The rain came, and came. The ground was soaked to the point it would not hold any more water. The rain that was to come would have to run off. That meant the already bank full rivers and streams would over-flow and move almost anything in their path. So it was on Decoration Day in 1935. In the Republican River Valley it’s called the Great Flood of ’35.
A Mile Wide
The Republican River was normally a small shallow stream, but that day it was a mile wide and 15 to 20 feet deep. After the water had done its damage and the river was back to normal, the railroad began to rebuild. There were miles of track washed out, bridges gone, twisted rail and missing ties to con-tend with. The main line was out of service for three weeks.
After traffic was restored and the valley towns finished their clean ups, a celebration was held in McCook. The Reconstruction Celebra-tion! A great number of notable politicians, news-paper reporters and rail-road officials were on hand for the celebration. There were speeches, hand shaking, and even a parade.
October 23, 24, and 25th 1935 marked the dates of the Republican River Valley Reconstruction celebration. The celebration was to highlight the work and accomplishments of the valley in its rebuilding efforts.
The CB&Q railroad, the Telephone Company, the counties and the farmers made great progress in rebuilding the valley in the summer of ’35. There were over 4000 men working on the railroad tracks, right of ways and bridges. The Phone Company (Northwestern Bell) had to replace many miles of poles and wire. It was the railroad section men and station operators and the phone linemen that put out the early warnings about the high water and the coming wall of water down the valley that saved many lives.
During the celebration’s three day event there was a parade downtown Main Street each day. Speeches by a great number of politicians, railroad president, Governors and local leaders were delivered. The CB&Q held a picnic at the high school and the famous Burlington Band had reunion. There was a tent city set up at the end of Main Street by the American Legion for the veterans of World War I, the war to end all wars. They were there to march in the daily parades.
There was a passion play held in the canyon east of the present college campus. A stage was erected on the East side of the canyon, benches for seats were carved out of the west bank. The advice was to bring your own blanket. Lights and sound, the finest sound system to that date was used. The cast numbered in the thousands. The actors wore their costumes when they walked to the canyon. Quite a sight to see the shepherds, wise men, roman soldiers and others on the streets. Rev. David A. Johnson from Kearney wrote the play and also developed the sound system, a unique thing in 1935. The play was performed on a long stage with the spotlights following the action. All the actors were on the stage at the same time.
Another sight was the mounted horse Calvary of the U.S. Army, performing in the parades and doing exhibition jumping with their mounts. The infantry outfits were here also and they staged a mock battle at the fairgrounds.
The hotels and cabin camps were over flowing. The railroad had Pullman cars sitting in their yard and rented sleeping space, one dollar for an upper berth and $1.50 for a lower berth. There was also a miniature steam engine with rubber tires that gave rides and was also in the parade.
One of the objectives of the celebration was to let the rest of the nation know that the CB&Q was back in full opera-tion. The main line from Denver to Chicago was up and capable of run-ning fast. To help point this out, the railroad brought a new Zephyr to McCook to give a high speed run to the newspa-per reporters and the other celebrities.
The name of this Zephyr was The Mark Twain, Number 9903, and only the fourth stainless steel train made for the C. B. & Q. It was diesel pow-ered, a new concept, only a year old in the railroad industry. So, after the parade and speeches, the reporters and other officials boarded the Mark Twain. Their ride was to take them to Oxford, Nebraska. The distance was 54 miles.
Forty-five Minute Trip
They made the trip in 45 minutes! That certainly showed everyone that the roadbed was good and ready for busi-ness. At Oxford, most of the passengers were to be picked up by a train that had followed them out of McCook. During the Mark Twain’s trip to Oxford, it reached a speed of 122 MPH. This was about Edison, some 12 miles west of Oxford. Great newspaper accounts were written about this tremendous speed.
Now comes the rest of the story! The train dis-patched from McCook to follow the Mark Twain was made up of four cars, three pas-senger and one baggage, pulled by a steam engine that had to be fired by hand. That meant using a scoop shovel to put coal in the firebox to heat the water to make steam to drive the wheels and pull the cars. The engine was designated by class number as a P5. The number of the engine was 2558.
The engineer was Mart Scott; the fireman was Sid Hubert. When Engineer Scott picked up his running orders at the depot at McCook, he asked the Superintendent how fast he could go with Old 2558 following the train that was trying to set a speed record. The Superintendent said with some sarcasm, “Just as damn fast as you want to.” Mart rubbed his thumbs together as he did many times, a trade-mark that earned him a nickname of “Thumbs.”
His remark, although we don’t know if the Superintendent heard him was, “I’ve been wait-ing a long time to hear that.” Old 2558 followed the sleek new Streamliner out of McCook, staying far enough behind to let the Mark Twain clear the block ahead of them.
As the Mark Twain picked up speed, so did Old 2558. As the Mark Twain, 9903 was making its top speed through Edison, Old 2558 had increased its speed to the point where it was catch-ing up with the train that was setting the speed record.
Fireman Hubert was scooping coal, trying to hit the firebox and keep up the steam pressure, but he took time to try and check the speed by timing the mile posts with his watch. He said the telegraph poles looked like fence posts, they were going by so fast.
Then he told Engineer Scott he had better check his speed for he thought his watch was haywire. They had covered the last mile in less than 30 seconds. That would have been over 120 MPH!
There wasn’t anything wrong with his watch; they were making over 121 MPH. In fact, they had gone fast enough that they had to set the brakes, they were catch-ing up with the train set-ting the speed record.
Beat the Record
There were several workmen riding the steam train; they too had checked the speed. Over 121 MPH was right. So it was that Old 2558 had run as fast and maybe a little faster than the new record holder. Of course the reporters were writ-ing about their ride, unaware of the historic event that was taking place just behind them.
Then old steam engine 2558 returned to McCook with all the passengers from the Mark Twain. The new stainless steel train was headed for St. Joseph, Missouri. to be christened by the granddaughter of Mark Twain. It was then to be put into passenger service on a regular run.
When Old 2558 arrived back in McCook, and its celebrity passen-gers were unloaded, the CB&Q Superintendent unloaded his thoughts on the engineer and fireman. It was his position that the steam train should not have gone faster than a record setting brand new diesel.
Naturally most every-one knew, in his heart (if he had one), he was some-what proud of the fact that the steam engine was still able to compete with the new diesel-elec-tric locomotive.
The celebration was a great success. The people of the Republican Valley had labored hard to reconstruct their rail-road, highways, phone system, electric power system and even their lives. There were great losses up and down the valley and there were great things done to over come them. I think one of the great-est was the Old 2558 steam engine setting the speed record. Yes, and it still stands today!