Abilene’s Very Own Neighborhood Trolley

I was visiting with a friend at church the other day, and knowing of my fondness for all things railroad-related, he asked, “So do you know anything about Abilene having a streetcar system back in the day?”

barn south sideIt turns out, he had been looking at the old trolley barn – a massive iron building with a distinctive raised skylight, that stands on Clinton Street, between N. 10th & N. 11th Streets.  Someone told him that it used to be the trolley garage and maintenance building, and he wanted to know more about it.

It’s a good question, and I think an interesting bit of Abilene history.

Back in 1907, three of the area’s leading citizens – W.G. Swenson, George Paxton and J.M. Wagstaff – decided that Abilene needed a streetcar.  Mr. Swenson was part of the Swenson family, known for its ranches and other businesses in Stamford, Throckmorton, and elsewhere in West Texas.  He was also the founder of what would eventually become West Texas Utilities, and the developer of the College Heights addition of North Abilene.

Pine Street smThese men led in financing and constructing the Abilene Street Railway Company. The line began just west of Simmon College (now Hardin-Simmons University), and headed south down Merchant Street until it got to North 7th.  There, it turned east to Orange, south to North 3rd, and east to Pine.  It went through downtown Abilene on Pine, crossed the T&P tracks (this was before the underpass was built there), over to Chestnut, then south to South 7th.  (The photo shows the trolley in the middle of Pine Street, heading south from North 3rd.)

At that point, the line turned west and followed South 7th through the Alta Vista addition, then under development by Henry Sayles, Jr.  The line terminated at the old Abilene Municipal Auditorium at Fair Park.  (Fair Park is now Rose Park; the old auditorium has long since been torn down, but it used to sit just west of where Safety City is now located.)

In the 1920s, city fathers wanted to persuade the trustees of McMurry College to move their campus to Abilene, so the line was extended from South 7th down Grand to South 14th.

Trolley Car 1 smAnd so it was on a Sunday afternoon in November of 1908, 36 of Abilene’s leading citizens, dressed in their Sunday finest, boarded the trolley for its maiden trip, with Mr. Swenson himself at the controls.  Students from Simmons College had nicknamed the streetcar the “Galloping Goose” – they didn’t know how right they would be.

According to news reports in the Abilene Reporter, things went well on the trip, with lots of folks turning out to watch this proud moment in Abilene history, and the people on board having a great time – until – the trolley crested the hill at South 7th and Sayles, and begin heading downhill towards the end of the line, picking up speed as it went.  Mr. Swenson applied the brakes, which apparently failed.  He began blowing the trolley’s horn, and warning his passengers to jump.  Some did, but others did not.

The “Goose” lived up to its name, galloping along to the end of the line, jumping the tracks, crashing through a telephone pole and a barbed wire fence, before finally coming to rest in a mudhole.  Trolley barn from east smFortunately, no one was seriously hurt, other than getting some mud on their Sunday duds, and everyone had a good laugh.

Presumably, they fixed the brakes, and regularly scheduled service began soon thereafter.  At right is a view of the trolley barn in its heyday, showing the tracks leading into the barn, and the overhead catenary system, from which the cars drew electrical power.

Abilene residents are familiar with the Swenson House, the beautiful restored home of the Swenson family, in north Abilene on Merchant Street between North 17th & North 18th Streets.  The home was built in 1910, and after Mr. Swenson and his wife passed away, it remained in the hands of the family until they gave control to the Abilene Preservation League in 1991.  The home’s location is no coincidence.  Remember that the trolley ran south right down Merchant Street – I’m sure Mr. Swenson appreciated the convenience of being able to hop aboard the trolley – just a few steps outside his door – to travel back and forth downtown.

Christmas Memories coverIn his book Christmas Memories, noted Texas historian and author (and Abilene native) A.C. Greene tells the story of riding the trolley while going Christmas shopping with his grandmother, Maude Cole.  She was the librarian at Abilene’s Carnegie Library, and he always credited her with his love of writing and storytelling.  It’s a great story, well told, with some really great illustrations.  (I seem to recall hearing that Mr. Greene was himself quite the railfan in his day.)

The name of the system was changed in 1919 to “Abilene Traction Company,” but unfortunately, its days were numbered.  The rising popularity of city buses, combined with the cost of the maintenance and upkeep of what was by then an aging system, led to its closure in 1931.

