Kids are easily impressed and childhood impressions last a long time. The ordinary fades and disappears along with things we’d rather not remember. But unusual events, adventures, good times, persist, and with each recall become more distilled and vivid. So it is with my early encounters with trains and travel by rail.
Among my very earliest memories—perhaps as early as age two—is the sound of steam engines working in the huge train yards in downtown St. Louis. The yards are only about four miles from where we lived on Linton Avenue, and on a summer evening, the mysterious chuffing and the shudder of slipping wheels were easy to hear through the open windows of our three-room flat. Early on, I didn’t know what those sounds were. My brother James (Jamie), always alert to opportunities to torment me, would lean over me in my crib and whisper ominously, “La-La is coming.” And grin. Scared the pee out of me. No, really.
Diesel locomotives were first introduced to regular service in 1937 or 1938 (sources vary) but they didn’t supplant steam totally for another quarter century. While I was growing up, railroading was mostly about steam, and I found it utterly fascinating.
Railroads and railroaders were glad to see steam go. It was inefficient, expensive, labor-intensive, and dirty. Steam locomotives had to stop every 50 miles for water and every 100 miles for fuel. They required endless maintenance and coddling by a large, skilled labor force. With few exceptions, Steam locomotives were custom-built for specific service. Diesels are more versatile, more efficient, less expensive, cleaner.
Oh, but steam surely inspired a boy’s imagination. Being the engineer of a steam engine ranked right up there with being a cowboy, or a pilot, or a firefighter.
Dad (James E. Richie, 1913-1988) worked on the railroad around the time I was born. This picture of him in his denim overalls and jumper, red bandana, and striped cap was taken in September, 1939, a few months before his 26th birthday. He fired steam engines by hand in those days. I can’t imagine the drudgery of shoveling coal nonstop for an entire shift. One of his runs was St. Louis to Hannibal, on the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. I think he told me he shoveled about 12 tons, one way.
Fuel efficiency depended on dozens, if not hundreds of variables, including boiler design, valve type and timing, loads, and the skills of the crew. I’ve seen all kinds of figures, any of which could be true for a given set of circumstances. One formula figured 1.4 pounds of coal per horsepower, per hour. Who knows how broadly that might be applied? It was an obsession of railroad management to squeeze every bit of energy possible from every pound of coal and it was common for the throttle to have a company notch, a setting calculated to deliver the ideal balance of speed and economy.
With no seniority, Dad worked the extra board. This required a daily trip to the yards to see if he could catch a run. For railroaders with seniority, the work was steady and well paid, with good benefits. For somebody just starting out, it was catch-as-catch-can day labor.
As I think about those times, it strikes me that he could have done okay during the war years when the railroads were so busy, but at age one or so, I had no strong opinions and was not consulted. Ultimately, Dad didn’t stay with railroading. He switched (no pun intended) to running streetcars for Public Service Company, which he did until he joined the Navy in March of 1944. No doubt it was a lot easier than shoveling coal.
There were seniority rules at PSC, too. The preferred shifts and routes were claimed by motormen who had been on board longer. Dad often worked a split shift, which he disliked intensely, or one of the night shifts. He didn’t mind the midnight to 8 a.m. Graveyard Shift too much. There was less traffic and fewer passengers.
My fascination with railroading in general, and the steam era particularly was greatly influenced by four childhood experiences.
To Middlebrook on the MoPac
The first intercity train travel I ever experienced was a trip to Middlebrook, Missouri, in the summer of 1944. Mom (Eupha W. Richie 1913-2003), brother Jamie and I went to visit Grandma Whitworth. It was on this trip that we took our dog, Duke, to give him away to one of Grandma’s neighbors. This was in preparation for a move to Maryland later that year, to be with Dad for a few months while he was at Bainbridge Naval Training Center at Port Deposit.
This was exciting! We took a taxi (Yellow Cab Company) to Union Station. I had never ridden in a taxi before. I had never seen Union Station. During the war years, Union Station was always jumping. There were at least 100 trains a day coming and going. It was wall-to-wall with people in uniform. There was hustle and bustle equal to any major airport today. Opened in 1894, It was and remains a huge, magnificent building.
