Clearing the way
The steam railroad has always been an object of fascinating interest to me. I remember, in my boyhood days in the little Indiana village where I was born, how I liked to go to the railroad station in the evening and watch the local passenger train as it made its usual daily stop. It did not always stop, tor our village was a flag station, at which passenger trains stopped only when there was somebody to get on or off.
I never got tired of watching that evening train, and there were but few days in good weather when I was not at the station, awaiting its arrival. Occasionally, I was there to meet some relative or friend who was coming to visit us, and once in a great while I was there to get aboard the train myself, to go to the city, some five miles away. But most of the time I was there just to watch the train arrive and depart. I would catch the far-off sound of the whistle that told of its approach, and soon I could hear the roaring noise it made as it rushed along.
Then it would slow down, and the engine would pass me, puffing, snorting and clanking, its brass bell ringing, smoke pouring from the smoke stack, steam hissing and brakes screeching. I always liked to stand near the engine after the . irain came to a halt. I could watch the fireman shovel coal into the fire-box, see the leaping red flames when he opened the fire-box door, and even feel their heat on my face. Once in a while the engineer, in blue overalls and jumper, might get down from the cab and squirt oil into mysterious nooks and crannies about the rods and wheels of the engine, using an oil can that had a spout ever so much longer than the spouts in the oil cans which we had for oiling our farm machinery. The train never stayed long at our station, and almost before I knew it the engineer was back in his seat, his hand on the lever, which even then I knew was called a throttle. The fireman would tug at the bell cord, and the engineer would draw back the lever. The engine would begin to puff loudly, sending up a cloud of smoke and a shower of small black cinders which rattled faintly as they fell about me on the platform, the great wheels would begin to turn, and very slowly at first, but faster with each succeeding puff, the train would pull away from the station.
I would watch the cars as they glided by, and perhaps envy some boy or girl whom I could see sitting on a plush- covered seat, looking out the coach window at me. Soon the last car had passed me. Often the trainman on the platform of the rear coach would wave his hand, and I would wave back. The roar of the train became dimmer and dimmer, and soon I could hear the mournful sound of the whistle as the engine neared the road crossing a mile down the track. At last all sound died away. The train was gone.
I liked to watch all the other trains, too, which passed through our little village. I remember there were two daily fast mail trains, one in each direction. They never stopped at our station. Each of them carried Pullman cars, and I used to wonder if the time would ever come when I would take a ride in a sleeper. The incoming mail for our village, enclosed in a locked bag of heavy striped canvas, was thrown off the swiftly moving train. The bag rolled over and over after hitting the ground, raising a cloud of dust in dry weather and on rainy days getting covered with mud. Across the door of the mail car was an iron mail catcher, which, under the manipulation of the railway mail clerk, reached out and grabbed the bag of outgoing mail from a white crane at the side of the railroad track.
I liked to watch the trains which passed through during the night. One thing which always fascinated me, and when I was very small, frightened me a bit too, was the reflection of the engine's fire on its smoke. When the fireman opened the firebox door to throw a shovelful of coal on the fire the red flames would light up the billowing smoke above the engine. The glow looked a little like a long flash of lightning, thought it was more attractive than lightning because of the rolling cloud of smoke, and because there was no following clap of thunder.