Merchant & N 8thIn 2009, local historian and Abilene High teacher Jay Moore wrote an interesting guest column for the Abilene Reporter News, describing how he and his daughter watched a road crew pulling up some of the last tracks of the old trolley system near the intersection of Grand and S. 11th.  A tiny bit of track was also still visible at the corner of Merchant Street and North Eighth – or at least, it WAS, until that section of street was repaved in 2012.

So now, the only visible sign that Abilene ever had a street railway system is the old trolley barn, which is how this whole discussion started.  The building is now owned by a gentleman who lives near there, and he was gracious enough to let me take a few pictures.

interior skylighttracks in floor

(Left) Here’s the inside of the barn, showing the light that comes in through the skylights.

(Right) The old rails are still visible, firmly embedded in the barn’s concrete floor.

Jack North Early AbileneIf you’d like to read more about Abilene in the old days, may I suggest the book Early Abilene by Jack North.  Lots of great pictures, including several more old photos of the trolleys in service, as well as plenty of other good information.  There are plenty of other books on Abilene’s history that also contain pictures of the old streetcars.

So the next time you’re heading down North 10th or 11th, and you see that rusted old iron building, think about the old-timers who had the vision and determination to build Abilene out of nothing but windblown Texas prairie.   And while you’re there, listen carefully, and see if you can hear the faint clanging of a trolley bell.

Thoughts for the Day from MLK

When I was in graduate school, I once did a study examining the rhetorical style of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s preaching.  What I found was that Dr. King was able to successfully combine preaching styles from both black and white homiletic theory.

What I mean is, Rev. King was able effectively to merge the best of black preaching style, with its powerful storytelling, vivid images and rhythmic cadences, with the best of white preaching styles, with its rhetorical structure and its use of logic and Aristotelian reasoning.  The result was preaching which appealed to both white and black audiences.

In other words, good communicators are always able, in every situation, to find the available means of persuasion – exactly as Aristotle himself taught in his book on rhetoric, so many centuries ago.

In honor of today as the day we remember and honor him, here are some of my favorite MLK quotations.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?”

The arc of the universe is long, but it tends towards justice.

Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The times is always right to do right.

But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners, will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood… I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”…was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand I can do no other, so help me God.”….And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”….So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?…Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

I just want to do God’s will.  And He’s allowed me to go to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land!  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.

Run to the Darkness

(Thanks to David McQueen and Keith Roberson for their “tag-team” sermon that got me to thinking about this.)

People run OUT of burning buildings.  That’s simple human self-preservation: get as far away from danger as possible.  Yet we know there are those who run INTO burning buildings.  We call them firefighters.  We also call them heroes.

Normal human reaction is to get away from gunfire, especially if you’re unarmed.  But soldiers routinely run TOWARDS gunfire, especially when a buddy is in trouble.  And medics will do this, even though they are unarmed, to save a life.  Heroes in action.

These are examples of physical courage in the face of danger.  But there is another kind of courage, just as rare, and just as worthy of celebrating.  It is the kind of moral courage that runs into the darkness where another person is trapped.

As humans, we were meant to live in relationship with others – family members, co-workers, neighbors.  We were meant to live in community, to provide mutual support and encouragement.  But relationships are messy.  If we want to enjoy truly mutual relationships with others, that requires that we make ourselves vulnerable.  It also requires that we allow others to be vulnerable to us.

And there’s the problem: we like to keep our emotional distance.  Oh, we’re fine with relationships as long as they’re on the surface, or as long as it doesn’t require too much of a commitment from us.  But when a neighbor or a co-worker needs someone who is willing to listen, to “weep with those who weep,” to be willing to just make an investment of time, are we willing to be that person?

So I come back to our opening thoughts.  We admire the courage, the loyalty, the selflessness of a firefighter who would charge into a burning building, or a medic who races into a combat situation to save a life.  Are we willing to do the same thing for someone who needs a friend?

The world is desperate to see the love of God.  The world is aching to see Christians who will live out what they say they believe.  Are you willing to be that person?  Am I?

Are you willing to be the one who goes to the old man who lives down the street, and has no one to talk to?  Would you spend an hour a week just sitting with him and listening?

Or how about the single mom at work.  Will you be the one who reaches out to her and offers to baby-sit for a little while just so she can go buy groceries without the kids?

When Jesus said He would build His church and the gates of hell would not “prevail” against it, what did He mean?  That Hell would attack the church, but that the church would never fall to those attacks?  Well, that’s certainly true, but I think that interpretation misses the point.