Duke traveled in the baggage car. I don’t remember whether we checked him in at the station, or if we shipped him, perhaps by Railroad Express. In any case, we would meet him at the other end.
When it was time, we walked down the platform and boarded our train, found a seat (first-come-first-served unless you paid for reserved seats, which our super-frugal mother would never do) and eagerly waited for things to get moving. C’mon, let’s go! I got all excited when the train on the next track started backing up, because I thought we were moving forward. We’re not? Aww.
Middlebrook was (is) a small village of a few hundred souls in Iron County on theMissouri Pacific line. Mom was born and reared there. Originally, this line was built by the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railway, in the 1800s, to haul ore from Iron Mountain to St. Louis. There was a fair amount of traffic on this line, but trains stopped at Middlebrook only if there were people and goods to pick up or drop off. It didn’t even stop for the mail; a hook on the mail car would snag the mailbag on the run. Now, that was a spectacle for a five-year-old to watch! The small railroad station also housed the village’s post office.
I was disappointed that the train didn’t go faster. It was a local, of course, so there was a lot of starting and stopping. One stop that sticks in my mind was DeSoto, Missouri. I was confused, because DeSoto was the name of the next street over from where we lived on Linton. I thought we had traveled only one block. I’m guessing the trip took two hours or so, once we got rolling, but to an easily bored five-year-old, it seemed forever. I was also annoyed that I wasn’t allowed to open the window. But it was pretty neat that I could get up and walk around. And what a wonderful discovery that I could look down and watch the crossties zipping past under the train when I flushed the toilet!
Duke was naughty on his trip down in the baggage car. He managed to chew his way out of the mandatory muzzle, and through his leash. But he was no worse for the experience and had a wonderful summer in the country. He especially relished rolling in fresh cow patties.
I’m not sure how long we stayed in Middlebrook on this visit. It could have been two orthree weeks, maybe even a month. Whatever, it was great fun. I helped feed chickens, collect eggs, fetch water from the shallow well, and carry wood for the kitchen range. I’d go with Grandma to milk the cow, I’d walk to town with her to fetch the mail or something she needed from Crocker’s general store. It was my job to water the flypaper and refill the kerosene lamps. Mama showed me how to trim the wicks.
She also taught me the joy of taking a saltshaker to the garden and eating sun-warmed tomatoes straight from the vine. Also the enlightening experience of using pages from the Sears or “Monkey Ward” catalog for toilet tissue. Don’t use the color pages, they’re too slick. And crumple the paper real good to make it soft. The outhouse was no big deal to me, that’s the kind of plumbing we had in St. Louis.
I loved hearing and watching the trains go through. This was a very small settlement, and the rails, like everything else, were close to Grandma’s place. The area is hilly, and the sounds of the trains, including those wonderful whistles, echoed off the hills coming and going. I remember seeing some other rails nearby, and wondering where they went, imagining far-off places of mystery, beyond the curve where they disappeared into the woods.
As the American railroad map matured (ultimately reaching about 250,000 miles in the 1920s), remote areas gained the benefit of dramatically improved communication with the outside world. They were not, however the reason the railroads went there (there’s not a lot of railroad business in a 200 person village). Always, the primary reason for investment was hoped-for profits hauling coal, timber, ore, grain, or manufactured goods. Any other benefits were just icing on the cake.
Pennsylvania high iron
In the fall of 1944, probably November, we turned our flat on Linton Avenue over to Aunt Irma, Mother’s youngest sister. We would be gone about three months and didn’t want to give up the flat in those years of acute housing shortage. Aunt Irma needed someplace to live, so it was a good deal all-around. Again, we took a Yellow Cab to Union Station and found our train east. This time, we were on the Pennsylvania Railroad, St. Louis to Baltimore. Union Station was arranged so all passenger trains backed into the huge, 11.5-acre train shed. I think there were about 40 tracks. When the train pulled out heading east it immediately entered tunnels under downtown, and crossed the Mississippi on the railroad deck of Eads Bridge, at the foot of Washington Avenue. This impressive stone bridge, opened in 1874, was the first, and for decades the only, railroad crossing of the Mississippi River at St. Louis. Coming out of the tunnels you caught flickering, split-second views of the river and surrounding area through stone arches.