I liked to watch the freight trains too. We had a local freight every day except Sunday, northbound one day and southbound the next. It stopped with some frequency, while the train crew unloaded boxes of groceries, big bags of flour, barrels of vinegar, kerosene, sugar and salt, which came to our village storekeeper from the wholesale merchant in the nearby city. Or there might be a shipment of mowers or plows or planters or some other kind of farm machinery, and during the threshing season in July and August the local train would place empty box cars on the side-track by the village grain elevator, and take away the cars loaded with wheat or rye or
oats. When freight was unloaded, I would see the freight train conductor deliver some documents to the station agent, and I learned that these documents were called waybills. I knew that they had something to do with the freight that had been delivered, though I did not know exactly what. Once in a while, the local freight train entered the long side-track in our village to wait for another train, either freight or passenger, to go by. Our railroad was a single track line, and it was necessary for opposing trains to get out of one another's way. I was always delighted when a meeting took place at our siding, for then I had an opportunity to look at an engine for several minutes. Men of the train crews occasionally refilled their water-cans at our well. Sometimes they would talk to me, and I learned from them several interesting things about cars and locomotives. Air brakes were just coming into general use on freight cars in those days, and one of the trainmen explained to me how they worked. I learned about the safety valve on the engine. I saw some of the early safety couplers. Most of the freight cars were still equipped with the old link-and-pin couplers, and I remember quite clearly an occasion when a trainman got his thumb badly mashed as he was coupling two cars together, and how he came to my father, who was the village doctor, to have the thumb cleansed and dressed.
A great many years have gone by since I watched the "evening train come in" at my boyhood home, but the fascination which the steam locomotive and its train had for me then has never left me. As a matter of fact, it is stronger than ever. I still like to ride on trains, I still like to watch steam locomotives, I never neglect any opportunity I may have to get on a locomotive, and some of the most thrilling memories I have are memories of long rides I have taken sitting on the fireman's seat in the cab of a rushing, roaring, hot locomotive. I have visited railroad shops all over the United States, big ones, such as those in Altoona and Albany and Los Angeles, and smaller ones in dozens of places, and I still find railroad shops more fascinating than any other kind of manufacturing establishment I have ever seen. I like railroad freight yards and railroad passenger stations, freight houses and interlocking towers, the engines, the cars, the signals; and I believe I would rather spend two hours in a grimy, smoky roundhouse than in any moving picture theater in the world. For more than a quarter of a century I have spent most of my summers in Vermont. From the front porch of my summer cottage I can see, about a mile distant, across Keeler's Bay, which is a part of Lake Champlain, the line of the Rutland Railroad. If I am on the porch and hear a train whistle, I never fail to lay aside whatever I am doing to watch the train. I watch for the plume of vapor rising above the engine when the whistle is blown, for the vapor is nearly all gone before I can hear the whistle's sound. The Rutland has a daily train, bound from Montreal to New York, which goes
by every night a few minutes after nine o'clock. Seldom do I fail to see it—the gleam of the headlight before the engine comes into view, once in a while the reflected firelight on the smoke, above the train, and always the long row of squares of light formed by the car windows.
I found out many years ago that I was not the only one for whom the steam railroad had a deep fascination. In fact, there are few people, old or young, who are not interested in railroads, though, of course all people do not feel the same way about them. I was not the only boy in my native village who liked to watch the evening train, and there were always grown people at the station, who were just as much interested as the boys. At the village in Vermont, near which I have my summer home, if I am at the railroad station at train time, I find that there is a group of people there who remind me very much of the group which used to gather at the station and watch the evening train come in many years ago.
There are literally thousands of steam railroad "fans" in the United States. Some of them are organized into clubs or societies. They have regular meetings at which they hear lecturers give interesting talks about railroads in this country and in foreign countries. Some of these societies publish small magazines containing all kinds of odd and interesting information about railroads; many of them have collections of railroad pictures and time-tables and other documents. Many American railroads have for several years followed a practice of running special excursion trains for railroad fans, giving them an opportunity to visit railroad yards and shops, to inspect locomotives and cars, to visit places of historical interest in railroad development, and to learn numerous facts about the actual operation of steam railroads. These excursion trains are always crowded. They are financially profitable ventures, and they also do much to stimulate and keep alive public interest in the welfare of our railroads.
The railroad business is one of the few large businesses in the United States about which popular magazines are pub- lished. There are many trade and professional magazines about all kinds of business enterprise, including railroads, but for the railroads there are regularly published magazines, sold at all news-stands, and read eagerly for the interesting tales of the steel highway, the historical articles, the descriptions of all kinds of railroad equipment, and many items of scientific interest.