I mean, think about it: Gates are for DEFENSE!  When Jesus said the “gates of hell” would not stop us, He’s telling us THAT WE NEED TO ATTACK HELL!!! Storm the gates! Rescue the prisoners trapped there!  Find those who sit in darkness and bring them out.  Somebody cared enough about you and me to go get us; now we need to go get someone else.  This is what the Kingdom of God looks like.  Each one matters.  Each one is important.  And no one gets left behind.

Be a friend to the friendless.  Be a neighbor to the lonely.  Be a brother or a sister to the one needing a family.  Be the hands and feet of Christ, reaching out to care for the least of these.

A few years ago, Kathy Troccoli released a song written by Chris Rice and Helena Teixeira: “Go Light Your World.”

There is a candle in every soul
Some brightly burning, some dark and cold
There is a Spirit who brings fire
Ignites a candle and makes His home
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the hopeless, confused and torn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world

Frustrated brother, see how he’s tried to
Light his own candle some other way
See now your sister, she’s been robbed and lied to
Still holds a candle without a flame
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the lonely, the tired and worn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world

We are a family whose hearts are blazing
So let’s raise our candles and light up the sky
Praying to our Father, in the name of Jesus
Make us a beacon in darkest times
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the helpless, deceived and poor
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Carry your candle, run to the darkness
Seek out the hopeless, confused and torn
Hold out your candle for all to see it
Take your candle, and go light your world
Take your candle, and go light your world

Take your candle. Run to the darkness. Go light your world.

Loving God with My Mind

Several years ago, a mainline American denomination put out a series of publicity posters that I liked very much.  One said, “Just because you’ve been baptized doesn’t mean you’ve been brainwashed.”  Another went, “The only problem with groups that have all the answers, is that they don’t allow any questions.”

My favorite was “Jesus came to take away your sins.  Not your mind.”

Many Christians have seemed confused over the years as to the proper relationship between reason and faith.  Are we supposed to check our brains at the door and “just believe”?  Is science automatically and irreversibly opposed to faith?  Can a thinking person hold on to his or her intellectual integrity AND be a person of faith at the same time?

This was always a topic of special, personal importance to me.  Expressing emotion was difficult for me growing up, but logic – ah, now you’re speaking my language.  As a fan of the original “Star Trek” (insert eye roll here), my favorite character was, of course, Mr. Spock, who was totally cool, totally in control, totally logical.

The problem came when I tried to reconcile my fascination with logic, with what I was learning at church.  I had questions, but learned pretty quick that there are some questions you’re not supposed to ask.  Logically, I should be able to ask a simple question, but it’s not as simple as that.  So you learn to keep your questions to yourself.

(Typical exchange – Me: “How do we know we can trust the Bible? Is it reliable?”  Answer: “Yes, because the Bible says so.”  Not exactly helpful.)

Perhaps without meaning to, pastors have often made the situation worse.  We have our own questions and doubts, which we keep buried deep in our hearts, and whenever we hear or read some skeptic raise the same questions we have, we become even more defensive, and think the answer is to “just believe” more.  As if we could just put enough coats of paint on a broken fence to cover up the break.

We watch some “expert” on the Discovery Channel or History Channel make unproven, unchallenged claims about the Bible, or the life of Jesus, or some other matter of faith, and because we haven’t heard the preacher talk about it, we think there is no answer, that the skeptics have “beaten” faith, or that Christianity must somehow go begging in the marketplace of ideas.

But our God is not the Author of confusion.  He is the Giver of Truth.  ALL truth.  There are answers to these questions, even the tough ones.  (By the way – “Where did Cain get his wife?” is NOT one of the tough questions.  Trust me.)  God is bigger than our questions.  And there is not one question you can come up with that will stump Him.

Rather than commanding us to reject reason, over and over the scripture makes it clear that God has established order and logical thinking, and that these bear witness to Him.  The fact is, Jesus INVITES us to love God with our MINDS – look at Matthew 22:37.  After the resurrection, He appeared to His followers and gave them “many convincing proofs” that He was alive – Acts 1:3.  Peter instructs believers to “always be prepared to give the reason for the hope” that we have – 1 Peter 3:15.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, our purpose is to “demolish arguments” and to “take captive every thought” in order to bring it in submission to Christ.  That DOESN’T mean faith is opposed to logic or reason.  It means that our logic and reason have to be “transformed by the renewing of our MINDS” (Romans 12:2), and in this way, we worship God with our intellect, as surely as we worship Him with our emotion and passion.

