Memories of the Bonnie Doon Railroad
Written by Galen Lawrence
The Omaha spur line affectionately known by Doonites as the "Bonnie Doon," has been a curious but important part of Doon's history. Cross-country rivals down played its importance somewhat and some called it a "streak of rust." This observance might have applied in its later years, but in the 1800's and early 1900's it definitely was an important part of the flourishing town. Since it has been a vital thread in the unraveling of Doon's history and a central theme for Doon's memorabilia and centennial celebration, this writer thought it interesting to trace some of its past.
A typical trip on the Bonnie Doon would go something like this. You would purchase your fare from Depot Agent Chancey McDowell in time to board the train about 6:40 a.m. (The depot was located across the street and slightly west of the Bonnie Doon Hotel, whose location is now occupied by Northwest Mfg.) Conductor John Van Valkenburg would call out the "all aboard" and your journey would begin as engineer Jim Suddaby fired up the boilers and started the big wheels rolling. Your trip would take you through the scenic Rock River valley, crossing the K.T. Trail (old 75 or the present diagonal northeast of Doon) in about two miles. It next crossed the present highway 75 and cut across the northwest corner of the Hy Schnepf farm to the first stop at Lakewood. (Lakewood had an elevator in those days and the train would pick up carloads of grain in the harvest season.) You then passed along the higher ground on the east side of the river until you crossed the bridge over the Big Rock about one mile north of Lakewood village. The train then stayed on the West Side of the river, through the Hunt farm, past the East Side of the Rock Rapids Cemetery into the town of Rock Rapids. If you wished to have business or shop in the town you would get off at the Omaha depot (which was just across the tracks from the Illinois Central Depot.)
If you wished to go to Luverne you would continue through Rock Rapids, crossing main street and the Rock Island tracks (which ran east and west) and continue along side and just west of the Illinois Central tracks (past the present site of the Rock Rapids Golf Course.) About one and one half miles North of town you would cross the Illinois Central tracks and continue through the flat Rock River valley to Luverne, Minnesota. Where you would leave the train at the Omaha depot (which was located near the pony express stop just north of present highway 16 and near the West Side of the Rock River.) For your return trip you would board the train about 6:45 P.M. and arrive back in Doon about 8:10 P.M. It might be added here that not only people from the connecting towns used the train but also passengers from the Sioux City and Northern would stay overnight in the Bonnie Doon Hotel and board the train in the morning for points north.
Some sidelights concerning the train, which this writer found while researching, were quite interesting. Alice Jacobsma, who at that time lived on the Lacey farm northeast of Doon (now farmed by the Ken Post family,) told of several incidents. One day as they were anticipating the daily run of the train (across the road from their home) someone ventured that the old train was due for a derailment. Some minutes later it happened as they were watching and all cars except the locomotive left the tracks. She also mentioned the section workers would leave a handcar on a siding near their farmyard and the young ones would push it on the rails all the way to Lakewood and back between runs of the train. Mr. grandfather, W.W. Reynolds, who lived about one mile east of the tracks had a hired man named Dell Towne who was a liberal imbiber of the "spirits." On one occasion they found him going along the tracks with a shovel shouting, "Hoboes, dig 'em out." One other time he lay across the rails hoping to end it all, only to be rescued in time.
Glen Hunt, an early years farmer near Rock Rapids, through whose farm the train ran, recalled that in the later years the tracks were allowed to deteriorate and the old train would slowly wobble along so badly that the bell on the engine would ring continuously. He remembered that after the victory in World War I, the celebration in Rock Rapids included shooting holes in the Bonnie Doon water tower, rendering it useless.
Mrs. John Keegan mentioned that her late husband John worked on the crew repairing the bridge over the Big Rock River after a flood washed it out.
In the early thirties, the demise of the Bonnie Doon became certain and in 1933 it was completely abandoned and torn up for salvage.
Some of the right of way can be traced between the terminal towns, and there are old pilings left near and in the stream where the tracks crossed the Big Rock. Just north of Doon can be seen old pilings where crossed ravines and the "S" curve still remains in the diagonal (or the old K.T. highway) where the tracks crossed the road. Just north of the Rock Rapids Golf Course can be seen the two rights of ways side by side of the Omaha and Illinois Central and an old yellow limestone culvert still remains in the Omaha right of way. Another culvert remains near the John Buss hotel in Doon.
These traces of the past remind us of a time when the only other mode of transportation was using the horse. As times changed the development of the automobile allowed people to move about without complying with train schedules. The "Bonnie Doon" has served well its niche in time.