Ask Armin Schannuth what he thinks about extending commuter rail to Eastern Jackson County and beyond, and the local railroad enthusiast, historian, researcher and author will tell you he finds the idea interesting because of the renewed interest in commuter rail service.
“I think commuter rail is something to think about,” says the former Independence resident who now resides in Grain Valley. “I think it is interesting and timely in a time when we are considering commuter rail again. I think it is something to think about. It did work at one time. Why not again?”
Armin's extensive research reveals commuter rail came to Independence on Oct. 12, 1900, when the Chicago & Alton Railroad introduced the Plug, a new passenger train running between Kansas City and Slater to relieve the C&A's Hummer, an overnight passenger train between Chicago and Kansas City. Also known as the Accommodation, the Plug included stops at Independence, Blue Springs, Grain Valley, Oak Grove, Bates City, Odessa, Mayview, Higginsville, Corder, Alma, Blackburn, Mount Leonard, Shackleford, Marshall, Norton and Slater.
What the popular Plug looked like or how it obtained its unusual name is still a mystery to Armin, who came up empty-handed searching for a photograph or sketch of the Plug, or why it was known by that name. Armin, though, believes “Plug was sort of a generic term used by many railroads at the time.”
All trains are subject to accidents, and the Plug was no exception. Two months after becoming operational, the Plug was involved in a rear-end collision on Dec. 14, 1900, with a stalled coal train near Higginsville. The Lafayette Leader reported the coal train was “doing some work and sent a flagman back to flag the Plug, and (the flagman) either gave the wrong signal or (the signal) was misunderstood by the engineer, who claims it was a 'go-ahead signal.'”
Discovering his mistake, “The engineer put on the air brakes, reversed his engine and he and his fireman jumped for their lives,” the newspaper reported, noting that had they not jumped, both would have been killed as the engine crashed into the coal train and completely wrecked itself and two coal cars. The passengers all escaped without injury.
In his research, Armin introduces Cad Smith, the Plug 's jovial conductor, who The Higginsville Jeffersonian describes as “one among the most clever conductors in the west, who goes to Kansas City in the morning and returns (to Slater) in the evening. You never see him out of humor. He has a smile for all when a smile is due, but if sternness is needed to suppress a disorderly passenger, he's there with the goods.” Continuing, the story notes Captain Smith is now “feeling extra good,” because he has been given a “smoker” seating about 60 passengers. And there's more good news. The C&A plans to add another coach, built after the same plan. When completed, “Mr. Smith can boast of having the neatest and most comfortable suburban train that enters Kansas City.”
“The Plug is getting to be quite popular,” The Jeffersonian says, noting that when the service was first installed, no one rode the Plug who could ride on one of the 'big' trains. “Now it is different. Anyone can swing aboard these days with a good deal of satisfaction. The clean cars and affable conductor has made the change.”
What do the flamboyant Carrie A. Nation – whose goal was to demolish all saloons – and the Plug have in common? Armin's research reveals the hatchet-wielding crusader, also known as “The Kansas Cyclone,” rode the Plug from Higginsville to Kansas City on Aug. 2, 1909, following a speech the day before at a Chautauqua in Sweet Springs, Missouri.
While in Higginsville, The Jeffersonian reported, Carrie Nation launched a verbal tirade on a male traveler for smoking a cigar in her presence on an omnibus en route to the C&A Depot to board the Plug for Kansas City – her next destination. Coming to his rescue was the driver, Nic Hug, a well-known Higginsville personality. He asked the national crusader to refrain from her abusive language while in the bus. She did, then launched a verbal attack against the driver “calling him all the vile epithets she could think of. True to woman instinct, Carrie had the last word, and as the train pulled out, she shook her fist at Nic and accused him of being a 'sour kraut canine.'”
Though the Plug survived the shenanigans of Carrie Nation, the train was no match for the sagging U.S. economy and reduced ridership, leading to the demise of the faithful Plug on Oct. 6, 1928.
“Business has decreased so much on passenger trains, especially on short hauls, that is does not justify the number of trains that were formerly necessary,” The Higginsville Advance wrote in its Sept. 28, 1928, edition announcing the Chicago & Alton Railway Co. was contemplating the discontinuance of the Plug. To prepare the ridership for the inevitable, the C&A announced on Oct. 4, 1928, that the Saturday night run of the “Plug” from Kansas City to Slater “will be the last for a time,” citing “lack of patronage.”
What did the “Plug” mean to the Odessa community?
In April 1960, Collins Ewing, editor emeritus of The Odessa Odessan, wrote the following about the Plug's demise:
“...Meeting the Plug was a regular part of life of the town. ...Other fancier trains and faster trains, even specials with important people on board passed through, but it was these (Plugs) that kept us in touch with the world. Many a news tip I got from the conductors and brakemen of these trains. Lots used to be said about the ladies sewing circles as open forums, but they never even approached the news that could be spread on one of these locals.
“As long as the Plug went to Kansas City in the morning and came back in the evening, it had a lot of business, but when it was reversed and the only way you could get to Kansas City by train was to go at night, stay all night up there, and then come home the next night – its business to a large extent was gone. It was a shame that it was running that way when so many through here were commuting to the city every day. It could have had a big steady business in that alone.”
-- Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.