The St. Louis–San Francisco Railway, popularly known as the Frisco, was a regional freight and passenger carrier serving the south-central United States. From its business headquarters in St. Louis and operational hub at Springfield, Missouri, the Frisco and subsidiary lines operated about five thousand miles of track, most of which was in Missouri and Oklahoma. There were lesser amounts, respectively, in Kansas, Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. The system was X-shaped, with the original main line extending southwest from St. Louis through Oklahoma City to Texas. During the twentieth century, the Frisco developed a second main line from Kansas City to Memphis, Tennessee, Birmingham, Alabama, and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico at Pensacola, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama. Although it never reached its proclaimed destination on the Pacific coast, the Frisco and subsidiary lines constituted a respectable and profitable system when it was merged into the Burlington Northern Railroad in 1980.
Created in 1876, the Frisco assumed a franchise already four corporate generations old. Its nucleus was as a branch of the Pacific Railroad, chartered by Missouri in 1849 to build a line west from St. Louis. Backed by federal land grants and state-guaranteed bonds, the company began construction of its St. Louis–Kansas City main line in 1852. With the primary line unfinished, the company amended its charter to include a southwestern branch and received additional land grants. The South West Branch of the Pacific Railroad followed the geographical spine of the northern Ozarks, generally parallel with the state road connecting St. Louis to Springfield, the region’s principal city and key to southwest Missouri. The line would serve what was expected to be a fabulous mineral district in the Ozarks, and, more importantly, link St. Louis to a proposed southern transcontinental route along the thirty-fifth parallel. Promoted in the 1850s as a feasible snow-free path to the Pacific through Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and California, the thirty-fifth parallel route dominated the line’s fortunes through the end of the nineteenth century.
Construction of the South West Branch began in 1855 at Franklin, renamed Pacific, thirty-seven miles west of St. Louis. The project was more difficult than expected, with the track extended only seventy miles to Rolla by December 1860. With the onset of the Civil War, not another rail westward would be spiked down until 1866. The federal army seized the South West Branch in June 1861. Operations continued under civilian control, but at the sufferance of the army for protection and financial assistance. The rail line became critical to the logistics of Union military operations in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. The federal government considered extending the line fifty miles to the Gasconade River as a military measure, but the plan was not adopted, and Rolla remained the railhead for the duration of the war. Confederate forces disrupted the South West Branch only once, late in September 1864 during Sterling Price’s Missouri Expedition.
Destruction was more severe along the main line of the Pacific Railroad and doomed the bankrupt company. It defaulted on state bonds in 1865, resulting in seizure of the property, separation of the South West Branch from the parent road (the latter would become the Missouri Pacific Railway), and sale to John C. Frémont in 1866. Styled the Southwest Pacific Railroad, the new company built only twelve miles of track to the Gasconade River before defaulting, leading to another seizure and sale by the state and formation of the South Pacific Railroad in 1868.
The South Pacific was a subsidiary of the Atlantic and Pacific (A&P) Railroad, a congressionally chartered concern backed by a million potential acres in federal land grants. It put hundreds of men to work building a bridge across the Gasconade and converting track from broad to standard gauge. The company reached Springfield in 1869 and the western boundary of Missouri by 1870, thereby meeting the requirements of the state’s charter. The A&P bought the South Pacific to make up the eastern division of a transcontinental railway to California. Lampooned as a land speculation with a railroad attached to it, the A&P extended tracks a few miles to Vinita, Oklahoma, and the thirty-fifth parallel. The resistance of Indian tribes and competition from other railroads blocked construction of the central division, but some work began on a western division before the national recession of 1873 sent the A&P into receivership in 1875. In 1876 the Southwestern Branch emerged from the A&P as an independent entity styled the St. Louis and San Francisco Railway. The name indicated the road’s objective to build a snow-free route along the thirty-fifth parallel to the West Coast, but cynics pointed out that the new company had no physical presence at either named terminus.
