Restoring Marshalltown’s rail roots

T-R Photo by Mike Burvee 
Members of the Marshalltown NARVE (National Association of Retired and Veteran Railway Employees) came out to Mega-10 Park on Thursday to help refurbish the long-standing caboose. It went out of commission about 10. This particular caboose was signed to Dick Reisel (not pictured) for his route from Marshalltown to Mason City.

T-R Photo by Mike Burvee Members of the Marshalltown NARVE (National Association of Retired and Veteran Railway Employees) came out to Mega-10 Park on Thursday to help refurbish the long-standing caboose. It went out of commission about 10. This particular caboose was signed to Dick Reisel (not pictured) for his route from Marshalltown to Mason City.

Marshalltown used to be a hub for the Chicago and North Western railroad. In 1995 Union Pacific took the helm and that’s when things began to change.

Trains coming from all directions traveled through or stopped in Marshalltown. Within the past 10 years cabooses started to become extinct on the rails, but one remained and was placed at Mega-10 Park.

Marshalltown Parks and Recreation Director Anne Selness reached out to a group of retired railway workers and see if they would repaint it. NARVE (National Association of Retired & Veteran Railway Employees) had a handful of members present at the Mega-10 park on Thursday.

Dick Meisel had the deepest connection with the caboose.

“I had this signed to my name for a route from Marshalltown to Mason City,” Meisel said. “When I stepped onto it the other day it brought back a lot of memories.”

It served as a home away from home to him and other crew members.

Pots and pans, rain gear and survivor kits highlighted some of the items that would be taken on board for their trips. The longest such that Meisel was on went from Marshalltown to Clinton to Des Moines, which was considered a long day.

“Trains only went about 30 miles per hour on most trips,” Meisel said.

In addition to Meisel, Marshalltown NARVE President Tom Laws and treasurer Gene Jackson, also took some time to refurbish the caboose.

After devoting most of 40 years to the railroad industry a lot happened. Stark contrasts can be made to the workers of today vs. their time which they touched on.

Back then crews were made up of four men. One was a brakeman in the back accompanied by a conductor, and in the front was a head conductor along with an engineer. At times a fireman was on board as well.

“Downsizing of the industry brought a crew of four to two,” Laws said. “Now they’re thinking of reducing it down to one person, which just isn’t safe.”

Technology has also been incorporated into today’s railway work, changing the necessary content to operate.

“I’d have to be re-taught since things are so different if I ever went back,” Meisel said. “I learned primarily on the job, from the older generations.”

Just like the number of World War II veterans is starting to dwindle out, so too is the amount of long-standing railmen. There were times when many had 40 or 50 years’ experience, now it seems to be no more than 10 or 15 years.

Despite the changes, cabooses are starting to become relevant again, just not on the tracks.

“It seems like more towns are trying to incorporate these into their parks,” Jackson said. “For Marshalltown it serves as a sense of pride once it’s been painted and cleaned up.”

The yellow caboose that stands near the entrance of Mega-10 park isn’t just a derelict piece of metal on wheels. It brings back the roots of the town and serves as a relic of the past for those who were part of it.

“A lot of us were like family when we worked on the railways,” Meisel said. “It’s nice to show recognition of our work, and to keep around for years to come.”