This would be no two-hour ride. At this remove, it’s hard to say for sure, but I’d guess it took about 24 hours to Baltimore.
In those years, American railroads were stretched to their limits. The industry wanted desperately to do what was needed hauling people and things for the war effort, to avoid government takeover as they experienced during WWI. Anything that could roll was pressed into service, whether it worked well or not. Our coach, like so many, was old, cold, and crowded. Mom carried a basket of food; the cost of diner meals was out of the question, if they were even available. I remember fried chicken, sandwiches, and apples. We slept where we sat, in the clothes we had on. A soldier lent his woolen overcoat to Mom to help keep us warm.
I was fascinated with railroad operations. Rolling or stopped, anytime there was activity outside, I was at the window, trying to see what was going on. The yards in the big cities were the best; there was so much to see, hear, smell.
The Pennsy high iron was double-or even quadruple tracked (at least in places) along this route. So it was common to go whizzing past a train traveling in the opposite direction. Great fun.
The farther east we traveled, the hillier it became. And snowy. I have memory snippets of sooty snow and snowy soot; piles of coal and ash, engines and cars idling on spurs and sidings, rough wooden trackside structures, and all the physical infrastructure of railroading: yards, trestles, signal equipment, crossing gates where waiting cars and trucks watched us go by.
We changed trains in Baltimore, to go to Havre de Grace, a small city at the mouth of the Susquehanna River on the upper Chesapeake Bay. Dad met us there late in the afternoon, but it was still light. The connection in Baltimore, and the ride to Havre de Grace were fairly short.
We spent the night in a motel of sorts, I’m guessing that was in Havre de Grace. In 1944, these were not palatial establishments. The rooms were cold, heated just barely by a kerosene heater. We ate breakfast in their rough diner the next morning. Dad drove us to Port Deposit in a borrowed car. We moved into a barely furnished one-room accommodation on the second floor of a frame building with white clapboard siding. There was one double bed, a table with chairs, a sink, a two-burner gas hot plate, a small refrigerator and a pot-bellied coal burner in the middle of the room. Brother and I slept together on a pallet in a screened-off corner.
Another Navy couple had rooms down the hall. We shared a bath in between. Their name was Heddy. They had a real ice box (we just had a dumb old electric refrigerator). Mr. Heddy built model airplanes (which activity Mother thought highly inappropriate for a grown man). Mom and Mrs. Heddy and some other women played gin rummy; they taught me how. Mom never cared much for cards, but it was something to do.
Port Deposit was basically a one-street town squeezed between the Susquehanna and some steep bluffs. Between the river and us were some Pennsylvania rails. This division was electrified; I saw my first electric locomotives, (GG1s, introduced in 1935) which drew power from overhead catenaries, through a pantograph. For a kid who’d never even seen a diesel engine it was amazing to watch an electric train glide by without all the huff and bluster of a steam engine. That’s a locomotive?
About Port Deposit in 1944, I mostly remember lots of cold and lots of snow and the smell of fuel oil and coal smoke. Brother and I walked about three blocks to school at Jacob Tome Institute. I was in kindergarten; Jamie was in second grade. My classroom was in the basement. I once saw the teacher smack a kid with a ruler; it didn’t look like fun so I managed to avoid that. I took a nickel each day for a morning milk break (chocolate, of course). There was a daily assembly called chapel. I’m sure we walked home for lunch. Could be I attended only half days. The crossing guard was called “Pops.”
- The toilet waste pipe that ran down the outside of the building froze up once. Dad, Mr. Heddy, and the Mr. Brubaker, the landlord climbed up on ladders and thawed it out with blowtorches.
- Jamie and I got into a toothpaste duel, squirting the stuff out of the tubes at each other. Parents not amused.
- Mother bought a pair of ice skates from Mrs. Heddy and taught herself to use them in the frozen churchyard across the street.
- The oilcloth tacked to the wall over the two-burner hot plate that served as our cooking range caught fire. Dad tore it down and tossed it out the window into the snow.
- I crossed the tracks by myself to explore an old boat pulled up on the bank of the river. Parents not amused.
- I pinched my finger and got a blood blister. Dad finally persuaded me to let him poke it with a needle to let the blood out. I suggested we hold my finger out the window so the blood wouldn’t flood the room.
