Sunday, December 20, 2009


A classic EMD-E7, in Western Pacific colors receives a lot of attention at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento. One of the most-loved diesel-electric “streamliners”of all times, nearly 500 of this locomotive model and its offspring were built.

I have often thought that Dame Fortune smiled in a special way upon anyone born early enough in the 20th century to know the long mournful call of a steam locomotive. Late at night, curled deep in the protective folds of an eiderdown in an attic bedroom, I have traveled to distant and mysterious destinations on the wings of that solo refrain carried to my garret window by an errant breeze. Rising and falling, mellowed by distance and intervening topography, sometimes jubilant, sometimes plaintive and seductive, always filled with a yearning no other man-made orchestra has ever been able to match, the song of steam is so powerfully evocative, it is clenched tightly in the memories of a generation or two who can only lament its passing.
I thought of all this recently as I spent a day at the California Railroad Museum in old town Sacramento, wandering among and even touching more than a hundred years of railroading history, where acres of restored and even serviceable locomotives and rolling stock tantalize the imagination of young and old alike. There I sat in the engineer’s position in one of the only remaining “cab forward” locomotives in the country, examined the unbelievably narrow kitchen of a Santa Fe dining car, and revisited one of the rolling post office cars which serviced daily the small-town America of my youth.
For the fan of combustion locomotives, there are two dozen beautifully-restored models on display, including two Electro-Magnetic Diesel Corporation streamliners in “Super Chief warbonnet” paint jobs. And for those of us who are closet historians and researchers, the on-site book store is worthy of a full-day visit all on its own. (I now have six months of reading to do and a host of Santa Fe dining car recipes to try out in my kitchen.)
My own personal love affair with the fading days of American railroading began with the stories heard at the feet of a father, who in his youth decided to “see America” by riding the rails. From his home state of Washington, he “hitched” his way from state to state, stopping long enough to earn a few dollars, harvesting hay, or wheat or hops, or loading logs, before moving on, gathering tales from engineers, brakemen and fellow travelers. Along the way he witnessed several derailments and wrecks while learning lessons in geography and civics his stories brought to life for his four sons.
By the time I was fourteen, I had traveled with such hallowed names as the beloved “Pennsy”, the Delaware & Hudson, New York Central, Long Island, Canadian National and Central Vermont. In the decade to follow, I would come to cross the continent nearly a dozen times by rail on military courier missions, covering the miles between New York and Texas or California on many of the great trains of the early 50s from the Super Chief to the Texas “Katy”. It was during a time of war, and the uniform I wore and the orders I carried had an unexpected but welcome effect on conductors and porters, who quietly saw to it that I enjoyed dining car meals far beyond the reach of the parsimonious military “meal tickets” I carried, and a first choice of sleeping berth at night. I always chose an upper Pullman berth, where the swaying motion of the car was more pronounced, and the clickety clack of the rails a soothing counterpoint. When escorting prisoners, I often had a compartment assigned to me for greater security,
and that was especially luxurious.
One of the most interesting train journeys was a 935 kilometer trip on a steam-powered, narrow gage railroad from Tokyo to the city of Iwakuni at the extreme southern tip of occupied Japan. Tunnels through mountains were numerous and long, and almost every small town we passed had its waiting audience of small children vying for the candy and chewing gum we threw to them from the moving train. We slept on swaying hammocks which dropped from the ceiling at night and dined on military rations. A brief stop to take on coal and water at a station overlooking the devastation of Hiroshima was an eerie experience. I don’t think any of us spoke as we looked down on what once had been a thriving city.
By 1916, there were 254,000 miles of railroad tracks in America, and passenger rail traffic had reached its zenith. By 1920, 1.8 million people were employed by the industry. But big changes were ahead, one of which was Americans’ growing love affair with the automobile, another the coming of the combustion engine itself. The construction, maintenance, and operation of steam-powered locomotives was an expensive proposition, and diesel power offered greater economy in all three areas. For awhile the two ran side by side, to the delight of a portion of the public who loved the mystic of steam.
Today, only 154,000 Americans are employed in the rail industry, yet we manage to haul four times the freight tonnage of the heyday year of 1920 !
Except for a handful of tourist trains scattered around the country. steam-powered rail travel is only a fading memory, but one filled with enough glory to be worth passing on to our grandkids.

Clinchfield caboose number 1078 is connected to a coal train near Mt. Holly, No. Carolina, one of the last of a dying breed. Rendered redundant by new technology, the venerable caboose was mostly dropped from service in the 1980s.

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