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RR 70 year nightmare Dream of railroad turned into 70-year nightmare

By Jim Hamilton
Buffalo Reflex (Buffalo Missouri newspaper)

The dream of rails west created many a boom and bust town in the decades following the Civil War. Buffalo (MO) was among the dreamers. However, the dream of rails through Buffalo, launched with jubilation, became a 70-year nightmare for Dallas County.

It began before the war, on January 11, 1860, when the state legislature granted a charter for a railroad to run from Laclede County to Fort Scott, Kansas. Organizers met that June in Stockton, but the conflict of civil war put the project on hold.

In April, 1869, the railroad was reorganized at a meeting in Bolivar.

In June, a rally was held on the Buffalo square, with Dr. C.E. Hovey serving as master of ceremonies. County judges were Nathan White, John S. Brown, G..B. Gammon and the county clerk was A.B. Maddux.

The Laclede and Fort Scott Railroad Company proposed to run through Buffalo, building a freight and passenger depot within a quarter-mile of the square..

The county's commitment was to raise $150,000 in subscription to capital stock of the railroad. Twenty-year bonds of $1,000 each were to be sold at seven percent interest.

Proceeds from the sale of bonds was to be paid to the railroad company as work proceeded: a fourth when the roadbed reached either edge of the county, a fourth when it was a quarter-way across, a fourth when it was halfway across and the final fourth when it was three-quarters of the way across the county.

No election was held, but the crowd gave boisterous assent, and the court proceeded. In August, John O'Bannon was named agent to negotiate the sale of bonds and the county clerk and presiding judge were given the right to sign bonds. Meanwhile, county landowners were turning over railroad right-of-way for token payments. According to one account, one elderly woman granted the right-of-way for having a tooth pulled.

On May 18, 1871, Matthew Pare was made railroad agent. The court of J.R. Gammon, W.K. Jump and Nathan White subscribed to $85,000 more in capital stock, with Judge White dissenting, arguing that the matter should go before the people. He was subsequently fined $10 for attempting to change the record.

In 1872, railroad company president J.N.B. Dodson reported that $284,500 had been spent: Laclede County, $100,000; Dallas County, $150,000; and Polk County, $34,500. Dallas County had added another $85,000 to it's commitment, for a total of $235,000. Work had stopped. The roadbed was completed from Lebanon to the eastern edge of Polk County, but no rails were laid.

At a mass meeting in a pasture at the edge of town, Dallas County citizens determined not to pay for a railroad they didn't get. The bond holders filed suit in U.S. District Court. In April, 1874, the U.S. District Court in Jefferson City passed a $2,000 judgment against Dallas County.

From there, thing got personal. A deputy U.S. marshal came to Buffalo to serve the order on county treasurer George W. O'Bannon. His report was to be back in Jefferson City by April 30. It arrived three days later, and the postmaster, Dr. Z.L. Slavens, was deemed responsible. The court set the railroad debt at $250,000, and had Dr. Slavens arrested and hauled to jail in Jefferson City.

A writ was also issued for the arrest of county judges Lewis W. Hart, John E. Haynes and John W. Scott. A deputy marshal arrived while the court was in session, but the judges escaped arrest by jumping from the windows.

From 1874 until the compromise of 1919, officers of the Dallas County Court were under constant threat of arrest by U.S. Marshals. In 1879, Judge John W. Scott was arrested near his Windyville home and taken to Jefferson City. He was released on the promise he would return, in order to cut wood and gather crops for his family; but, he caught pneumonia and died on the day he was to be back in jail.

In 1884, after the debt had risen to $500,000, Judges Thomas Hutchinson and John Franklin were twice incarcerated in Jefferson City on contempt of court charges for refusing to levy a tax to repay the bond.

In March, 1891, Dr. B.F. Johnson, county clerk, was summoned to appear in U.S. District Court to show why a levy had not been issued.

On March 30, 1918, South District Judge John Stark Evans was the last county officer arrested by federal marshals. He was surprised at his home and jailed in Greene County.

Presiding Judge Marion Gaunt, North District Judge Jim Thomas, County Clerk John Maddux and Prosecuting Attorney John S. Haymes were all sought by marshals.

The last secret meeting of the court was in May, 1918, when Judges Gaunt and Thomas met on night outside the Laclede Hotel. Over the years, several attempts to resolve the railroad bond case had failed.

Railroad failures were too common in the late 1800s, so on April 12, 1877, the state legislature had passed an act allowing counties to compromise their cost as a 22.5 percent discount. In September, 1878, Dallas County voters rejected 131 to 791 an proposal to repay $147,000 at 7 percent interest.

In 1885, lien holders rejected the county's proposal to repay 25 cents on the dollar over 20 years. With interest steadily accruing, by 1895 the county's debt has grown to $1 million, and by 1906 it was at $2 million.

Meanwhile, in 1887, the Laclede and Fort Scott Railroad had sold to the St. Louis and Western for $300,000. County Attorney Haymes argued the county's case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. His arguments that the bonds were illegally issued and that it was morally wrong for citizens to pay for a railroad they never received, failed to sway the court.

However, he was effective in negotiating a compromise obligating the county to pay $300,000 at 5 percent over a 20-year period. Dallas County voters accepted the compromise 1,637 to 16 on September 6, 1919. An 8 percent tax was levied and on July 1, 1920, the first payment was made..

The last payment was made on July 1, 1940, seven decades after the first railroad bonds were issued. The Fourth of July celebration of that year held special significance for Dallas County, as the bonds were ceremoniously burned in the Buffalo city park.

As a solemn congregation watched, 70 years of bondage ended in a few moments of smoke and fire. It was truly Independence Day.