The Frisco Depot when there was still passenger train service in Webb City. The building is still on the northeast corner of Madison and Daugherty streets.

Ancestors, Legends & Time

Do you remember riding the train?

Picture of Jeanne Newby

Jeanne Newby

January 31, 2024

There is something fascinating about trains. Visions of trains tug on the memories of many folks. The railroad train has been the star of many old movies, the center of many stories and a flash from the past for those who were fortunate enough to ride the rails. Many a town was brought to life when the railroad came along.

The city of Oronogo had the first railroad in Jasper County. Folks planning to ride the train had to travel to Oronogo by stagecoach, horse and buggy or by wagon; as well as those wanting to visit Webb City after arriving at the Oronogo Depot. Traveling from Oronogo to Webb City was not pleasant, as the road consisted of mud and lots of it! It was stated that the trip from Oronogo to Webb City by stagecoach took close to an hour due to the conditions of the roads.

Finally in 1879, the railroad companies decided that Webb City was busy enough to warrant a train station. The Frisco Depot was built on the west side of Webb City and received the notoriety of being the finest depot in the state (for a short time anyway). Then two years later, the Missouri Pacific depot was built on the east side of town, between Webb City and Carterville. Having two depots in the town helped with the growth of the area. The trains carried large amounts of lead and zinc from the greatest mining district of the Tri-States to places all over the United States.

During wartime, the soldiers left from the Frisco Depot, and then many of the same soldiers returned home to the cheering and crying of family and friends.

Bob Chancellor recalled his travels on the train as a youth:

My grandmother lived in Kansas City, and twice when I was in junior high school, I had the opportunity to ride (alone) to Kansas City and back to visit her via the Kansas City Southern Railroad. That depot was on North Main Street in Joplin – the last time I looked, the shell of the white, stucco building was still there. The train was The Southern Belle, a luxurious train that ran daily from Kansas City to New Orleans.

Once the trip was underway, passengers were free to go back to the club car (adults for drinks, me for wonderful New Orleans style coffee.) Coffee cost 50 cents (a lot in those days) and was served by a black steward carrying a silver tray. Tipping, of course, was expected, so I would give him a dollar bill, and he would return with the silver tray containing 50 cents in a variety of coins for change. And the big spender would wave a hand and let him keep all the change. Always a big smile, and a “Thank you, Sir.”  That was high living. As was the arrival at the grand Kansas City Union Station, still one of the great structures in America.

My only other train experience in this country was going to National Guard camp at Camp McCoy, near Lacrosse, Wisc., in 1954. That was on a troop train, using the Missouri Pacific line, and the troop train had no priority on the rails. We spent many hours at sidings waiting for “regular” trains to come and go. And there was no club car, no NOLA coffee. A long, hot and uncomfortable three-day trip. But even that was better than the previous year’s National Guard trip, when we went to Fort Knox, Ky., by truck convoy.

Later in my life and career, I would ride on the so-called Lunatic Express between Mombasa and Nairobi in Kenya, the train from Bangkok to Nong Khai in Thailand enroute to Laos, the Asean Express from Penang, Malaysia to Bangkok and the South African Railway from Bulawayo, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to Gaberone, Botswana. But nothing ever matched The Southern Belle. 

Here is a story shared by a boy named Tom, who went on his first train ride in 1938. Just entering the hustle and bustle of the train depot was exciting to this 12-year-old boy. He watched large wooden wagons move passenger’s luggage out to the train’s baggage car. He watched the people dressed in a variety of clothes saying goodbye to family before getting on the train. There were quite a few things to catch the amusement of the young boy.

Once young Tom was on the train, his eyes almost forgot to blink as he took in all the excitement. There was even a toilet on the train at the end of the coach car. Being a curious young man, Tom had to venture down to take a look at the toilet. He stepped inside and just for fun and curiosity, he flushed it. He was surprised to see the roadbed through the toilet drain. (You might want to watch your step if you are walking along the rails!)

Tom along with his family traveled on the train all the way to the Chicago. If Tom’s eyes were big when he entered the Frisco Depot in Webb City, they must have really been big when he entered Chicago’s Union Station, as it was scary and loud. Voices seemed to boom through the large building along with the constant announcement of trains coming and going. It was a big adventure for a boy of 12 in 1938.

Throughout the history of Webb City, many people have entered the city limits. Some were just passing through; some stepped off the train and stayed a lifetime; others traveled here and there, returning to Webb City as an anchor in their lives.

Late at night, you can hear the lonesome whistle of the train as it still passes through Webb City. We don’t have a working depot for the train to stop at, and if we did, there are no longer passengers to step off the train and to be lured by the charms of the city. The passenger train is an era long gone, but there are still many wonderful stories to share.

Jeanne Newby

A lot of us appreciate the Bradbury Bishop Fountain, but Jeanne actually worked behind the counter making sodas while she was in high school. She knows everything about Webb City and is a member of the Webb City R-7 School Board.