Beginning this Sunday, our Investigators class at Beltway will tackle some of these questions.  We’re calling the class, “Spiritual Mythbusters,” after the popular TV show.  You know, on that show, the hosts will state a belief, run experiments, interview experts, gather data, and then pronounce the statement either, “Confirmed,” “Plausible,” or “Busted.”  We hope to follow a similar methodology to examine questions about the existence of God, searching for the authentic Jesus, creation vs. evolution, the historical nature of the resurrection, and more.

I think it’s going to be a fun class, and a useful one, and I hope you can join us.  We are meeting at 9:45 AM in Room A-109.

So until then, my logical friends, Live Long and Prosper.

And the Tide Rolled

Okay, first of all, a disclaimer: I am not a sports writer.  I don’t have anything against sports writers, it’s just not my thing.  But I’m sitting at home recovering from a serious case of the crud, still running a fever, but feeling better enough to be bored.  So, here are some rambling, cough-medicine-influenced thoughts…

I’ve been thinking Monday night’s BCS Championship Game between Notre Dame and Alabama.  Okay, well, honestly, it wasn’t much of a game – it was a 42-14 butt-kicking delivered by Alabama.  But it makes me wonder – was Notre Dame really that overrated, or is Alabama really that good?

Maybe it was just a perfect storm that sank ND.  Can you say that the Tide surprised the Irish, got them off balance, and never let them have a chance to play their kind of football?  Well, yeah, that’s for sure what happened, but maybe if you replayed the game several times, maybe the outcome would be different.

I DON’T think you can just dismiss Notre Dame as overrated.  That’s a cop-out.  No, ND beat some very good teams this year, including solid wins over Michigan State, Stanford and OU, among others.  That said, I do think the national sports media WANTS Notre Dame football in the championship mix.  They NEED Notre Dame in the championship mix.  So maybe the media was willing to allow ND’s heritage and traditions – and their huge fan base – to count for more than it should.

But if Notre Dame wasn’t overrated, then is Alabama really that good?  Well, for most teams, playing Alabama is the high point of their season, so they always play at their best.  And yet, Alabama, for the most part, just keeps winning.  From the 2008 season until now, Alabama has lost just six games.  Six.  Two of those were to LSU, and of course this year’s only loss – WHOOP! – to Texas A&M.

(By the way, congratulations to the Aggies on a fine season.  The final rankings have them as fifth in the nation – been a while since an A&M team finished that well.  So, Whoop! and Gig ‘Em!)

Meanwhile, Nick Saban is definitely looking like he needs to get fitted for a black and white houndstooth fedora.   Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Bear Bryant, Gene Stallings – guys, make a little room.  Saban has shown he belongs.  Reload with new personnel, retool with new assistants, whatever.  The guy just wins, and he seems to do it with some integrity.

With three championships in four years, Alabama is definitely a very good program.  Are they ready to be considered among college football’s dynasties?

In the late 1930s and early 40s, it was Minnesota.  Notre Dame was it in the late 40s.  Of course, Oklahoma absolutely dominated with 47 consecutive wins throughout the mid-1950s.  In the early 60s, Bear Bryant was putting together the first Alabama dynasty.  Then in the late 60s and early 70s, it was USC.  From 71-75, it was Oklahoma again, and in the late 70s, it was Alabama again.  Then, throughout the 80s and early 90s, Miami won four championships, and missed winning four others by one game.  For the rest of the 90s, it was Nebraska and Florida State.  Then, USC again under Pete Carroll, and then you’re into the current SEC domination.

Personally, I don’t have a dog in this fight.  Has this Alabama squad earned the distinction as a “dynasty?”  I suppose that’s for history to decide.  But it’s fun to watch.

I’m gonna go take some more cough medicine.

A Worthy Investment

Happy New Year!  Those words automatically conjure up several thoughts – the ball dropping in Times Square, celebrations with family and friends, and if you’re Southern, black-eyed peas.  It also brings to mind the idea of New Year’s Resolutions.

I’ve noticed that when it comes to resolutions, many people seem to be in one of two groups.  Either they embrace the concept completely, and make lists of changes they’re going to make in their lives, or else they totally reject the idea, and refuse to set for themselves any kind of personal improvement goals.  All you have to do is watch the numerous television commercials for gyms and weight loss programs to know what the most commonly voiced resolution is.

