Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development

When the RR Leaves Town

"American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment: Eastern United States"

Railroads once spread across the American landscape, radiating from towns like spokes on a wheel. They were the backbone of the municipal economy and essential to commercial and civic life in thousands of communities, however this remarkable era has ended. The nation’s railroads have eliminated more than 130,000 miles of routes-over half of their total mileage-since 1916.

"When the Railroad Leaves Town: American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment" considers the rise and fall of rail service in 64 communities in the eastern half of the U.S. distinguished by their notable railroad histories or unusual experiences with railroad abandonment. It tells the story of transportation providers struggling to survive in a changing economy only to surrender to the relentless forces of the marketplace. In many communities, the withdrawal of the railroad had unexpected consequences; in others, it forever altered the rhythm of daily life.

Using an interdisciplinary approach drawing upon the fields of history, geography, and urban planning, the book illuminates some of the dominant forces that led to the development of steam and electric railroads as well as the economic and political factors eventually accelerating their decline. Illustrated with maps and photographs depicting rail lines at their zenith as well as their abandoned remnants today, it provides a vivid portrait of an industrial saga that has touched the lives of millions of Americans. This book is 376 pages including a comprehensive index.

$24.95 paperbound
$39.95 clothbound
376 pages; 134 photographs; 65 maps

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"American Communities in the Age of Rail Line Abandonment: Western United States"

Thousands of miles of railroad routes steeped in history are now dusty trails bereft of their former significance. Rendered expendable by evolving market forces, these bygone corridors are testaments to the profound changes in the way we travel and conduct business.

"When the Railroad Leaves Town" illustrates the circumstances surrounding the rise and fall of rail service in 58 western U.S. communities distinguished for their notable railroad histories. It tells the story of transportation providers struggling to survive and the legal battles and civic initiatives spurred by the abandonment of routes. Generously illustrated with maps and photographs depicting rail lines at their zenith and their abandoned remnants today, the book rekindles the saga of the Milwaukee Road, Pacific Electric, Rio Grande, Rock Island, and dozens of other "fallen flags" of the West.

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Review from Railroad History Review, August 2005

Tracks Lost in the West
By: Frederic H. Abendschein

Having reviewed the first volume of Joseph Schwieterman’s work on railroad abandonment and its impact on selected communities in the East and South, I formulated some expectations for his second volume on railroads in the West. First, it had to include something on a town on the Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Coast extension, particularly along the electrified portion. Next, I expected a chapter on a community along the Rock Island because it was such a prominent abandoned railroad. Granger towns, there had to be something on a granger town. And maybe something on a mining town and a logging town. Schwieterman certainly met my expectations. He covered not one, but two towns on the Milwaukee Road. Avery, Idaho, was on the west end of the 440-mile Rocky Mountain Division electrification, while Harlowton, Montana, was at its eastern end. Booneville, Ark., filled the bill for the Rock Island town, being on the railroad’s Choctaw Route between Memphis and Amarillo, Texas.

Some of the granger communities were Currie, Minn., West Branch, Iowa, and Watford City, N.D. Virginia City, Nev., and Nome, Alaska, were two of the mining towns covered in the book. Placerville, Calif., was a logging community with several narrow-gauge lines and an aerial tramway feeding a South Pacific branch. Then there are the pleasant surprises, places you just either would never have expected in the book or never heard about before. Among the former are Beverly Hills, Calif., and Honolulu, Hawaii. The great Pacific Electric interurban system served Beverly Hills and helped it grow into a "premier streetcar suburb". Ultimately, PE’s owner, Southern Pacific Railroad, absorbed the line and ran freight service to the famous movie-star community until abandoning it in 1983. The narrow-gauge Oahu Railway served not only the Navy docks and sugar plantations, but also Honolulu. At the height of World War II, trains left Honolulu regularly on intervals as short as five minutes, bound for Pearl Harbor.

As in his previous volume, Schwieterman uses a standard format—as historical perspective, followed by sections titled Changing Times, Abandonment’s Legacy, Epilogue and For Further Study. This format stays fresh throughout both volumes and is quite flexible at handling a range of large cities (Honolulu, population 876,146) to small towns (Long Pine, Neb., population 350) and a range of railroad sizes, from Class 1s (Union Pacific) to short lines (Virginian & Truckee) with equal ease. Some communities such as Beverly Hills prospered after losing rail service. Others, especially those that were always extremely dependant on the railroad, are taking longer to recover.

The book will appeal to many audiences: those who enjoyed Volume 1; railfans who want to follow up on their favorite abandoned railroads and routes; municipal planners who want to learn how communities deal with losing a transportation mode; and those citizens whose towns have just lost, or are about to lose, railroad service. I recommend it to all of those audiences.

Review from "Choice", June 2005

Once the lifeline of western communities, the railroad’s departure heralded decline. Communities sought to attract railroads and lobbied to keep them, to no avail. Since 1916, 125,000 miles of rail lines have been abandoned, nearly half the existing routes.

A complement to Schwieterman’s 2001 volume on the eastern US, this examination of rail line abandonment in the western states reveals that the presence of the railroad in a community outlasts the final train. Besides the impact on the physical, social, and economic fabric of a community, abandoning rail lines leaves emotional scars that can catalyze interest in local history and in creation of railroad museums or tourist lines.

Of the more than 25,000 communities that lost rail service, Schwieterman selects one to four per state (except California with 12). The treatment given each community follows a similar pattern: sections on "historical perspective", "changing times", "abandonment’s legacy", brief bibliography, map, and black-and-white photographs. Interdisciplinary in approach, this study takes into account urban planning and local, economic, political and transportation history. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Transportation, historical and comprehensive collections.

—M. Nilsen, Indiana University South Bend

Review from Ture West Magazine, July 2005

Save another book for your rainy afternoons because this big book demands some of your time. Scholastic in nature and lengthy, this book by Schwieterman nevertheless will jolt you awake with its innovative approach to defining the history of many notable western towns. From Tombstone, Arizona, to Wallace, Idaho, and from Booneville, Arkansas, to Honolulu, Hawaii, the reader witnesses the arrival of prominent railroads to these locations, as well as their demise when they are abandoned by the same rail lines. Some of the towns recovered; some did not. For history nitpickers and movie critics, this book provides an unexpected perspective in understanding the commerce and economics of the west. Get this one for your library.

—Chuck Lewis


When the Railroad Leaves Town

"This is an interesting book, not just for rail historians…of the disappearance of rail service from a community."
—National Railway Bulletin

"Recommended reading… An accessible and pleasingly designed look at 64 communities ... that grew up with, and then lost railroad service."

"A Wonderful Book--A Fascinating Read"
—Michael Winicki,

"There’s a lot here for the [railroad enthusiast] interested in the past as well as the present"
—Railroad & Railfan

"Do we need another book on railroad abandonments? The answer is "Yes". This book by Professor Schwieterman deals with post-abandonment results, directed principally to land use. It is timely and unique."
—Gordon MacDougall, Transportation Quarterly

"The book is appropriately documented, sports excellent maps, and contains a variety of striking historic and contemporary images. All levels/collections."

Full book review appearing in Planning, July 2002