The railroad was a vital part of Ramona’s history. In fact, the town sprang up because the railroad came through this territory. Ramona was established by the Rock Island railroad as the first station southwest of Herington, which was the dividing point. Settlers started arriving in the late 1870s and early 1880s. The arrival of large groups of immigrants, especially the Dutch-German-Russian Mennonites, was made possible by the railroad. Railroads advertised the advantages of Kansas throughout the eastern United States and even Europe, distributing printed leaflets in Dutch, German, Swedish, Danish, French and Russian, about the opportunities in the mid-west.
According to Marion County, Past and Present, "One year before the railroad came through, the population (in Marion County) stood at 767. Ten years later, after the railroad came through, the population in Marion County was 12,471…..the land was worth nothing until the railroad reached it.” One Kansas historian said that the railroad “turned the great American desert into an oasis.”
Kansas was especially appealing because there was a state law that allowed men who belonged to non-resistance groups—like the Mennonites—to be exempt from military service. Other advantages were the freedoms offered in the United States—political, social, religious and economic—and the ability to own land, which was often restricted or impossible in European countries.
The Santa Fe railroad went so far as to charter a Red Star ocean steamer to bring Mennonite goods and implements to the United States, and when they reached New York, the railroad transported them by rail to Kansas, for free! While the railroads lost money for a few years because of all the free services they provided, in the long run, their strategy paid off, because when these thrifty, hardworking farmers became prosperous, they did a lot of shipping!
Trains could transport supplies and food to settlers, and haul produce to market more quickly than wagon trains—traveling 20 miles per hour—while a wagon could maybe travel 20 miles in a day. The cost to ship freight was less expensive by train—a stagecoach might charge 20 a mile, where trains charged 5 to 7cents. (From Marion County, Past and Present.)
The Rock Island Depot was one of one of my favorite places in town. In Ramona, we walked everywhere, and leaving for a trip was no exception. I remember toting suitcases down the street as we walked to the depot. In the center of the depot was an old potbelly stove, which provided warmth, as we waited to board the train that would take us to see relatives in Wisconsin, Illinois and other far-off places. Since my father worked for the railroad, we had a free pass to travel.
Anna Mae (Sader) Stika (From an interview in the Ramona News, 2002)
In the mid-1880s, two railroads—the Rock Island and Santa Fe—built tracks that crossed each other, just northeast of Ramona. This crossing became known as “Jacob’s Crossing,” named after the Jacobs family—some of the first folks to settle in this area.
To service the trains with water, the Santa Fe built a large water tank on the right-of-way, so steam locomotives could replenish their water tanks. The train companies also built a pump house and a dam to hold back the water on Lyons Creek. Water from the dam was pumped to the tank that towered about 42 feet in the air.
In the early days, Mr. Ramsey, from Strong City, came every day on the motor car, better known as the “doodlebug,” to pump water into the tank. Later, two farmers from the area—Charles Daetwiler and Ted Beltz—took on this job.
Dale Sondergard: (Excerpt from A Century of Memories.)
In 1902, my grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Beltz, moved near Jacob’s Crossing, and built a new creamery near the water refueling station for the Santa Fe and Rock Island Railroads. He also built an icehouse down near the creek where the dam was located. In the winter he and his boys could cut ice blocks to store in the icehouse, so they could keep their butter and ice cream cold for shipping. They named their business “The Pleasant View Creamery” and operated it in the country for another 20 years, buying cream, milk and eggs from local farmers.
Mike Beltz: (From an interview for the Ramona News, 2008)
The dam on Lyons Creek also created a nice wide body of water, so we had a good swimming hole in the summer, and a great place to ice skate during the winter.
There was a caboose depot near the water tank, which provided a place to wait for the doodlebug, or other passenger services. Tickets were purchased from the conductor, once you got on the train. Folks used the train to get to Abilene or Hope for medical appointments, or to go shopping in Herington. This custom continued well into the 1940s.
The Santa Fe railroad also had a stockyard on their right-of-way at Jacob’s Crossing. Cattle were shipped to this station and kept there to rest overnight, or contained by ranchers for dehorning. Weighing was done at the other end of the journey since there was no scale at this site.
As locomotives changed from steam power to diesel, the need for the water tank was eliminated. Eventually the stockyard was razed, the caboose depot burned to the ground when transients took hay into the building to keep warm and bed down, and the dam on the creek was blown. Lyons Creek is back to being just a small spring-fed stream.
A Union Pacific steam engine, built in 1944, came “whooshing” through Ramona in 2006. A group of train lovers gathered at the tracks to await the majesty of this 62-year-old antique. As they sipped coffee and enjoyed donuts, memories were brought to mind.
The last time a steam locomotive traveled the rails from Herington to Ramona was in 1953. I remember when there used to be two steam-driven passenger trains—Engines No. 39 and No. 40—that came by Ramona every single day.
When Warren and I were dating (1946), I lived in Tampa and he lived in Ramona. I longed for him to write me the occasional love letter, and would often run down to the post office after school to see if I had any mail. You see, Warren could mail a note in the morning from Ramona, and it would reach Tampa by the afternoon mail, because the trains transported the mail twice a day—once in the morning and again in the afternoon.
I can still see Mr. Klover, standing there by the railroad tracks waiting for the train to come. Do you know, that’s how he died; a train hit him. He was deaf and didn’t hear it coming.
Trains still rumble through Ramona—Union Pacific freight trains—shaking the earth so intensely that folks feel it several blocks away. And whistles still blow in the dead of night, so loudly, that one is awakened from sleep. And because Ramona has a double track, the trains regularly sit on both tracks, blocking entrance and exit from town. When that happens, folks say, “the iron curtain has dropped.”
It’s been more than a century since the first trains clattered and puffed through Ramona, and over the years, much has changed. There’s no passenger service, no depot, no mail delivered, no herds of cattle pushed aboard or automobiles rolled out of boxcars. Nevertheless, part of Ramona’s identity will always be wrapped up in trains. There’s just something about their power that intrigues us, no matter what our age.