Genealogy Trails

Jackson County, Illinois

The Bryan Train, Murphysboro

Donated by Harry Bryan


In railroading's early days it was the conductor, not the engineer, who commanded trains. One such conductor was William M. Bryan of Murphysboro, the 'Bill Bryan' for whom local folks called their railroad 'the Bryan Line.' For more than three decades local newspapers of the region—Murphysboro Independent, Cairo Citizen, Herrin News, Carbondale Free Press, the (Cape Girardeau) Missourian, St. Louis Globe-Democrat-- were peppered with stories of Billy Bryan and "his train."

Maybe the train got that name originally because its schedule was too complicated to understand. At first, as the Cairo Citizen reported, segments of the line were owned by different outfits—

" . . the Grand Tower & Carbondale RR, St. Louis & Big Muddy RR, and the Chicago & Texas RR. Each leg had a different number. Every morning the train started at Gale, Illinois as #424; at Murphysboro it became #421; at Carbondale to Johnston City it was #524 going, and #505 returning; Carbondale to Murphysboro #426; Murphysboro to Cairo #405: Cairo back to Gale and the end of the run #422."

Because no one tried to remember all those numbers, and Billy Bryan was always the Conductor seven days of the week every week of the year, they began to call the train the "Bryan Train."

Maybe too, they called it that because Billy was a character. Bill Bryan loved poker, cigars, and whiskey. His granddaughter, Mildred (Wheeler) Harry, and her brother rode on the train occasionally. Mildred remembers that her grandpa would not let them run in the isles or swing on the chairs, but at every stop when the food vendors came aboard the Conductor would order, "give those little kids plenty of popcorn and candy." He carried a flask of whiskey and freely shared it with passengers on night rides. He made a mistake one night and offered a swig to a teetotalling minister who loudly and indignantly refused. Billy tweaked the minister's large red nose and announced to all that "you don't get a nose like that from sippin water." Billy worked on the train for forty years. Off and on he got in trouble with management for his laid back ways. When the I.C bought the line and tried to fire him the Citizen reported,

" . . but the people who patronized his train boycotted the road. They absolutely refused to travel. He was reinstated as a result. Conductor Bryan was one of the assets which the Central received when they purchased the old Chicago & Texas road. He has been with the road ever since it was built. Long after Billy died and even after they switched from the old hay-burner to diesel they still called it Bryan's Train."

Another newspaper described the old conductor as--

"Honest, brave, happy-go-lucky, a born trainman, Billy Bryan of I. C. fame was running Bryan's train way back when Heck was a pup. He was known as the I. C. skipper of every land and seaport he touched, and one time when an adventurous newspaper reporter in Murphysboro took a little too much latitude in a feature story descriptive of the man, it took chiefs of police, politicians, legislators and some of the clergy to keep the newspaper out of jail."

The Herrin News described this incident,

"One day an old lady waited to go from Carbondale to Herrin, and when the train pulled into the station she excitedly asked the conductor if it were the 'Bryan train.' Now this was just after the state legislature had taken railroad rates into keeping and the laws had begun to interfere with Billy Bryan's schedule of charges, and he said to the old lady, 'it used to be Bryan's train, madame, but now it is the property of the Illinois legislature, and you can travel on it at exactly two cents per mile.--Get aboard, please.'"

In 1951, decades after Billy's death, the Southern Illinoisan described the Bryan Train,

"Billy Bryan was its conductor. . . Bryan knew about every man, woman or child from Carbondale to Grand Tower who lived near the I. C. line. It was nothing for Billy to stick his head out of a coach window, wiggle his thumb, yell 'booooooard,' and pick up whatever wayfarer happened to be walking along the track. And if a little thing like stopping the trail anywhere would save a man or woman a long walk home, stop the train Bryan would. The late John Henry and Billy were great friends. Often Bryan would stop his train near the Henry homestead at the present Jackson Country club grounds, take John Henry aboard, and take him to Cairo and return. The folks at home didn't worry much. 'Oh, he's with that Billy Bryan,' they would say.

The I. C. division 'super' at Carbondale would tear his hair at times and call Billy Bryan on the 'carpet' for infraction of the rules. But Billy would say: 'Whose train is this and who's running it, will you tell me?' So they just called it the Billy Bryan Train."

Billy retired in January 1909. The Murphysboro Independent reported that "Mr. Bryan lost but forty-two days from work during the forty-two years, and that for at least thirty-five years of that time he was conductor of the only passenger train on the division."

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