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My affection for old maps goes back a long way, as any of my longtime friends and family can testify. Maps are fuel for the imagination, and I still use historic maps a lot.

I’ve developed a new talk that I’m ready to start giving to libraries and civic groups – it’s about the timber boom in Missouri that began in the late 1880s and continued into the teens, and the cultural and environmental repercussions of that boom. Needless to say, historic maps play a part. The one shown here is an 1877 railroad map of Missouri.

The solid line is the Iron Mountain Railroad, which had only reached as far as Pilot Knob before the war, but had by 1877 been extended all the way into Arkansas. The dotted lines are “projected” railroads; and by “projected” we can go all the way from “overtly planned” to “wishfully imagined.” I re-read Dee Brown’s classic Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow recently, and it was striking in his research how haphazard the railroad expansion was; if a speculator could get enough backers, then a railroad in that area would be built, regardless of need or connection to existing lines. Railroad mania extended to the local level in the form of county governments that would grant all kinds of incentives to railroad companies, including bonds that would burden the counties for decades afterward when the company went bust. David Thelen’s Paths of Resistance describes many instances of counties across the state that gave tremendous financial assistance to sketchy railroad companies, often assisted by liberal amounts of graft, followed by taxpayer revolts in later years as the bond payments came due. Indeed, some of the incidents of courthouse-burning that occurred in the state during the latter part of the 19th century can be attributed to taxpayers trying to wipe out the county’s tax records in a spasm of felonious retribution. (Other instances occurred because of another type of crime-covering, which I will devote a later post to.)

For the purposes of my talk, though, the item of interest on that map is the projected railroad between Van Buren and Poplar Bluff. In 1877, it was an item of fancy, although lines would eventually be built from Williamsville to Van Buren and from Neelyville (not shown on the map) to Doniphan. But the central development in the timber boom was what became known as the Current River Line, which came in from the west, snaking in from Willow Springs to Mountain View to Birch Tree to Van Buren and eventually to a town that didn’t even exist yet, the timber-milling hub of Grandin. That was the line that opened up the southern Ozarks to the timber boom.

I gave this talk at the Missouri River Regional Library in Jefferson City last weekend and was fortunate that Gene Brunk, a longtime forester in Missouri, was in the audience. Gene’s grandfather was a fireman (a boiler-stoker, that is, not a firefighter) at the smaller of the two Grandin mills, and Gene had some wonderful photos and stories to tell.