The Doodlebug

Bernice Historical Society

People and Places

“The Doodlebug”

Last week I posted on “Bernice Remember When” asking for any memories of the passenger train known as The Doodlebug. Thanks to all who shared.  I started out not knowing much about the quaint rail vehicle I had heard so much about. I know now that it operated through Bernice until 1958 and that brings me to ask myself the question “why I cannot remember it”. Granted I was only 8 years old when it ceased operation and I am now in excess of 65 but for the life of me I cannot recall ever noticing it passing through town or sitting at the depot waiting for passengers. I wish now I had paid more attention.

For those of you who do not know what a Doodlebug is let me give you the textbook definition. A doodlebug is a name for a type of self-propelled rail car that was used to provide the main passenger services in an effort to reduce costs and still provide passenger service. An early proponent of the passenger rail car was the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island) (The Rock) and it soon began experimenting with its models.

While early doodlebugs appeared similar to a heavyweight passenger cars newer models in the late 1920s and early 1930s had a more boxy appearance and flat cab face with a headlight attached to the hood. This was the appearance of the Doodlebug that traveled through Bernice on its journey from Little Rock, Arkansas to Winnfield.

Unfortunately, the Transportation Act of 1958 doomed doodlebugs as it decreased the power states had to regulate railroads in providing passenger services over lightly rail lines. As a result, these railroads ended passenger operations altogether but maintained the road for freight trains.

The picture of our Doodlebug #31 above was taken in June of 1955 and only 3 years were left in its service to our area. It was taken out of service here and transferred to the Kansas and Nebraska service where it ran through 1959.  When its service there was over the Doodlebug was dismantled. 

The Doodlebug was not the first passenger train in Bernice.  Passenger trains had been running through town since the early 1900’s. In 1906 the Rock Island ran 2 new passenger coaches on the road through Bernice and changed the arrival time of the morning train to 10 am and its departure to 11 am.  By 1923 the Yellow Cab Taxi ran a 12 passenger cab bringing people back and forth from Farmerville to catch the train. Early photos show the passenger train stopped at the depot with two large passenger cars loading and unloading.  This continued at least through the mid 1930’s.

The Doodlebug came onto the scene in an effort to lower the costs associated with passenger transportation.  The company ran two routes each day which were numbered #31 and #32.  The train began its route in Little Rock and traveled 232 miles south and served 38 towns along the way.  The train was not known for its relaxing, smooth ride and because of its short build it swayed from side to side at every bump on the track. 

In spite of this it was well used by business men, shopping trips and school children. The seating capacity of the train was 24 passengers. Loree Leslie rode the train several times as a child and described her experience on the Shiloh to Canaan face book page.  She remembers that the train swayed from side to side and that the seats were wide enough to seat four people.  She remembers that your ticket was for one seat and was on a first come basis at the Depot.

In spite of this it was well used by business men, shopping trips and school children. The seating capacity of the train was 24 passengers. Loree Leslie rode the train several times as a child and described her experience on the Shiloh to Canaan face book page.  She remembers that the train swayed from side to side and that the seats were wide enough to seat four people.  She remembers that your ticket was for one seat and was on a first come basis at the Depot.

In 1949 the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific authorities made the announcement that passenger service on the Doodlebug would cease in January of 1950.  This meant that 16 Louisiana towns that had been on the north south route would be left without any passenger rail service and Bernice was one of these.  The Ruston Daily Leader led the push to save the Doodlebug and encouraged business and civic leaders along the route to meet and come up with a solution.

This meeting was held in Ruston and attended by all 38 towns along the Doodlebug’s route. At this meeting the group appealed to the Louisiana Public Service Commission with the argument that if service was not removed during the Depression when the only passengers on the train were the conductor and the brakeman why should it stop its service now when there is a steady stream of traffic on every coach.  To strengthen their argument they appealed to the government officials not to allow the isolation of thousands of people. A similar meeting was held in El Dorado and all out fight was made to save the Doodlebug. 

In the hearing before the public service commission in Louisiana the railroad had to prove that they had sufficient reason to halt the passenger service.  The same was true in Arkansas.  In either state the railroad could not produce the necessary evidence and a continuance was granted. 

The Doodlebug was saved for now and continued its operation.  In 1954 the Rock Island Doodlebug lost its fight with the Arkansas Public Service Commission which ruled against the 149 mile run from Little Rock to Junction City.  The Doodlebug still operated an 89 mile route from Junction City to Winnfield due to the fact that the Louisiana Public Service Commission denied the company the authority to abandon the passenger line.

At this time railroads were legally required to provide not only freight service but mail and passenger service as well.  The Doodlebug was the most efficient way to provide the mail and passenger service.  The Doodlebug did not travel at the highest rate of speed and was often flagged down in route for a passenger to come on board.  Groceries were even transported from stop to stop along the route. 

In 1958 the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the discontinuation of the passenger service provided by the Doodlebug stating in its opinion that it was not a public necessity and the railroad could not be forced to provide the service. At the time of this ruling Doodlebug #31 left Junction City at 12:50 daily and arrived in Winnfield at 4 pm.  Doodlebug #32 left Winnfield at 7:30 each morning and arrived in Junction City at 10:14.  The last run was made on February 28, 1958 and a Bernice resident Twila Moore who rode the train often on shopping trips to Ruston happened to be on board that day. I would like to think if more Bernice residents had known that it was the last day for the Doodlebug that more would have been on board.

The railroad tracks through Bernice now carried only freight service.   I do remember that!  I can see the two box cars that were pulled up on the dock at Salley Grocer Company with a constant loading and unloading of grocery items and the side rails that ran into the Lindsey Bonded Warehouses complex bringing surplus grains for storage.

Freight service from Little Rock to Winnfield passed through Bernice for 22 more years after the last passenger train.   It was Friday, March 28, 1980 when the last freight train made its way to the Bernice Depot.  A reporter from KNOE awaited the train and interviewed the crew.  It was conductor Arthur Shirey who summed up the feelings of most of them when he was asked how he felt at that moment: “It’s like being a pallbearer for a friend or relative” he said. 

About an hour after their arrival in Bernice train #17882 slowly pulled away from the depot and the sound of the train’s whistle marked the end of an era for not only the Rock Island but for Bernice as well.

I have always loved trains and my text messages sound “Choo Choo” every time someone contacts me.  I stand at the Depot sometimes and swear I hear the muted whistle of the Doodlebug as it makes its way up and down the tracks or the groans of the freight train as it backs its way into position to retrieve the box cars across the street at Salley’s.


Cathy Buckley is a native of Union Parish and lifelong citizen of Shiloh. She served as Principal of Spearsville High School for many years until her retirement. Cathy is now the director of the Bernice Depot Museum and a active member of the Bernice Historical Society.




Advertisements

Tell Us What You Think About It

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.