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Publishing on the Plains

Publishing engine is right on track

By James Denney
Omaha World-Herald
Sept. 2, 2002

DAVID CITY, Neb. -- Keeping up with the memories of railroad trains moving across Nebraska is a lifelong avocation for James Reisdorff.

The basement of his home in David City is stacked with books about steam locomotives, passenger cars, diesel-power engines, depots and pre-World War II streamliner trains.

What isn't in the books, he can usually find on his computer.

Reisdorff is a publisher of books on railroads, the kinds of trains that use them and the people who made them run.

The story of how Reisdorff became a railroad book publisher started simply.

As a young boy growing up on a farm in Butler County, he accompanied his parents when his older sister was sent off to colleges in Milwaukee and Chicago. "We came to Union Station in Omaha," he said, "and I guess I liked seeing the trains that she would board. It became a part of my life."

Reisdorff, 46, graduated from David City Aquinas High School in 1974 and received a journalism degree from Creighton University in 1978. He first thought about becoming a political cartoonist, but opted for writing instead.

He tried his hand at free-lance writing and stayed with this until 1982, when he published his first book about the railroad stations of Nebraska. It required considerable research because many of the stations that he was to write about had been abandoned.

What led to his finding information was a research grant from the Nebraska State Historical Society. He joined with Michael Bartels to write the book.

Since that time, Reisdorff has published about 50 railroad books, only a few of which he actually participated in as an author.

He formed a business known as South Platte Press. Now, most of his work is editing and checking facts of other writers.

One of his early efforts was called "Railroad Locomotive 69." This was the power engine that was used for several years at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer south of Grand Island.

During the summer months, it pulled a train around the museum grounds and attracted many tourists. When boiler problems developed, the locomotive was shut down, and train rides were discontinued.

Reisdorff said the locomotive now is sitting in a warehouse in Colorado, waiting to be returned to Alaska from where it was originally purchased and brought to Nebraska.

"Losing Engine 69 at the Stuhr Museum was controversial," Reisdorff said. "It was very popular with tourists and was used in a movie. Local people enjoyed riding on the train, too."

Books he has published are all about railroads both in and outside Nebraska. Some were written by retired railroad employees.

Richard Kistler of Superior, a former Burlington Northern-Santa Fe employee, wrote about the Wymore, Neb., division of the railroad. Another Burlington author who has published through South Platte Press is Joseph Hardy of Alliance, a former brakeman and later a dispatcher.

Reisdorff calls Hardy "a very respected Burlington historian."

The latest South Platte Press book has Reisdorff's name on the cover along with his friend Michael Bartels. It is titled, "Ghost Railroads of Nebraska - A Pictorial."

It is in this book that the two men give facts and figures of the present and past. For example, they point out that as of 1999, Nebraska had 3,632 railroad miles, down from the peak of 6,248.

Today, there are two major railroads in the state, the Union Pacific and the Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, plus four regional railroads, four local railroads, or short lines, and three terminal and switching roads.

The book is supplemented by numerous photographs showing trains in stations that no longer exist. Snowbound trains and train wrecks are included. The two authors tell how some of the old depots became office buildings, museums and homes. Some were even used for fire departments to practice their skills in putting out a blaze.

Reisdorff said if he had to pick a depot that is the most revered in Nebraska, it would be the retired Burlington Northern-Santa Fe structure in Red Cloud. It still stands and is owned by the Nebraska State Historical Society.

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