More Haskell Railroad Memories

Last week we started telling stories of the old railroad days in Haskell. One story told by Haskell native Sam Pace involved his grandfather who owned the first Ford dealership here, and how they used to receive new automobiles in railroad box cars, dissembled and in crates, and the mechanics had to reassemble them.

Sam’s cousin, Dr. Jim Ratliff, remembers once when a dead whale was lashed to a flat car and parked on a sidetrack, in 1937 or 38. He especially recalls the awful stench of the rotting sea creature, but why the carcass was there, why it was parked in Haskell for a time, and what its destination was, are all mysteries.

He also remembers hearing stories from his parents and other family members about when the Ratliff family relocated to Haskell from Decatur, Texas, in the 1920s; he says his dad Roy, and older brother Dennis, had to ride in a cattle car with the family milk cow. (Dennis Ratliff would go on to become a successful attorney, a district judge, and a member of the Texas House of Representatives, but he when arrived in Haskell for the first time as a young man, it was in the middle of the night, riding with a milk cow on a mixed train…)

As we mentioned last week, Dr. Jim, Sam, and lots of other folks remember riding the “Doodlebug.” This was a self-propelled passenger coach that also offered mail and package service. The Wichita Valley Railroad operated a Doodlebug in the 1930s and 40s between Wichita Falls and Abilene as Trains 111 and 112.

Sam Pace says riding it is his “claim to fame.” He recalls taking a school bus to Weinert (or maybe Munday?), then riding the Doodlebug back to Haskell. Others remember the opposite, taking the Doodlebug from Haskell north to Munday or Seymour, then riding a bus back to Haskell. Woody Turnbow remembers riding it up to Munday, then walking to get an ice cream cone before boarding the bus for the trip back to Haskell. John Sam Rike III remembers when his first-grade class went on their field trip to ride the Doodlebug but says he didn’t get to go – he was out sick that day with an earache.

Students from Mrs. J.V. Vaughter’s class line up to board the Doodlebug in this 1947 photo. For many years, riding the Doodlebug was a much-anticipated field trip for Haskell students. Can you identify anyone in this picture?
(Photo from Images of America: Haskell County, by the Haskell County Historical and Genealogical Society, original photo submitted by Hess Hartsfield.)

Another Haskell native who recalls riding it was Fitzhugh Williams, son of longtime Haskell physician, Dr. T.W. Williams. Mr. Williams – known to some as “Buttermilk” – remembers boarding the Doodlebug for the trip up to Seymour, then riding a school bus back. He says the self-propelled car was a dark olive-green color with a cab that was painted red with yellow trim, and as he says, “yellow or white lettering.” One of his most vivid memories from riding the Doodlebug was going across the railroad bridge over the Brazos River just south of Seymour. He says he was very impressed and a little bit scared crossing that bridge, “because it was a long way down!”

Another detail he recalls about the Doodlebug is the name “Railway Express Agency” printed on its side. REA was a forerunner of services like UPS and FedEx. Mr. Williams says he remembers once when REA delivered a shipment of baby chicks. “They came packed in heavy cardboard,” he says, “with lots of vent holes in the cardboard. The crates were about six inches tall, and maybe 24 to 30 inches, square.” He also recalls Mr. Audie Stocks, who owned a truck and used to pick up shipments that arrived by REA and deliver them to people and businesses “all over town.”

Several of you have told me about fathers and grandfathers who drove cattle to local railroad stock pens for shipment to market; there were cattle pens north of town around Josselet switch, and others south of town, near where Overton Road is now. Numerous farmers also shipped out carloads of wheat and bales of cotton via rail – but times change.

A growing economy and changing infrastructure meant shipping by highway rather than rail. Trains are still a vital part of the national economy, and Amtrak still carries passengers between major cities, but locally, the rails were all gone from Haskell County by the mid-1990s.

But some of us recall fondly the days when railroads meant prosperity for a community. Some of us collect railroad antiques; others build and run model trains. Some of us like to read and tell stories about those days and what it was like to ride “that magic carpet made of steel.”

And some of us still get chills to hear the sound of a lonesome whistle in the middle of the night.

