The History of Wabash Cannonball

Close-up of train tracks.
Close-up of train tracks. (Image: Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images)

The Wabash Cannonball is a train from the late 19th century that inspired a popular song of the same name. The song was so warmly received, it made the train famous, and today the song and legend of the train are forever coupled in popular folklore. According to some music historians, the melody originally came from a song praising the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed settlers to claim land in the western territories of the United States. The first printed version of the song appeared in 1882, under the title, "The Great Rock Island Route," composed by J.A. Roff. It described the rumble and the roar of a mighty locomotive, which rushes down the tracks with its bell clanging. In 1904, the "Rock Island Route" became the "The Wabash Cannonball" in a new version of the song by William Kindt.

The Real Cannonballs

The first railroads traveled through Wabash, Ind., in 1856, linking the city with Toledo, Ohio, and points east. Various trains running busy Midwestern routes took the name of Wabash Cannonball in the heyday of passenger railroading, the late 1800s and early 20th century. In 1950, the name was revived for the Detroit-to-St. Louis run, a 489-mile trip taking about 10 hours. The Wabash Cannonball made its final run on April 30, 1971, when the new Amtrak system dropped it from the new national rail network.

The Train and the Myth

The Wabash Cannonball was also an imaginary train that catered to hoboes riding to the afterlife with comfortable seating and free meals. According to one of the train’s many fanciful legends, the young bother of Paul Bunyan, Cal Bunyan, built the biggest and longest set of railroad tracks in the world. The plans called for enormous iron rails and an entire redwood tree for a single tie. The trains meant for the route were made up of 700 cars, and the locomotive was so powerful and so speedy the train arrived at its destination an hour before its original departure. One night the train actually lifted off from its tracks and began flying through the night sky, horn blaring and lantern shining. The piercing whistle could still be heard throughout the land on clear nights.

Early Recordings

In 1927, the Carter Family made the first recoding of "The Wabash Cannonball" for RCA Records. In 1936, a more upbeat version of the song was recorded by Roy Acuff for Columbia on his album “The King of Country Music.” Many country artists performed the song while touring through the Midwest, where the Wabash River runs. "The Wabash Cannonball" became a theme song for marching bands at Kansas State University and the University of Texas, and the rival bands compete by performing the song at every football game between the two universities.

Rockabilly Versions

The Wabash Cannonball became a rockabilly hit in the 1950s, with new lyrics by Jesse Rodgers for the retitled “Jukebox Cannonball” and recordings by Bill Haley, Rex Zario, Lonnie Donegan and others. Bluegrass and country artists made it a standard, often with new lyrics and arrangements. Jerry Reed, Doc Watson, the Grateful Dead and many other country and rock artists adopted the song and performed it regularly on tour.

An Old Name for New Things

More recently, the name was adopted for a new hiking trail that was built over a disused section of railroad right-of-way in northern Ohio. In 2007, Winsome Games released a board game, "Wabash Cannonball," that allowed players to compete as railroad tycoons. Wabash Cannonball is also the name of a soft goat cheese produced in southern Indiana.

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