4 Railway Lines Ended By Disaster

"This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper." - The Hollow Men by T.S Eliot.

Many railroads and railroad companies have come and gone over the course of the last two centuries. While the railroad network is much smaller than what we had in 1917, the list of railroad companies is even smaller than that. The industry has consolidated, such that most formerly independent companies have now been integrated into the Class I railroad network that we know today.

To put that into perspective; in 1925 there were 174 Class I railroads. Today there are 7 in the United States, including Amtrak.

Short lines still exist, of course, but are nowhere near as prevalent as they once were. As their fortunes are ever changing, some lines are wildly successful and others whimper away until they are abandoned, and forgotten.

And then there are those that go out with a bang. Here are 4 Railroads whose lives were cut short due to unforeseen disaster.

#4) Illinois Midland Railway

Image: railroadheritage.org

The Illinois Midland Railway has the distinction of being the shortest railroad on this list by far. In fact, it was one of the shortest railroads ever to exist, being about two miles in length, operating between the tiny villages of Millington, IL and Newark, IL, serving the grain company in the area. It consisted of a single locomotive, and had a single employee to run the line in its entirety.
The Pittsburgh Press, 10/3/1943

Being this small had the advantages of keeping costs down. That being said, the line was too small to absorb the costs if some of its infrastructure were to become damaged. Sadly, this is exactly what happened in 1967, as arsonists destroyed the only bridge along the line, rendering the two mile line incapable of moving its loads. As such, it was abandoned, and the grain company who was its only sponsor turned to the trucking industry to move its inventory.

#3) Hawaii Consolidated Railway

Image: damontucker.com

By far, the Hawaii Consolidated Railway was the largest railway in Hawaii, located on the Big Island with its HQ in Hilo. It was the only standard gauge line on any of the islands. This provided tourists with wonderful views of the ocean, and allowed the sugarcane industry to transport goods to ships. While the line was expensive, it was originally a profitable line before it was petitioned in 1907 to extend up the island another 33.5 miles, having to navigate the rugged coastline of the Island. The line would go into receivership. Nonetheless, over time it did manage to right its financial ship and it appeared after World War II was over that it might become profitable.

Except the Ocean had other ideas. On April 1, 1946, a massive tsunami caused by an earthquake off the Aleutian Islands headed straight for the island, completely destroying the track. The railway filed for abandonment soon after, and most of the sugarcane plantations went to trucking. Hawaii would purchase some of the right-of-way for a reconstruction of the Kamehameha Highway.

A long but wonderful write up and story about the line can be found here

2) Missouri & North Arkansas Railway
Image: northarkansasline.com
At its peak, the Missouri & North Arkansas Railway was the lonest line on this list, connecting Joplin, MO with the Mississippi River at West Helena, AR, about 300 miles in length.

Of each of these lines listed here, this is the only line that survived one tragedy. But it may very well be the unluckiest line here, as it could never seem to escape one disaster before another would strike. In 1914, faulty communications resulted in a head on collision crash that killed 38 people. In 1921, a wage strike and vandalism resulted in the line being out of service for 8 months. 

It would regain profitability afterward, until 1927 when flooding destroyed much of its Eastern Arkansas infrastructure. After things dried up, it suffered a massive fire in 1941. Another fire occurred over World War II, and finally another flood on the White River in 1946 were too much for the line. Battered, weary, and beaten, it came back to life as two discontinuous short lines, before nearly the entire right of way was abandoned by the 1970's. 

1) Florida East Coast Railway's Key West Extension

The Florida East Coast Railway is still in service today, and has been a massive success, especially when compared to the other railroads on this list. But that said, even successful companies have history they'd prefer to forget. (Right of way)

Postcard of a Train on Overseas Railroad Long Key Viaduct. Wikipedia Commons

Henry Flagler, the Patriarch of the FEC Railway, envisioned a line to connect mainland Florida with the Florida Keys, ending at Key West. While this would require significant engineering problems, Flagler believed the opening of the Panama Canal would present an opportunity for trade with the west, and the cost of the road was worth it. Known as the Overseas Railroad, it cost over $50 Million, as 4,000 men battled three hurricanes in the seven years it took to complete the line. 

Flagler would ride the maiden voyage of the line and die shortly afterward. Billed as "The Eighth Wonder of the World", the railroad was initially successful despite the engineering challenges.

But, as one could predict, given the crew dealt with three hurricanes during its construction, another hurricane hit the Keys in 1935. Known as the Labor Day Hurricane, before Hurricanes were named, it was a Category 5 which dealt catastrophic damage to the line. With 40 miles of track destroyed, FEC was unable to pay for the costs of reconstructing the line, and ultimately abandoned it. The right-of-way was sold to the State of Florida, who extended US-1 all the way to Key West along the route, and thus the Overseas Highway would live on, even today, where the Overseas Railroad could not.

There are certainly other disasters which have been impossible to overcome for railroad lines, but these are some of the most significant. Thanks as always for reading!


  1. Maybrook branch of the new york central / New haven demise began due to the 1974 fire of the Poughkeepsie bridge.

  2. Thanks for the info! I found this interesting article on that line; https://www.nytimes.com/1995/02/05/nyregion/the-maybrook-line-and-its-rise-and-fall.html

  3. The Rural Bristol Branch of the B&M, retroactively abandoned after major flooding wiped out most of the line in the 1930's. Rolling stocking remaining on the line had to be removed via state highways on flatbed trailers.


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