Over Easy: The ‘disappearing railroad’ blues

  • Dan Mackie (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 5/15/2020 9:46:22 PM
Modified: 5/18/2020 9:25:51 PM

A few years ago I snapped up two copies of Railroad Magazine from a White River Junction shop during the Glory Days of the Railroad festival. They were a mere 10 cents each, a steep discount from the pricey half buck they once commanded.

I know a bargain when I see one: These 1960s leftovers came with a retro musty aroma, no extra charge.

I almost passed them by, but couldn’t resist when I saw teaser headlines like “Steam Days on the Western Maryland,” by Bert Pennypacker. I knew he wouldn’t steer me wrong: a guy named Bert Pennypacker almost certainly comes from a long line of Pennypackers, serious people all.

Then there were “Steam Locomotive Nicknames,” by Frederick Westing, the exotic sounding “Girl in the Zulu Car,” by Harold Titus, and “The Drive for Passenger Business,” by Frank P. Donovan. These are not clickbait titles!

I’ve rarely encountered a more glass-is-half-full-and-almost-overflowing analysis than the one offered by Donovan in June 1964. Even though passenger lines were losing money hand over fist, or boiler over drivewheel, Donovan saw better days down the line. “Passenger trains are here to stay,’’ he quoted Wayne Johnson, president of the Illinois Central.

Johnson had reason to be proud. The Illinois Central through the years ran passenger lines that could make a person feel they were really going places. Wikipedia lists the Chickasaw, the Magnolia Star, Night Diamond and Land ’O Corn among them. Another was immortalized by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie in City of New Orleans, a ballad of American decline that speaks to my soul.

But as you probably know, the Illinois Central isn’t in the passenger business anymore. (Amtrak keeps the City of New Orleans rolling from Chicago to the Big Easy, thanks to subsidies.) I almost wanted to burst into song when I saw it pull into Union Station in Chicago about six years ago, but I am not a person who bursts into song even when song is called for.

Donovan stressed how trains can travel in bad weather, while airplanes cower on the runway, and how comfortable they are, or were. He offered up the example of the Florida Special from New York to Miami, which employed “a lot of fun to make travel more interesting: full-length feature movies, fashion shows, bridge, canasta, bingo, and group singing, all supervised by a comely hostess.” Supervised by a comely hostess? As comedian Jack Benny used to say ... Well!

Air travel, for all its practicalities (mostly speed), is not only a miserable experience, it’s designed to be a miserable experience: cattle lines, chippy fees, scarcity-era snacks such as a couple of mini-pretzels and four ounces of Diet Coke. The seating is cheek by jowl; passengers could form a conga line on the way out.

I am not exactly a railroad buff — big engines aren’t my thing — but some of the romance of the glory days has passed down to me. I regularly walk over to White River Junction which, according to a writeup at trainaficionado.com, once had nearly 50 passenger trains pass through daily.

Before the authorities banned it, I used to take solitary tours of the crumbling roundhouse complex in West Lebanon. I felt the ghosts of railroadmen past.

Even now passenger trains aren’t dead to me. About six years ago we took the Lake Shore Limited from Albany, N.Y., to Chicago. It was an overnight trip in coach, but my wife, Dede, and I enjoyed it greatly. It was our first time to Chicago, and Carl Sandburg’s poem about it had made an impression on me:

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Shoulders ...

It seemed a place worthy of not just a trip, but a journey.

Just a couple years ago I took the train from White River Junction to Hartford, Conn., to see my son. It took about four hours, I got a senior discount, and it was as comfortable in its way as riding in the back seat of one of those big old American cars of my youth. You could stand up on the train and stretch, or walk a bit. If more people had any reason to go to Hartford, Conn., it could be a sensation.

I don’t know if Frank P. Donovan of Railroad Magazine will ever be proved right about passenger service, if a Slow Travel movement could revive it. As much as I would like it, it seems doubtful in a country that currently can’t make up its mind about much of anything.

A quaint scene in the PBS series Victoria mentioned that when the queen was young and train travel was new some people worried about what speeding along at the likes of 24 mph would do to the human body. A story on the Atlas Obscura website details early fears that the rattling and noise could bring on “railway madness,” instant insanity.

What would Victorians have made of flying 6 miles up in the air at 500 mph? There’s some part of me that feels it propels you too fast, breakfast in Boston and dinner in Denver, before your vital organs can adjust and your brain can take stock of where you’ve been and where you’re going. No wonder we feel befuddled on arrival.

Suddenly we’ve come back down to earth with our clothes wrinkled, our hair unkempt and our spirits bruised, and it all feels less wondrous than it once seemed.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.

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