The southwest line had been managed in turn for the benefit of the Pacific Railroad, the Frémont crowd, and the A&P Railroad. Once on its own, the Frisco extended its main line to Tulsa and Oklahoma City; built a branch from Peirce City (later Pierce City), Missouri, to Wichita, Kansas, and a connection with the Santa Fe Railway; bought the Joplin Railroad in what became the rich Tri-State Mineral District of Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma; and began building from Monett, Missouri, to Fayetteville and Fort Smith, Arkansas, eventually reaching Paris and Fort Worth, Texas. The Frisco completed its own line from Pacific to St. Louis in 1883, avoiding rental of Missouri Pacific tracks, and gained entry into Kansas City during the same period. Track mileage increased to nearly eighteen hundred miles in twenty years.
As the Frisco aggressively developed into the south and west-central United States, it purchased what was left of the A&P and allied with the stronger Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1880 to revive the thirty-fifth parallel project. The idea was to avoid intractable Native American tribes in Oklahoma by building a central division across southern Kansas and completing the western division from Albuquerque to California following the old A&P plan. The Santa Fe had its own ambitions, however, and the Santa Fe–Frisco alliance threatened Jay Gould’s monopoly in Texas and Collis P. Huntington’s Southern Pacific Railway in California. The resulting Gould-Huntington combination thwarted its rivals. Gould owned the Missouri Pacific and gained control of the Frisco in 1882, thereby commanding all access to the west from St. Louis. He choked off the Frisco’s expansion in Texas and forced the Santa Fe into an accommodation with the Gould-Huntington transatlantic scheme and abandonment of its own thirty-fifth parallel plans. As the subordinate partner in the agreement with the Santa Fe, the Frisco became a subsidiary of the stronger railroad. The Santa Fe used Frisco money and land grants inherited from Frémont and the A&P to complete its own line from Albuquerque to California and a connection with Huntington’s Southern Pacific. The St. Louis and San Francisco Railway Company never laid a rail in California, and it had lost its investment and corporate identity by 1893. The Frisco brand was saved only by the Santa Fe Railway’s financial difficulties and receivership.
Reorganized in 1896 as the St. Louis and San Francisco Railroad Company and free of the Santa Fe, the Frisco under its president, Benjamin F. Yoakum, began the greatest episode of empire building in its history. The new company looked away from the Pacific toward the Gulf of Mexico. Yoakum began with the lease/purchase of George H. Nettleton’s rival Kansas City, Fort Scott and Memphis Railway, by then completed to Memphis and extended to Birmingham, Alabama, the industrial capital of the South. The Frisco bought the Chicago and Eastern Illinois and, in turn, was purchased by the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific. The result was a north-south trunk line from Chicago through St. Louis toward the Gulf and a system for funneling the products of the Midwest to Gulf ports. Yoakum bought Louis Houck’s lines connecting with southeast Missouri’s rich timber resources and used parts of them to assemble the Frisco’s Mississippi River line from St. Louis to Memphis, constructed terminal facilities at New Orleans, and began building a major east-west artery in Arkansas and Oklahoma. In Texas, the Frisco reached Galveston via an assemblage known as the Coast Lines, reached its southwestern extent at Floydada, Texas, by purchase of the Quanah, Acme and Pacific, and connected with the Mexican National Railways at Eagle Pass, Texas.
Frisco’s lines expanded nearly fourfold to over fifty-four hundred miles, and the company’s unique “coonskin” emblem became a familiar sight by the time of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. By the end of the decade Yoakum’s empire encompassed seventeen thousand miles of track and was the largest rail system in the country operating under single management. It was billed as the Rock Island–Frisco System, with the Frisco subordinate to the larger Rock Island until 1909. Yoakum’s audacious scheme fell apart in 1913, however, due to overambitious spending, revolution in Mexico, and Mississippi River flooding in Arkansas and Louisiana, sending the Frisco and the Rock Island into receivership in 1913 and 1915 respectively.