Christmas was memorable. With all good things in short supply, the quality of consumer goods available was pretty poor. I received a box of crayons that would hardly make a mark. Brother and I both received Magic Slate drawing boards; you’d scribble whatever you liked on them, then peel back the piece of plastic on top and the image would go away. Jamie got a sand art kit. You’d brush glue on the preprinted pattern, then sprinkle colored sand on it. Repeat with each color you wanted to use, kind of like painting by numbers.
My favorite gift was a Cat-a-Plane (catapult plane). It was a toy airplane with a cylindrical fuselage that fit over a little hand-powered air pump. Push the plunger and the plane flew like crazy. Jamie was playing with it one day when Mom was stoking the coal heater. My beloved Cat-a-Plane flew right through the open door and into the fire. Brother promised to get me another but he never did and therapy helped not at all.
I revisited Port Deposit in 1958 while I was stationed at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. A friend was kind enough to drive me up there. I had no problem finding the few landmarks I remembered from 14 years earlier. The house we lived in, the school, the churchyard. The roads about town had all changed, but that’s about all.
In January or February of 1945, Dad’s training at Bainbridge was complete and he was shipping out to Little Creek, at Norfolk, Virginia. We were on our way back to St. Louis. A cab took us to Havre de Grace. The train took us to Baltimore where we laid over a couple of hours before heading west.
My most enduring memory of the layover in Baltimore is that Mother bought us lunch at a counter in the station. Bought! She never did this! I had an egg salad sandwich and they cut the crust off the bread! Oh, this was living. From now on, that’s the way I want it, says, I. Dream on, says she. I don’t know why Mom bought our lunch that day, as it really was out of character. Perhaps she was saving the basket food for the train. There must have been a basket; we never ate purchased food of any kind on the train.
Return trips are never as memorable as outbound journeys. Mostly they’re not about adventure, they’re just about getting home. Still, three snippets remain of the trip west:
We ascended the Alleghenies at Altoona via the great Horseshoe Curve. Mother made sure we knew where we were and that this great engineering feat was a really big deal. Out our window, we could see both the locomotive (steam, of course, probably one of the famous PRR K4 4-6-2 Pacifics, a type that served that road from 1914 to 1957) and the back end of the train. Too cool. It strikes me as a little odd that we arced up into Pennsylvania that far; it’s hardly on a straight line from Baltimore to St. Louis, but I guess that’s where the PRR rails went. We did not change trains anywhere, coming or going.
I got the giggles when we stopped at Pittsburgh. I thought the conductor said Pissburgh. Oh, mama, did you hear that?
Sometime in the wee hours, the train stopped at what I heard as New York. Now this was exciting; this is where those network radio shows come from “Live, from New York!” No, says my sleepy mother, it’s Newark. Newark? Never heard of it. Boring. I puzzled over this for years. What were we doing in New Jersey when we were heading from Maryland to Missouri? It finally dawned on me to look at a map. The disappointing answer? It was Newark, Ohio, not New Jersey. Even more boring.
No other memories of the trip home make the cut. Railroad Express delivered the big corrugated box of our stuff to Linton Avenue, probably a few days after we got home. The box was a shambles, and had been tied together with a long piece of cotton rope similar to clothesline, but dyed red. We used pieces of it for various ropy needs for years. One length of it had a long, useful life on the sled we would receive for Christmas in 1945.
In the summer of 1949, Jamie went to Boy Scout camp for two weeks (Irondale, Missouri). I thought it terribly unfair that I was stuck at home. The folks decided I needed an adventure, too, so they arranged with Uncle Bob and Aunt Edith for me to visit with them for a couple of weeks in Evansville, Indiana. I would get there by train. All by myself!
The railroad was the Louisville and Nashville (L&N). The trip wasn’t very long; we left St. Louis fairly early and arrived Evansville late afternoon, but for an eleven-year-old on his own, it was a great adventure. I was given some money for food on the train, so I became the snack cart’s best customer. I also had breakfast in the diner! Don’t tell Mom. That was a first. So were the poached eggs the waiter helped me choose. When I got tired of sitting, I stood at the window in one of the narrow hallways and watched the world go by. It was summer. It was sunny. It was thoroughly enjoyable. Uncle Bob met me in Evansville.
