Santa Fe Surviving Coaling Towers

Last revised: November 16, 2002
Maintained by Evan Werkema.

Most of the dozens of coaling towers (or coal chutes) that once stood along the Santa Fe right of way were demolished within a few years of the end of coal-fired steam operations in their respective areas. For one reason or another, though, a scattered handful of concrete towers survived, unused and derelict, for several decades more. The chutes at Skedee, OK and Chanute, KS lasted into the 1980's before being leveled, and three others are believed to still exist today. Their survival is remarkable, considering that a coaling tower is of little use to a dieselized railroad. It is all the more remarkable considering that one of the survivors, built by the United States Railroad Administration in the heart of Oklahoma oil country during World War I, was possibly never used. Why these specific chutes survive is not known. Demolishing a large concrete structure in the middle of a yard is no small task, and broken concrete doesn't have much resale value. One explanation often given for the chutes' longevity is that they don't interfere with current operations, and they would cost the railroad more to tear down than they cost in property taxes each year. In the case of Cushing, one wonders if the railroad even owns the land under the chutes anymore.

About the only common feature of the surviving Santa Fe coaling towers is their concrete construction. The railroad apparently didn't have system standard plans for concrete coaling towers. Some "local standards" apparently existed, where one contractor built several chutes in an area to nearly the same plan, but this was more the exception than the rule.

Build dates and capacity information is missing for several of the surviving coal chutes. If you have additional photos or information about these chutes, please drop us a line.


Marceline, MO

The only surviving main line chute stands in the largely abandoned yard west of the depot in Marceline, MO. Note the separate round tower for sand. Cars of sand or coal would be spotted in the covered areas next to the coal or sand tower. The cars' contents would be dumped through grates between the tracks onto conveyors and lifted into the storage bunkers. The long-gone coal and sand facilities at Fort Madison, IA were similar to those at Marceline.

Great Bend, KS

As the sign says, the Great Bend coaling tower was designed and built by the Roberts and Schaefer Company of Chicago, IL in 1928. It had a capacity of 300 tons of coal, and served three tracks. Various pieces of hardware are missing from the tower as it now stands, including the hinged coaling chutes themselves (a situation common to all surviving Santa Fe coaling towers, and the vast majority of surviving coaling towers in the US in general). Great Bend also had a covered coal unloading area on a nearby track (similar to Marceline) and a metal conveyor system that delivered coal to the top of the structure. These have also been removed, though traces of the mounting brackets for the conveyor can be seen on the sloped area of the chute in the second photograph. The tracks under the chute have changed hands twice since 1990, first to the Central Kansas Railway, and then to the Kansas & Oklahoma Railroad, but this relic of the past continues to stand through it all.

Cushing, OK

The coaling tower at Cushing was one of at least four chutes built in the area in 1917 by the United States Railroad Administration (the others were at Stillwater, Skedee, and Shawnee, OK). It is possible that these chutes were never used, as this area is in close proximity to Oklahoma oil fields, and steam power here was almost entirely oil-fired. The Cushing chute was nearly identical to the now-demolished tower at Skedee, OK (see below). By 1996, when John Mallory took the photo at left, all trackage in Cushing had been removed, and the tower was standing forlornly in the middle of an open field near the equally abandoned depot. Another picture of the chute can be seen in the section on Cushing in Evan Stair's The Santa Fe in Oklahoma web site.

Some Chutes No Longer With Us...

South Shawnee, OK

Santa Fe's castle-like Shawnee depot was located near downtown Shawnee, but the railroad's yard and shop facilities, including a roundhouse, turntable, coal and water facilities, were located south of the North Canadian River in South Shawnee. The monolithic coaling tower was the only remnant of those facilities left by the 1990's. It was another of the 1917 USRA-built coaling towers, but bore no resemblence to the Skedee or Cushing chutes.

On April 4, 2000, a teenage girl slipped and fell to her death while participating in an "initiation ritual" with other teens at the abandoned chute. Subsequently, a movement started in Shawnee to have the coaling tower condemned and removed as a public nuisance, this apparently being much easier than convincing people not to engage in risky behavior. The Shawnee coaling tower was demolished on the 12th and 13th of September, 2000.

Skedee, OK

The coaling tower at Skedee, OK as it looked in 1971. Built in 1917, the tower was demolished in the early 1980's when the Cushing District was abandoned. Photo by Dayna Smith.

Baring, MO

The above listed coaling towers are of course anomalous in that they lasted so long after the end of steam. More typical was this chute at Baring, MO, which was demolished on October 15, 1952. Sam Bailey, who provided the photo at left, has a series of photos depicting the demolition on his website: Note the Baring depot visible between the legs of the coaling tower. The depot survives in much modified form today, but lost its large bay window in a rebuild a few years after this photo was taken.

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