The new St. Louis–San Francisco Railway emerged in 1916 divorced from the Rock Island and the Chicago and Eastern Illinois, minus the Coast Lines and truncated at Paris, Texas. The expansionist period was over, but the company retained 5,257 miles of track and the southwest/southeast configuration endured. Surrounded by the larger Missouri Pacific, Rock Island, Santa Fe, and Southern railroads, the Frisco recast itself as a reliable regional carrier with connections to all points. Helped by profits from transporting newly discovered Oklahoma oil, the railroad culled antique locomotives and equipment from a hodgepodge collected during the Yoakum years, rebuilt track and engine terminals, and bought or rebuilt locomotives and rolling stock. Testing and mechanical departments along with programs emphasizing efficiency and safety kept Frisco apace with modern railroading and fostered a change in operational philosophy from long, slow drags to shorter, higher-speed trains.
The Frisco carried soldiers and supplies to the border with Mexico in 1916 and to training camps in Kansas and Oklahoma during World War I. The railroad operated under US Railway Administration control from 1917 until 1920, performing satisfactorily when the national railroad system demonstrated great deficiencies. However, the war’s inflationary boom and subsequent deflation led to the most serious labor action in its history. The company prevailed over shop workers after a months-long strike at Springfield in 1922, but at some cost in public regard.
By the mid-1920s, the Frisco had acquired new passenger and freight locomotives that it made famous for long endurance and faster schedules across operationally challenging terrain. Expansive again, the company rounded out territory in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas. Most significant was a southeastern extension of the main line from Birmingham, Alabama, to Pensacola, Florida. Three decades in the making, George H. Nettleton’s Kansas City line to the Gulf was complete.
The Frisco was in good physical condition by the end of the 1920s. But with the Great Depression, traffic evaporated in 1930, leading to another receivership in 1932 and court-supervised trusteeship in 1933. The trustees ran the company conservatively, catching up with maintenance, improving freight service, and rebuilding motive power and equipment rather than buying new. Although financially unable to acquire modern passenger streamliners, the Frisco fielded homemade designs that spoke to the ingenuity of the Springfield shop force.
With an operational policy of efficiency and careful management, the railroad was ready to meet unprecedented levels of traffic during World War II. It helped transport a million gallons of Oklahoma and Texas oil daily to eastern ports after German U-boats closed Gulf routes in 1942, and thereafter moved half a dozen oil trains daily. The Frisco carried thousands of troops to and from warm-weather army bases and airfields in the South; civilian passenger business increased seven-fold. By war’s end, forty to fifty passenger and freight trains used the Frisco rails on a daily basis. Not only did the largely single-track Frisco remain fluid in the wartime flood of traffic, but the company also undertook a significant improvement on the main line west of the Gasconade River in 1944–1945. The Dixon-Hancock Hill project carved a new roadbed across bluffs, reduced steep grades and straightened curves, and eliminated a westbound bottleneck that had plagued operations since 1869. It was a remarkable engineering achievement.
Increased wartime profits led to the end of trusteeship in 1947. Under former Southern Railroad executive Clark S. Hungerford, the Frisco continued to demonstrate the vitality it exhibited during the war. It bought the bankrupt Alabama, Tennessee and Northern Railroad and secured access to the Gulf port at Mobile in 1948, and also embarked on a major modernization and mechanization plan, entirely rebuilding the operational hub at Springfield in 1950, completing conversion from steam to diesel locomotives ahead of schedule in 1951, building modern freight yards in Oklahoma and Tennessee, and extending centralized traffic control throughout the system. It abandoned a considerable number of branch lines, scrapped worn-out equipment, and reorganized track maintenance forces.
Frisco’s postwar freight business remained diversified and continued at near wartime levels. Outbound coal from Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Alabama produced the most carloads until petroleum products prevailed in 1931. Other mainstays were stone, sand and minerals, timber products, livestock, and agricultural products. There were seasonal rushes of cotton, wheat, strawberries, fruit, and vegetables from Missouri, Arkansas, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Meatpacking plants in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas were important shippers, as were Florida citrus and potato growers.
