Rural Missouri - June 2017 - 8
Riding rails the unique way
Fulton residents Mike and Susan Groves own a restored Missouri-Paciﬁc railcar. The Groves are members of the North American Railcar Operators Association. The group is a touring
organization "dedicated to the preservation and safe legal operation of railroad equipment." Members enjoy traveling the rails via restored railcars known as pop-cars or poppers.
by Shawna Bethell | email@example.com
n a clear blue-sky day, Mike Groves shares a memory as he pilots his
restored-Missouri-Paciﬁc pop-car along the Columbia Branch Railroad,
a 21-mile short line track that connects Columbia to Centralia.
"Anyone of a certain age who grew up in the rural Midwest, grew up
listening to the sound of freight trains in the night," he says wistfully. "But
that way of life is vanishing."
This wistfulness, accompanied by the fact that he comes from a long line
of railroad men, led Groves and his wife, Susan, to purchase the small, one
cylinder railroad motorcar - also known as a pop-car, popper or speeder.
"But mostly it was the sense of adventure," he says with a laugh.
The Groves, who live in Fulton, are members of the North American Railcar Operators Association (NARCOA), a touring organization "dedicated to the
preservation and safe legal operation of railroad equipment."
The group is sanctioned for tours in both the United States and Canada and
runs predominately on privately owned rail lines through some of the most
scenic, yet rarely traveled, parts of both countries.
Initially used by railroad companies to check lines for damage and for maintenance, poppers were eventually phased out and replaced by retroﬁtted pickup trucks to run on tracks. However, this change left an unused surplus of the
little, square cars. By the 1980s, rail fans took notice and began collecting the
vehicles and in turn formed the now 1,700-member- strong group.
"It's a great way to see parts of the country you would never see by car,"
RURAL MISSOURI | JUNE 2017
Groves says of the slow mode of travel that tops out at about 40 mph.
There are a few challenges when traveling by popper. Because the cars are
open, and there is little insulation from the noise of the engine, riders must
wear headsets to protect their ears. And the ride can be a bit jarring as the car
runs along the train tracks, but Mike loves the open-air travel and the nostalgia of riding the rails.
"When I was a kid," says Mike, "my friends and I could catch a train to Chicago and watch the games."
Now, Mike and his wife have traveled many miles in their railcar, which they
purchased in 2012. They are hard pressed to choose a favorite tour, though
many come to mind as memorable.
Susan recalls a local tour that crossed the Missouri/Kansas border taking
them into the eastern hills of Kansas where she grew up.
"There was the largest growth of bittersweet I had ever seen," she says,
extending her arms to both sides as she recalls the sight. "It was huge, and the
buds had all popped, so the bright orange color was beautiful."
Susan says that even though she had grown up in the area, seeing it from
the tracks of the railway gave her a different view of her home.
"It was so unexpected," Susan recalls.
The two also recall a trip to West Virginia and the Blue Ridge Mountains
where lush green ferns and waterfalls could be seen on the uphill slope bordering one side of the track, while a steep gorge descended from the other.
Once they reached the top of the mountain, the stopover included a bluegrass
concert and a rail race between a vintage steam locomotive and a diesel engine.