a railroad terminal, as the headquarters of the Western division of the North Western…Chadron was the terminal everything operated out of, and we did ourselves a disservice by not visiting Chadron in ’97.”
This year’s convention satisfied all three of those requirements under the chairmanship of Mills who has family of his own that worked for the North Western.
“I’m glad to see Chadron getting its recognition finally, that it hasn’t gotten in a lot of ways,” Mills says.
The visit began when three busloads of convention members visited Chadron’s roundhouse Friday morning, touring the building and taking advantage of the opportunity to speak with current Nebraska Northwestern roundhouse employees Jim Collins and Tom Pfister, as well as former C&NW employees such as Neal Soester, and Bob Galey, who were volunteers for the tour.
After having a boxed lunch at the roundhouse, the tour group relocated to the Dawes County Historical Museum for the opening of a C&NW exhibit consisting of items from the nuseum itself, combined with a large portion of items provided by Terry Sandstrom.
Sandstrom and his late father Bob were both C&NW employees at one time, and Terry has combined his own collection of artifacts with those of his father’s to create the exhibit which, at least in part, will remain at the museum for the foreseeable future.
The tour consisted of a diverse group of people, but many had specific family ties to the C&NW. “You’re seeing people whose families worked for the railroad, and they’re coming back to not only learn a little bit about what Chadron is all about as far as the western division was involved, but also to catch up with some of the other members of the North Western family,” says Mills.
Other tour members were enthusiasts like Dean Nelson, of Murdo, South Dakota, who doesn’t have ties to the railroad family, but is drawn to the history of the C&NW, and railways in general.
Nelson grew up near a couple of railroads, and when he retired he began attending railroad conventions. Though he’s not sure exactly what it is about the railroad that tends to draw people in, he thinks his own interest may have begun when his parents bought him a toy American Flyer when he was a kid.
Like others, he took an interest in the conversations of the many former C&NW employees who attended the events. “It’s amazing some of the old timers that are here, the employees, and people have shown an interest in it,” he says.
Nelson spoke specifically regarding the crowd that continually gathered as Lynn Bilyeu and Ted Johnson, both former dispatchers for the C&NW, took turns hammering on an old telegraph.
Several former C&NW employees from near and far attended both events, and their stories and recollections of the past dominated the conversation.
Lenzen was one of those former employees, having worked as the assistant division manager in charge of transportation in Chadron from 1982 to 1989, and took advantage of the unique opportunity to reconnect with former co-workers.
Now the president of the historical society, Lenzen was impressed with the day’s events. “The roundhouse was just fantastic; the display (at the museum), the interest here, the conversations I hear going on, the interactions…this is just fantastic.”
“You look around,” Mills says of the events, “people who haven’t been here in 20 or 30 years, they’re back here visiting with people they haven’t seen in maybe that long of time. Some maybe longer than that.
“It’s a real neat way to preserve the history of the railroad here, and I think both the roundhouse and here at the museum are great venues for that. They’re undiscovered treasures in this community, and I’m just really happy to be a part of it.”