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CHADRON, Neb. (AP) — Once a hub of the pioneer fur trade and a key player in America’s cowboy, cavalry and Native American history, Chadron is known today as the home of Chadron State College and headquarters of U.S. Forest Service operations in Nebraska.

In its earliest days, it was a railroad town.

Its depot served the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company, one of the biggest railroad companies in the nation with more than 12,000 miles of track in seven states. In the railroad’s heyday in 1893, Chadron’s fire chief fired a Colt revolver into the air and sent nine riders toward Chicago along the line in the Chadron-to-Chicago Cowboy Race, billed as America’s longest horse race. Thirteen days later, Josiah “Joe” Gillespie of Coxville, Nebraska, collected $250 and a Colt pistol as the official winner.

The Scottsbluff Star-Herald reports that the CNW hauled beef and grain from Nebraska, ran passenger trains with names such as the Challenger and the Overland Limited and stationed agents in dozens of small towns to manage freight delivery, offer telegraph services, serve as Justices of the Peace and even perform weddings.

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“They called it the Cowboy Line,” said Lynn Bilyeu of Chadron, now 93, who made a career of keeping CNW trains on the tracks.

He joined the railroad in 1946 as a student telegrapher, learning to use the railroad’s version of Morse Code. He worked in many of the tiny towns along the route, such as Long Pine, Crookston and Lusk, Wyoming, sometimes relieving other railroad officials during a vacation or other absences, sometimes taking over when one retired.

“The trains would stop at every town and unload merchandise and collect the money,” he recalls. “They had an agent in almost every town.”

Bilyeu was never a station agent, but eventually he became a dispatcher.

“It was a single-track railroad. The dispatcher had to keep the trains from running into one another,” he said. “All we had was a telegraph to tell a train to get on the siding and let the other train go by.”

On his first night at Valentine, he loaded 21 cream cans onto a train. The last three fell off and spilled.

“I didn’t know what to do, so I called the agent,” he said. “He told me, ‘You see that shovel over there, Load it back into the same cans. There’s a lot worse stuff in there.'”

At 23, he didn’t argue. The railroad paid well, and plenty of others would have been happy to take the job. There was always the risk of being “bumped’ by someone with more seniority.

He got bumped from Valentine. He bumped an operator from Belle Fourche, South Dakota. When you worked for the railroad, you expected to move around.

He went to Lusk, Wyoming, just west of the Nebraska border, in 1948.

“Lusk was a heck of a place,” he said. “It was the only town where they brought in silver dollars. Most towns traded them out, but they wanted them for the gambling. They had a lot of gambling joints hid out behind the pool halls.”

One time the dispatcher there got a call from a farmer, who reported that one of the railroad’s motor cars had passed by his place with nobody on it. Railroad workers scrambled to get the crossings cleared as it headed east.

“They finally derailed it with a switch at Dakota Junction,” an intersection of railroads five miles west of Chadron, he said. “The operator had gotten drunk and fell off. He wasn’t working there much longer after that.”

Locomotives chugged through the narrow confines of the scenic White River valley, past communities such as Andrews, now a ghost town, and Glen, where only a few residents dwell today. Only the earthen grade and crumbling trestles remain in the serene canyons, where trains would collect logs used for pulpwood from the nearby Pine Ridge forests. One time some cars broke loose at Glen.

“Ten cars got loose and were heading down the hill,” he said. “Those cars rolled all the way to Dakota Junction.”

Bilyeu takes blame for a wreck that happened during heavy snow. He avoided disaster by slowing the trains and warning one onto a siding. Part of it was left on the main line, where the second ran into its caboose. After a hearing that he likened to a military court martial, he lost his job. On the way out the door, one of his bosses whispered that he should expect to get rehired.

“In a blizzard like that the communication is pretty bad. Somehow I got the two times mixed up,” he said. “Three weeks later they called me back. After that they changed the rules about keeping distance between trains.”

