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Chalfant: Skilled workmen part of Sedalia's railroad history

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Sedalia was a railroad center, not only the intersection of the Missouri Pacific Railroad, the M.K. & T. Railroad and the Sedalia, Warsaw and Southern narrow gauge line and the Lexington branch of the Missouri Pacific line, but also the site of railroad shops for both the Missouri Pacific and the M.K. & T.


The first Missouri Pacific Shops in Sedalia were begun in 1872 and completed the following year. The Board of Directors of the library organized a board of trade to encourage industries to locate in Sedalia. They persuaded the city to issue $40,000 of city bonds, organized a campaign to secure donations from citizens and purchased a plot of land on which the railroad could locate the shops. In exchange for the property and money, the railroad agreed to move all its shop facilities between Kansas City and St. Louis to Sedalia.


By 1881, the shops employed 354 men, paid $20,029 in wages a month and spent $5,370 per month for material. In 1882, the railroad began the construction of a new brick building costing $20,000.


The shops continued to expand and by the 1890s, they covered a 15-acre plot of land and utilized roundhouses, repair facilities, office buildings and storage buildings. The shops employed a total of 757 men and paid $44,873 in wages per month. S.P. Weller supervised 195 machinists, blacksmiths and boilermakers and 22 helpers.


In 1895, the Portrait and Biographical Dictionary of Johnson and Pettis Counties identified Charles E. Newell as “one of the most skilled machinists” working at the Mo Pac shops. Newell was a typical man of his time, a skilled workman active in civic affairs.


Newell’s family had been in the United States since colonial times, living in New England and working in manufacturing. His paternal great-great-grandfather served in the American Revolution, his grandfather in the War of 1812, and his father in the Union Army during the Civil War. His maternal great-great grandfather had also participated in the Revolutionary War, and four of Newell’s brothers had fought for the Union in the Civil War.


Newell was born in Rochester, in Stafford County, New Hampshire, in 1840, and attended the public schools there. In 1857, at the age of 17, he followed the advice of editor Horace Greeley, who told enterprising young men to “go west” to seek their fortunes. Newell moved to Iowa and began working as a surveyor. He then moved to Nebraska and worked for six months as a surveyor before moving to Colorado to prospect for gold at Pike’s Peak.


After 16 months as a prospector, he joined the U. S. forces attempting to force the Navajo Indians from their land. After this campaign, he returned to Colorado to work in the mines. In 1862, at the age of 22, he drove a mule train from Colorado to Omaha, Neb. From there he took a stage coach to St. Joseph and from there rode a train back to New Hampshire.


Newell, perhaps seeking more job security than prospecting offered, began a three-year apprenticeship as a machinist. In 1866, his apprenticeship finished, he moved to Chicago and began working for the Rock Island Railroad. After 10 years in Chicago, he was recruited by the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad to work in their shops in Sedalia.


In 1881, Newell began working as a toolman for the Missouri Pacific Shops in Sedalia. He was later promoted to foreman and later became master machinist.


The same year, in Boonville, he married Christine Oman, “an amiable, refined lady.” Her father, a farmer in Cooper County, had come from Sweden to Missouri when she was a child. The couple had two daughters, Ida and Leah. They resided in a house at 1008 S. Massachusetts Ave. that Newell had built for his family.


The Newell family was active in the community. Mrs. Newell was a devout member of the Baptist Church, participating in a variety of church activities. Mr. Newell served as a city alderman, representing the Third Ward from 1886 through 1888. As an alderman, he was chairman of the Waterworks Committee and a member of the Fire Department and Finance Committees.


Newell, like most railroad workers, belonged to a labor union, being a member of Lodge No. 170 of the Ancient Order of United Workmen. He was also a member of the Masonic lodge and had attained the status of Master Mason.


His skills led railroad officials recognize Newell as “one of the most practical and capable mechanics in the state.”


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