Depot platform

The platform at Chanute hums as the daily-except-Sunday motor train M.176 from Pittsburg unloads.


Kevin Keefe, former editor of Trains and a Michigan native, publishes a blog — Classic Trains: The Golden Years of Railroading.

His latest subject was about Wally Abbey’s early days in Chanute. It was noted that Wally would be pleased to know that his old newspaper “is hanging in there,” publishing Tuesday-Saturday.

Here are some excerpts:

“For much of the past year, I’ve been immersed in railroading as seen through the eyes of the late Wallace W. Abbey. Wally was a gifted storyteller, as brilliant with his typewriter as he was his camera ... Perhaps his greatest achievement — his book about the development of the FT diesel — will be released by Indiana University Press.

Entitled The Diesel That Did It, the book traces the story of the FT from the earliest days of Electro-Motive Corp. in Cleveland through the locomotive’s introduction on the Santa Fe in 1940 to the early glory days of EMD in La Grange. I’ve been lucky enough to partner with Wally’s daughter, Martha Abbey Miller, in editing the book for IUP. All we can hope for is that Wally, who died in 2014 at age 86, looks down and approves.

Meanwhile, in the process of working through Wally’s 50,000 words and 500 collected photographs about the FT, a few tangential themes emerged. 

It concerns his brief tenure as a newspaper reporter in Chanute, just 29 miles north of his mother’s hometown of Cherryvale. Fresh out of the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas in 1949, Wally got the classic entry-level job, working as a reporter for the Chanute Daily Tribune. That Wally was drawn to newspapering was in the genes: his father, Wallace W. Abbey II, was a 44-year veteran of the Chicago Tribune, retiring in 1966 as assistant managing editor of the entire newsroom.

Wally Abbey was out there on the streets of Chanute, covering the local police beat, going to school board meetings, interviewing coaches after Friday night football games, working in the photo lab. 

Here’s what he wrote later: “Covering sports for Chanute’s high school and junior college and for Chanute’s AAA-league baseball team was for me a chore. I knew nothing about baseball, basketball, or football. Me, the sports idiot, son of a famous sportswriter [from the] huge and infamous Chicago Tribune.” 

From what we know, Wally enjoyed that first year with a press card … there was some good railroading in town, thanks to the Santa Fe Railway.

In those days, Chanute was the division point for Santa Fe’s Tulsa Subdivision, a secondary main line. The division had creditable passenger service, including the Oil Flyer and Tulsan, Chicago–Tulsa streamliners that connected with through California–Chicago trains via Kansas City. The Oil Flyer was an overnight train carrying a sleeper and a dining car the entire route, while the daylight Tulsan featured a Kansas City–Tulsa café-lounge.

That wasn’t all. The branch to Joplin, Mo., offered mixed-train service (FT-powered!) as far as Frontenac, as well as doodlebug service west to Fredonia and east to Pittsburg. On the south side of town was a decent-size yard and engine terminal, with a 30-stall roundhouse and running-repair shop. Throw in the fact that steam and diesel still coexisted in Chanute and there was plenty to keep the young photographer occupied.

Abbey was already showing the artful approach that would mark so much of his photography. My favorite is his shot of the M.176 on the motor train just in from its daily-except-Sunday trip from Pittsburg, there to meet the southbound Oil Flyer. His vantage point beneath the eaves of the depot nicely captures the buzz of train time in a small town. 

Better yet, from Wally’s point of view, Chanute is still a railroad town. The Santa Fe is long gone, but its former north-south line through town is now the South Kansas & Oklahoma, a 398-mile Watco-owned regional that operates an X-shaped system radiating out of its headquarters down in Cherryvale. No more cool passenger trains, but the SK&O keeps itself busy with a robust traffic mix of grain, cement, coal, chemicals, steel, and other commodities.

Given his family pedigree, I would guess Wally was contemplating a long newspaper career as he worked the streets of Chanute that first year out of college. But fate intervened barely a year later when Al Kalmbach came calling, offering him the job at Trains. Thus, Wally moved to Milwaukee, vaulting off in a direction that allowed him to do something he loved: write about railroads. How lucky we are for that!s

But it all started at the Santa Fe’s big brick depot in the division town of Chanute, where a cub reporter watched and photographed FTs and 2-8-4s doing their thing on the Tulsa Sub.

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