You see a little bit of everything from a train. Trackside real estate is not prime residential property, so homes near the rails range from modest at best to downright slummy. In open farm country, houses are usually not near the tracks. In towns and cities trackside structures are usually all business: warehouses and workshops, rail yards and sidings. The fun towns are those that run the rails right through downtown.
Again, I remember the trip out better than I do the trip back. Isn’t that always the way?
Meeting the morning train
In 1950 we moved to Elsberry, Missouri, a small farm town in Lincoln County. It was on the Burlington Route, the same rails Dad traveled on his runs to Hannibal 11 years earlier. The red brick depot was at the foot of Main Street, where the street teed into Hwy 79 at the town’s only traffic signal, a blinking red.
Here I enjoyed my closest experiences with operating steam locomotives. It was my job to meet the train every morning about 6 a.m. to fetch the St. Louis Globe Democrat, the morning paper, which I had to deliver before school. The train didn’t stop; someone simply tossed the bundle from a box car onto the brick platform and waved to me as the train moved north. I did this every morning, in all kinds of weather, for about two years. I’d load the papers into the basket on my bicycle and take them to the boss’s Rexall drug store, where I’d count out my 63 papers and leave the rest for Brother. I did the north side of town on my Western Flyer. He did the south side on foot, with the papers in a canvas bag slung over his shoulder.
Meeting the train was a real treat for me. I was out and about on my own when the town was just beginning to come awake. It was part of my daily routine to stop at the town park and hoist the American flag on my way to the station (how’s that for a Norman Rockwell scene?). Then I’d coast down the deserted street to the depot.
It was always a thrill to see the engine (always steam, never diesel) round the bend south of town, perhaps a half mile away, leaning on the whistle and the brakes as the engine slowed to paper-tossing velocity. What a way to start the day!
Sometimes I’d go down to the depot, just to watch the trains. There was a regular evening southbound passenger train. I’d watch the lighted coaches go by, with people having a meal in the diner, or reading in the coach. It evoked sophistication and adventure. I want to go!
There was a yellow line painted on the station platform marking the point past which it was not safe to be. Once I determined to see if I could stand just on the safe side of that line while the train sped past. I chickened out. Holy cow, that engine was big. And fast. And noisy. And scary!
And then I grew up
I didn’t realize it in 1952 and 1953, but the golden years of passenger railroading were pretty much over by then. The industry as a whole hadn’t made a profit hauling people since 1929, and with few exceptions was unwilling to invest in it in the face of intense competition from the automobile and air travel.
Certain railroads, on certain routes, introduced fast, modern train sets in the postwar years and promoted them energetically. But once the interstate highway system started taking shape, the end was in sight. Low cost jet air travel put the nail in the coffin.
My generation still used rail for intercity travel into the 1960s and beyond. Mom came by rail to visit us in Michigan in the late 70s. It was an alternative that had always been there and we took it for granted. But it would never again be like it was when rail was the best, or only, way to travel long distance.
In 1957, I retraced our 1944 route over PRR rails when I reported for service to Fort Meade. This time it was just travel, not the grand adventure of a five- or six-year-old. I also made at least one round-trip home by rail sometime in 1958, probably over the same lines. On my final leg of that trip, from Washington D.C. to Laurel, Maryland, I was in what appeared to be a nineteenth-century coach, pulled by steam! 1958! Surely that must have been one of the very last gasps of steam power on a scheduled run.
My young family went with me by rail from St. Louis to Chicago in 1974 when I needed a passport in a hurry. I chose rail for that trip specifically so my boys could have the experience.
Anyone who has traveled in Europe has probably wondered why we can’t have fast, modern, efficient passenger trains as they do. The answers are complicated, and rooted in our history, geography, politics and culture.
The bottom line is this: passenger rail must be subsidized. Period. It is very expensive and fares recover only about a third of the cost. It is not an enterprise a rational businessman would invest in. Except in very dense corridors, high-speed rail is simply not feasible. Even there, governmental funding is necessary. To make this happen, there must be really gutsy leadership, and a public that wants it bad enough to pay for it.