One of his most memorable events was the blizzard of 1949. Already enduring one of the worst winters on records, Nebraska was hit with a two-day storm Jan. 2-3 that killed 76 people and more than 158,000 head of cattle and sheep. It covered fence posts, left vehicles buried under drifts and took weeks to clear.

“In Lusk the snow drifts were so deep you would walk up above and have to slide down into the stores if you wanted to buy something,” he said. “The passenger trains quit running. We didn’t want anybody stuck in the snow.”

Standing train crews would run out of allowable work time and have to be relieved. Even paychecks were delayed.

“When a farmer would come in with cash there’d be a mad dash to put your check into the drawer, so you could take the money,” he said.

Snowplows worked non-stop to clear the tracks.

“The next thing you know it would be drifted back again,” he said. “The railroad spent a lot of money doing that. It was 30 days before they got things moving right.”

His division had responsibility for the west end of the line, from Long Pine in Nebraska west to Lander in Wyoming, north to Belle Fourche and east to Pierre in South Dakota. As time went by, the division grew larger but the number of stops and services diminished.

“It was a really good company when I started. New management came in and started cutting everything,” he said. “When they started closing stations, it was always in the small towns. In time there was no agent between here and Valentine.”

The technology changed too. Telegraphs gave way to telephones and radios. Bilyeu came to Chadron as a telegrapher in 1950 but was promoted to dispatcher. By then the trains were hauling mostly freight, with growing competition from trucks as the nation’s freeway system expanded. The railroad made up some of the losses hauling coal, rebuilding its Wyoming tracks and connecting with the Union Pacific. But the passenger service ended.

“That gave them an excuse to start closing the depots,” he said. “We had no agents along the line to receive the trains, so we started using radios.”

As the overnight dispatcher, he sat alone in the Chadron depot from midnight until 8 a.m.

“It was kind of lonesome,” he said. “During the day there were lots of guys around.”

At one point, the Nebraska state fire marshal condemned the depot. Bilyeu planned to move to Rapid City, but Chadron objected and paid to fix up the depot.

“The fire marshal OK’d it, so I stayed,” he said.

But that didn’t last long. Eventually the old building was demolished. A newer CNW facility was built but eventually sold to the Forest Service.

Over the years, track sales and abandonment reduced the railroad’s total mileage to about 5,000. One by one the passenger trains shut down, ending with the formation of Amtrak in 1971. The railroad arranged the sale of its assets to its employees in 1972.

“You could buy a share for $500,” he said.

That didn’t last long either. In April 1995, the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company was acquired by the Union Pacific Railroad, and the company ceased to exist. Its Chadron successor, the Nebkota Railway, began operations in 1994 on the old Cowboy Line track between Merriman and Chadron. For a time, it offered a three-hour passenger excursion through the scenic Pine Ridge. It later abandoned 43 miles of track between Merriman and Rushville after losing grain shipments from Gordon. In September 2007, Nebkota abandoned almost all the remaining line between Rushville and Chadron.

In 2010, the newly formed Nebraska Northwestern Railroad purchased the line between Dakota Junction and Chadron, including the Chadron rail yard. Today, Chadron’s only rail service runs west, connecting with other lines at Dakota Junction and Crawford and hauling mostly grain. The old Cowboy Line, its ties and rails removed, has become the Cowboy Trail, a rails-to-trails recreational conversion. From Chadron to Norfolk when completed, it will cover 321 miles through some of the state’s most picturesque landscapes.

Bilyeu worked until 1984, retiring shortly before the company began hauling coal through Chadron. He keeps a scrapbook with faded photographs of stations where he worked, locomotives piled up in collisions and snow drifts that kept the trains from running. Along with the Cowboy Trail, they’re all that remain of the once-proud Chicago and North Western.

“I’ve been retired almost as long as I worked,” he said.

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Information from: Star-Herald, http://www.starherald.com