FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — About 30 vintage railroad motorcar hobbyists visited Fort Leonard Wood on Saturday to ride the installation’s 19-mile rail system. The group, part of the First Iowa Division of the North American Railcar Operators Association, made the roundtrip journey to Bundy Junction — near Newburg, Missouri — and back to the installation, in 13 privately owned rail cars, or speeders, as they are sometimes called.
Railroad motorcars — most of which are no larger than an average office cubicle — were used throughout much of the 20th century to inspect the many miles of railroad track for defects and to handle track maintenance. They were phased out in favor of what’s called Hi-Rail vehicles, which are standard road vehicles with retractable guide wheels that can operate on road or rail.
Stuart Remmers was the excursion coordinator for the group. While he called it a fairly obscure hobby, Remmers said he meets a lot of great people riding the rails.
“It’s kind of a little hidden thing, but it’s a wonderful hobby,” he said. “I haven’t been to as many places as a lot of people — I know some of the retired people in this hobby have been all over the United States. They’ve been into Canada. In years past, there were some runs into Mexico.”
Remmers said the hobby also rewards participants with fantastic opportunities to view parts of the country most people don’t get to see from the roads — Fort Leonard Wood’s rail lines are especially beautiful, he added.
“The scenery here is great,” he said. “I drove 480 miles to be here. It’s a long haul for me, but it’s worth every little bit of it. The bridges are beautiful, the track is well maintained, and this time of year, the trees are changing colors. I’m very thankful they let us on here to do this because this is one of the highlight rides that I do.”
Remmers said he bought the car he brought with him — an all-original 1966 Fairmont M19 AA — from a guy in Minnesota, who left it in his garage for 25 years.
“The gentleman I got it from bought it and never rode it,” Remmers said. “I just had to do the basic little things to get it running. I figured, it’s kind of like a barn find, so I just completely left it alone the way it was.”
A look back at the history of the vehicle points to a long-ago military surplus auction, Remmers said, and rumors it was actually once used on Fort Leonard Wood’s rail lines, though Remmers said he doesn’t know for sure. This was his fourth visit to Fort Leonard Wood for a rail ride, and the third time he has brought that particular vehicle.
“I really only ride it when I come down here, just because it’s like coming home,” he said.
Another attendee Saturday was Jerry Droll, who brought his 1976 Fairmont MT19 railroad motorcar. He said Fort Leonard Wood’s tracks are unique.
“It’s mostly curves,” he said. “It’s beautiful country here.”
Droll had a friend along for the ride, Paul Thomsen, who attended Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Leonard Wood during the late 1960s, before heading to Heidelberg, Germany, to work as a military stenographer.
Thomsen said much of the installation is unrecognizable to him these days, though General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital looked familiar. As the group staged their cars on the tracks at the corner of 4th and Railroad streets, Thomsen looked around at all the World War II-era warehouses.
“This is one of the areas that I remember,” he said. “This was the reception center. All the rails coming in — this is where they brought the draftees.”
DJ Keeney is a civil engineer technician with Fort Leonard Wood’s Directorate of Public Works. This is just his second year managing the railroad lines here, and his first time interacting with the vintage railroad motorcar hobbyists. As he spent much of his Saturday leading the group in the government-owned Hi-Rail vehicle he uses as a regular part of his job, he said he’s glad to have all the modern conveniences — such as heat and air conditioning — that come with the vehicles now commonly used to manage rail lines. He said he also enjoyed highlighting his role with the rail community.
“It’s good to get people down here to see and support the community and give the local population a little different flavor than they’re traditionally used to,” he said.
It has been four years since the group has been able to ride Fort Leonard Wood’s line, Remmers said, adding it means a lot to the railroad fans to be here.
“Like so many railroads, if something is going on, they squeeze us in when they can, and thankfully, they were able to do that for us this year,” he said. “We’re really excited to be back.”
Visit the NARCOA website to learn more about the vintage railroad motorcar hobby.