Some say passenger rail will make a comeback simply because it must, Because it simply makes good sense, environmentally and otherwise. Others aren’t as sanguine. I’ve always been a fan of rail travel and would still like to see it as a practical alternative to driving or flying. But if I were in a leadership position, I’m not at all sure I’d vote to commit the necessary taxpayer money.
One of the last railroads to give up steam was the Norfolk and Western. They were unique. They’re main business was hauling coal, much of it from mines they owned. They built and maintained their own locomotives in Roanoke. The finest examples were the muscular, articulated A Class behemoths, and the beautiful streamlined J Class passenger engines. There are one of each, #1218 and #611, respectively, on display in Roanoke.
The last days of this road’s steam operations were beautifully documented by the remarkable photography of O. Winston Link. My hero.
Wife Deanna and I jumped at the chance to ride behind #1218 on an excursion trip from Charlotte to Roanoke and back, sometime in the mid-1980s. Going up we went north to Lynchburg and hung a left. Coming back we took a different rail that meandered through the woods and connected to the main north-south line somewhere north of Salisbury, or perhaps even farther north, at Danville. This time I got to leave the window open, so to speak. There was an open car up near the engine specifically for fools such as I who think cinders in the hair are fun. Also, on the way back, I stood in the vestibule between cars, with the top of the door open. With no towns or structures to distract, and nothing to filter the sight, sound, and smell of that magnificent engine, it could have been a scene from 50 or 100 years earlier. I loved it.
In 1991, we signed on for another excursion to Asheville behind J-class #611. Alas, the steam engine was ailing that day and we wound up behind a substitute diesel. Still, it was a memorable trip. We hung a left on the S line (Asheville district) at the Salisbury wye, and climbed into Asheville through the switchbacks above Old Fort. This is a remarkable ascent that requires the train to negotiate multiple back-to-back switchbacks, like a snake chasing its tail.
I am in awe at the ingenuity, determination, and sacrifice of the men who built our railroads in the 19th century. Every grade, cut, fill, curve, trestle, tunnel and river crossing was a daunting challenge. It was grueling, dangerous work, without modern tools, and many didn’t survive.
The story of American railroading is the story of our country. The railroads not only opened the west and compressed time; as a product of, and partner to, the industrial revolution they made possible mass production and mass marketing, and expanded our horizons in incalculable ways. They created towns and industries. They created opportunities and made our lives better.
I don’t live in the past. Things change. Generally, they get better. But there’s something about the American railroad story that has always resonated with me. I have a shelf or two of railroad books, both historical and fiction. I subscribe to railroading magazines. I have tapes and DVDs of classic engines. Just you try to keep me from watching an operating steam engine (or a cold display, for that matter). Be careful about starting a conversation with me on the subject; I’ll make your eyes glaze over (ask my family). I even know a few old railroad songs.
And once, I wrote a poem:
Does that do anything for you?
Not much, you said.
You were born too late—I almost was—to know the real thing.
This bright, colorful, show-toy engine hardly deserves to be called a locomotive.
The real ones are gone now, except a few hangers-on, eking out a living with exhibition work, like an over-the-hill wrestler.
They’re mostly scrap.
But I remember.
Waiting for sleep in my crib I heard their thumping in the yards.
Going to Grandma’s, they yanked us through a Missouri countryside long gone. “Don’t open the window, you’ll get dirty.”
At night, the whistle sounds ricocheted off the mountains, blending with the country song of frogs and birds and bugs.
The quiet rails, curving out of sight, teased us with dreams of a somewhere else we’d never seen.
The cryptic semaphores spoke only to very special people.
The real magic was close up, on the move.
They were felt before they were heard, heard before they were seen.
First a whisper, perhaps a distant soprano note.
Then a rumble and a quickening, Doppler-scored crescendo, a mountain of sound so solid it crushed everything else from consciousness.
When it was gone, we were left breathless and trembling with fear and wonder in the lingering smell of oil and steam and burning coal.
Oh, they were beautiful!
You were born too late.
Now they’re only toys or cold, neglected memorials. Even the few that are loved and cared for in their retirement give no real sense of their strength,
But I remember.
© Stephen Richie, November 12, 1982