For Christians, one frequently heard resolution is to “Spend more time reading the Bible.”  That’s a fine goal, but unfortunately, many of those expressing that thought set themselves up to fail.  They get some kind of daily reading guide from their church, with frankly unrealistic goals, they work at it for a day or two, and then get behind.  They figure that if they’re behind, they need to catch up, so they double up on the daily readings, but despite their good intentions, they get further behind.  By the middle of January, they’ve given up on the whole idea, and heaped more guilt on themselves for “not being a better Christian.”

(There’s more that we could say about THAT phrase, but we’ll save it for another day.)

If you started going to a gym, and hired a personal trainer to help you with an exercise plan, I guarantee you, you would NOT start out with a goal of a two-hour workout and jogging around the block 50 times – you’d start with smaller goals.  Set some reasonable goals for yourself, work up to them, give yourself a chance to succeed, and then set some new goals.  The same is true for daily Bible reading.

Of course, there is a sense in which we just need to do it, and quit whining about it.  Like anything else worth doing, daily scripture reading requires a certain level of discipline and commitment.

My brother David is the senior pastor at Northside Christian Church in Spring.  He and I were visiting over the holidays, and we had been talking about me following a low-carb diet because of my diabetes.  We discussed how that it really wasn’t a diet, as much as a lifestyle change.  Nobody is really standing over me making me do this – it’s just the right thing to do, so I do it.

The conversation turned.  I knew I was going to be writing about this subject, so I asked him if he had any suggestions for ways to make getting into the habit of daily Bible reading easier.  He just looked at me.  “Why do we need to make it easier?” he asked.  “I know what you mean when you say that, but it’s kind of like the low-carb thing – it just needs to become part of your regular make-up.  If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing.  We need to quit trying to make it easier.  Nothing worth achieving ever comes easy.”

Hmmm. When did little brother get so smart?

So, if you’ve always promised yourself you were going to read the Bible more, but didn’t know how to begin, here are some suggestions.

1.  Start with a reasonable goal.  Most plans that take you through the Bible in a year require you to read FOUR chapters a day to stay on target.  That’s a lot for someone who hasn’t worked up to it.  So forget that.  I’d suggest ONE chapter a day, at least in the beginning.

2.  Read something that makes sense to you.  For goodness sake, DON’T start in Genesis.  It’s okay in the beginning, but once you get into the geneaologies of the various clans, you’ll be bored.  Instead start with James, in the New Testament.  It’s extremely practical, and only five chapters long.  One chapter a day, and now in less than a week, and you’ve read all the way through a book in the Bible!  Then go to Mark – sixteen chapters, lots of action, a fast-moving story.  Now suddenly, in less than a month, you’ve read through TWO books!

3.  Get a translation you can understand.  Unless you’re an Elizabethan literary scholar who loves Shakespeare, this probably means the King James Version is NOT what you need.  Personally, I prefer the NIV, but there are many good choices.  If you want a fresh perspective, you might try “The Message.”  It’s a paraphrase, rather than a literal translation, but it has some good insights.

4.  Have a definite time and place for your reading.  It can be over coffee at your kitchen table, on your back porch, or first thing when you get to work, but you need to cultivate the habit of doing this at the same time every day.  That helps make it automatic for you.  And no whining about not having time – every one gets the same 24 hours a day.  Drag your butt out of bed 15 minutes earlier in the morning if you need to, just like you would for any important appointment.

5. Get an accountability partner.  Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!”  If you and a friend are encouraging each other, you stand a much better chance of succeeding.

Some other thoughts –

Don’t forget to pray.  I don’t mean close your eyes; I mean be in a prayerful attitude.  Ask the Father to reveal His heart to you through the pages of His word.

Don’t substitute devotional books for the Bible.  Devotional books are good, and certainly, they’re better than nothing when it comes to personal reading, but they are not a substitute for scripture.  Before you read what Max Lucado or Chuck Swindoll says about God’s Word, spend some time in it for yourself.

Don’t let it become something just to check off a list.  There’s very little benefit in that.  Psalm 119 is a meditation by someone who is simply in love with God’s Word.  Learn to hear God’s Spirit speaking to your spirit.

In Isaiah 55:11, God promises that His word will not return void – that is, empty, without effect – but will instead accomplish the purpose for which He sends it out.  But we have to do our part, to “hide it in our hearts,” and to “meditate on it day and night.”  So let me encourage you to make it part of your daily life, or if it already is, let me encourage you to continue.  It’s an investment of your time that will pay eternal dividends.