I know a great many men, who for years have made collections of all sorts of railroad pictures. 1 know others who have large collections of models of cars and locomotives. I have one friend who has made a hobby of photography and has a huge collection of railroad photographs which he himself has taken all over the United States and in many countries of Latin America. Perhaps the way in which the universal interest in railroads finds its greatest expression is in "playing with railroads." I doubt if there has ever been a more popular toy for boys than toy railroad tracks and trains. Some of the toy outfits are very simple, but many of them, operated by electric
power, are very elaborate. There are not many boys who do not place an electric train high on their preferred list of Christmas gifts. I have known many fathers who take great pleasure in buying electric trains for their boys, though 1 have not always been sure that they were thinking as much about the fun the boys would have with the trains as the fun they would have themselves. One of my best friends gave his three-year old daughter an electric train as a birthday present, and I am quite sure I knew his real reason for selecting that particular gift.
There are hundreds of men and boys who build their own model railroads, or at least a substantial part of them. Some of them organize a club, rent a large room, and build a railroad system. They have regular meetings, at which they operate their model railroad system with all the care and precision and attention to accepted rules and standards of practice that are to be found on the best of our large steam railroads. The members take turns at being engineers and conductors and dispatchers and switchmen, station agents and signal operators. All their lives they have felt the fascination of the railroad, and not having become real railroad workmen, they play at being railroaders, and find it an endless source of relaxation and amusement.
The New York Society of Model Engineers, Incorporated, has a fine model railroad in the huge upper floor of the old ferry house of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad, in Hoboken, New Jersey. When the first three hundred feet of this model system, known as the Union Connecting Railroad, were completed in January, 1948, the president of the Lackawanna signalized the event, in the presence of some two hundred ardent fans, by driving a tiny "last spike" of gold, an act reminiscent of the completion in 1869 of the first trans- continental railroad in the United States.
Perhaps some of you have heard of William Gillette, the famous American actor, who died a few years ago, the actor who created the stage character of Sherlock Holmes, and who starred in "Secret Service" and "Diplomacy" and many other exciting dramas. He was an ardent and enthusiastic railroad fan. On his estate in Connecticut he had a small railroad sys tem, with a real steam locomotive, with which he and some of his friends spent many entertaining hours.
When my son was a little boy, he loved locomotives and trains just as I loved them when I was a boy. He could be amused for hours with pictures of locomotives, and of all the toys he had he liked his toy trains the best. I bought him what books I could find about trains. There were not very many such books suitable for a boy of his age, and together he and I started a scrap-book with pictures of cars and engines. While working on the scrap-book it occurred to me that other boys—and girls too—might be interested in a book which would provide them with information about the steam railroad, which would answer some of the hundreds of questions my son asked me, questions which I had asked when I was young, and for which I could not always find the correct answer. That is how this book came to be written, and the first edition published in 1926.
When this son of mine grew up and went to college he studied to become a mechanical engineer. His college career, like that of thousands of other boys of his age, was interrupted by the coming of the Second World War. When he departed for his military training, among the things he regretfully left were three large boxes of tracks, switches, signals, water tanks, tunnels, stations, bridges, freight cars, passenger cars and locomotives—all the dozens of parts of a huge toy electric railway, the accumulation of the birthdays and Christmases of several years. I stored them away, and took good care of them for the three years and a half he was in uniform. When he finally got home from Saipan and Okinawa and various other spots in the Pacific Ocean, he completed his college course, and went to work. Perhaps because war had aged him even more than time, or maybe because he saw no immediate prospect of having a place in which he could once more set up his railroad—there may have been other reasons—he decided to dispose of his long cherished toy. But in doing so he apparently had in mind the many hours of fun and happiness it had given him, for he gave it to an orphanage, where it was all assembled and put in working condition in a big attic, an unexpected Christmas gift to provide happiness and fun for other boys and girls. I did not know about this venture in philanthropy until it was completed. I was vastly pleased, and I was also more than a little amused to find that my son had held out a few trifling pieces. He simply had to retain some souvenir of his most loved childhood possession, the toy of which he never tired.