For a brief interval, Frisco Faster Freight moved on expedited schedules behind the best steam locomotives the company ever owned and the better diesels that replaced them. Diesel power efficiencies made steam-era locomotives and facilities obsolete, resulting in large reductions of personnel, especially at division engine terminals. The workforce at Springfield, five thousand strong at its peak, suffered proportionally less only due to the Frisco’s construction of new diesel shops and consolidation of facilities at the operational hub. But reductions had begun during the quest for efficiency after 1916, a process accelerated during the Great Depression but artificially reversed by World War II. Annual reports show the average number of employees peaked at about 27,800 in 1923, but dropped to around 13,900 by 1932. The number rebounded to about 20,100 by 1945, but the fully dieselized system averaged just 10,000 employees by 1960. There were 8,500 Frisco employees at the merger with Burlington Northern in 1980.
The end of passenger service also contributed to the loss of Frisco jobs. Other railroads had faster and more luxurious trains, but the Frisco’s premier trains, Meteor, Firefly, Texas Special, Bluebonnet, Sunnyland, and Florida Special, had a reputation for comfortable service and fast schedules between St. Louis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Fort Worth, Memphis, Birmingham, and Pensacola. After the war, the Frisco operated its greatest and best-known streamliners, the newly diesel-powered Meteor and Texas Special (the latter a joint effort with the Missouri, Kansas and Texas railway). Although well received, the new trains could not reverse the national decline in passenger traffic. The Frisco discontinued passenger service and became a freight-only railroad in March 1967. By then a tidy part of the freight business was carrying new automobiles from St. Louis–area factories to former passengers who would drive them.
The St. Louis–San Francisco was a lean, efficient, and profitable railroad for the remainder of its existence. A model for healthy regional carriers, it enjoyed a near monopoly within its territory and was well regarded within the industry and by customers. The road’s last expansion was a thirty-two-mile extension off the Salem branch to newly opened lead mines in southeast Missouri. However, the national railroad landscape changed when northeastern lines collapsed in the 1960s, leading to an era of mergers and, ultimately, federal deregulation. Given its central location and connections with the southwestern and southeastern United States, the Frisco was a logical candidate for merger. Management cooperated warily with the powerful rival Santa Fe, but reunification with former partner Rock Island had been an on-and-off prospect since the 1920s. However, the Rock Island was dying by the 1970s. Instead, the St. Louis–San Francisco merged in 1980 with the Burlington Northern Railway. The merger ended the Frisco’s 104-year corporate existence, but so many executives and managers migrated to BN that some former Frisco folks plausibly argue the St. Louis–San Francisco took over Burlington Northern and prepared it for merger with the Santa Fe in 1996. Successor BNSF Railway operates much of the former Frisco system, including both main lines, although the historic portion from St. Louis to Springfield is presently of lesser importance.
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Frisco Archive: A Collection of Photos and Documents Relating to the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway. frisco.org/mainline/.
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McIntyre, Stephen L. “‘Considerable Bad Feeling in This City’: Cross-Class Solidarity and Federal Power in the 1922 Springfield Frisco Shopmen’s Strike.” In Springfield’s Urban Histories: Essays on the Queen City of the Missouri Ozarks, ed. Stephen L. McIntyre, 167–203. Springfield, MO: Moon City Press, 2012.
Miner, H. Craig. The Saint Louis–San Francisco Transcontinental Railroad: The Thirty-fifth Parallel Project, 1853–1890. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1972.
Missouri Railroad Records, 1837–. Manuscript collection C2358, State Historical Society of Missouri.
“St. Louis–San Francisco Railway.” http://www.frisco.org/shipit/index.php.
St. Louis–San Francisco Railway Company Records, 1859–1980. Manuscript collection R0362, State Historical Society of Missouri.
Stagner, Lloyd E. Steam Locomotives of the Frisco Line. Boulder, CO: Pruett, 1976.
Published January 17, 2019; Last updated January 24, 2023
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