Nebraskan pioneers railroad innovation


June 19th, 2012

Lincoln, NE – This is the story of a rail line from Kearney that never reached its intended destination, an inventive mechanic and the little train car that could. It’s also a story that put Nebraska at the center of a major innovation in rail travel.

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McKeen Motorcar as restored by Chris DeWitt. This operational motorcar, the only one in the world, is at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. View from the front of the train, showing wedge-shaped nose (Photo courtesy of The Nevada State Railroad Museum)

After the Transcontinental Railroad was finished in 1869, branch lines began to sprout. In the 1890s, community leaders in Kearney decided a branch running northwest from the Union Pacific main line would be profitable for freight and passenger travel; by extending that line to the Black Hills, and there were all sorts of possibilities. Mining businesses needed freight cars, and the Black Hills was a hotspot for Western tourism.

By 1905, the Kearney & Black Hills Railroad had become the property of the Union Pacific Railroad. Tracks went as far as Callaway, about 65 miles from Kearney. The UP quickly discovered that running a full steam train with a crew of four up and down a remote stretch of track was proving costly. That got one Union Pacific employee thinking about a more cost-efficient train.


“William McKeen, a master mechanic for the Union Pacific Railroad, had the idea he could marry the burgeoning technology of internal combustion with a light-weight rail car, and provide for the market an inexpensive, easy-to-operate passenger conveyance,” said Chris DeWitt, who works at the Nevada Railroad History Museum in Carson City, Nev. “And he was right. It was wildly successful.”

DeWitt knows all about the McKeen Motorcar because he restored the only working model in the world. He said McKeen used the best gas engine of the day, an engine used in boats. After that, he made his own with incremental changes.

The same was true for the Motorcar body. DeWitt said McKeen continually redesigned the cars. At first, they looked like long city trolleys, rounded on both ends. Each new model got a new number, beginning with M1. By the time M22 rolled off the line, the nose was a sharp aerodynamic wedge and the windows looked like the portholes of an ocean liner.

(The Denver Public Library has a large collection of images of the McKeen motorcars as they developed.)

The McKeen Motorcar on Nebraska tracks

The first Motorcar, the M1, ran on the branch from Kearney to Callaway.

“The Kearney-Callaway line was kind of a testing ground for the McKeen cars,” said Nebraskan Jim Reisdorf, who owns a publishing house dedicated to rail history. “The factory and the headquarters of the Union Pacific were in Omaha, it wasn’t so far from the main offices to see by trial and error what worked for the operation of these cars.”

Restored Motorcar interior. Unlike this car, some were divided in compartments for passengers, freight and crew. (Photo courtesy of The Nevada State Railroad Museum)

He said the UP chose the Kearney branch as the perfect testing ground.

“It was different from what came before, because there was nothing like it that came before.”

The introduction on the Kearney branch proved the Motorcar was a success, and rail lines all over the country began buying them. The McKeen Motorcar took a crew of only two people, compared to at least four for a steam-powered train. And because it was self-powered – locomotive, freight, and passenger car, all in one – it was much cheaper to operate, especially on rural branch lines.

Roberta Nansel remembers riding the Motorcar in the 1940s on that original Kearney-to-Callaway line.

“It was always so exciting,” she said. “Each one of us were (pressed) up to a window, because we would go over the bridge tressels and there was just so much to see.”

Nansel lives in Kearney and is well into her 70s. But when she was a child, she lived on a farm outside Callaway. She said after school on some Fridays, she and her sister would walk the mile from school to the tracks and literally flag down the train.

“When we would get over to the building that was there it was right by a bend just before the Milldale stop, and we could usually hear it before we could see it.”

She said they would stand between the rails, waving a flag, and the train would stop. She doesn’t remember how much it cost – maybe a quarter, she said – to go to their grandparents’ house to spend the weekend, then ride the train back home.

“It was just a thrill as a child to be able to do that, and how our parents trusted us,” she said.

Not something you would do today, she mused.

Riding the motorcar was a special event for Nansel, but rail historian Reisdorf said the motorcar served another, more routine, transportation need.

“In instance of school children going to school for the day in a nearby community, they could just catch the train at a crossing and go on to town, and in the evening, reverse the process,” he said.

Many rural students rode the rails to school, too, Reisdorf said. The Motorcar carried full milk cans to town for processing into cream and butter, and it carried the mail.

The legacy of “the doodlebug”

Reisdorf said the McKeen Motorcar quickly earned a nickname: the doodlebug.

“It was a name used both affectionately and derisively – whether it was because the train was late, or because the train resembled a doodlebug,” he said.

The McKeen Motorcar – the doodlebug – ran a long time on the Kearney branch, but another gasoline-powered invention eventually took its place: the car. The doodlebug’s last run was in 1954. The original vision of the Kearney railbuilders – to reach the Black Hills – never happened. And noww, even the rails that were laid are gone. The towns Roberta Nansel travelled between as a little girl – Lodi, Milldale – are gone, too. What remains is the history, when this part of Nebraska was the center of a piece of transportation history.

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