Railroad Memories

It’s difficult these days for us to realize how much significance our ancestors living a hundred years ago placed on the railroad, but imagine if the internet, the news media, your communications system, the mail, the future of your business, and your transportation system were all rolled up into a single entity? Throw in the chance for economic development as well as the opportunity for face-to-face social networking and interaction, and you have some idea of what the railroad meant to those who came before us.

The first community in Haskell County to see the “Iron Horse” was actually Sagerton. The Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad was building north on its way to Kansas City in the summer and fall of 1905. The story is, they wanted to go through Stamford, but a wealthy rancher blocked them, so they went a few miles west and arrived in Sagerton on December 9, 1905. The town was actually named for local landowner William Sager, who donated land for the depot, the right-of-way, and certain town lots. Later the Stamford & Northwestern arrived there in 1909 on its way to Spur, making Sagerton the only town in the county to have TWO railroads. Historical accounts state that the two depots were located “some distance apart, to the inconvenience of the public.”

The “Orient Line,” as it was known, continued on its way north, creating the towns of Rule, Rochester, and O’Brien in 1905 and 1906. The KC, M & O was sold to the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1930s; it was salvaged in 1996, although some of the historical depots remain in the communities they served. (For now, I’m having to leave out some colorful stories, including a fascinating one about residents in northwestern Haskell County who, when they realized the railroad was bypassing them, just picked up and moved the town and became part of Rochester. But I digress.)

Early histories of the county reveal some of the negotiations – along with lots of broken promises and double-dealing – in the early efforts to bring a railroad to the city of Haskell. In 1906, the Wichita Valley RR, owned by Abilene rail entrepreneur Morgan Jones, was on its way to connect Wichita Falls with Abilene. They came through Weinert first, then they arrived in Haskell at noon on August 2, 1906. In their August 4 edition two days later, the Haskell Free Press described it as a “Consummation Long Desired,” adding “Haskell is now a railroad town, bound by bands of steel to the outer world.” The WV was eventually merged into the Fort Worth & Denver, then the Burlington, and finally the Burlington Northern. It was eventually abandoned and torn up in the mid-1990s.

Did you know that Haskell once had its own streetcar? A gasoline-powered streetcar owned by Mr. M.R. Hemphill ran from the WV depot to the square, then three miles north through what would later be known as the “Shook Addition,” to Hemphill Lake, and ending near the present location of the Haskell Country Club. The line operated from 1909-10 and cost ten cents to ride. At the lake was a bandstand, a golf course, and recreation facilities.

Haskell’s streetcar was in operation from 1909-1910. Pictured are Frank Craddock at the controls; Mrs. B. Baker, front seat; Mrs. C.L. Lewis, second row.
Photo from Haskell County and Its Pioneers, by Rex A. Felker.

Many of you have been kind enough to share with me some of your train-related memories from the old days of Haskell. Sam Pace tells the story of his grandfather, William Lynn Pace Senior, who owned Haskell’s first Ford dealership, near where Kay’s Cleaners is now. Mr. Pace also knew Henry Ford, and back in the day, the new Fords would arrive in Haskell by train, disassembled and boxed up in crates. Mr. Pace’s mechanics would go down to the depot and unload the crates, reassemble the cars, pour in a cup or two of gasoline, and drive the contraptions down to the Ford house.

One common memory that I have heard from several folks has been about “riding the Doodlebug” – a self-propelled rail passenger car. For many years in the 1940s, riding that railcar was a much-anticipated school field trip. Do you remember riding it? Do you have any pictures of it, or other rail-related recollections to tell from the old days of Haskell? We would love to hear from you! We will share some of those stories, and more, in our next column.

The Train to Yesterday

I have been fortunate enough to get to take a number of passenger train trips over the years. One of my favorites was a special trip a few years ago with my youngest brother, David Ray. He’s a pastor at a church in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston.

My brother David and I in front of Amtrak’s “Sunset Limited” in Houston.

He and I had often talked about trains and taking a trip together on Amtrak, so we did just that – not so much to go anywhere, but more just for the experience of riding a passenger train together. We boarded the eastbound “Sunset Limited” in Houston, and toot toot, we were gone, headed for Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Now as my friends can tell you, I love trains, but as great as that part of it was, an even better part was getting to spend time with my youngest brother. We grew up in a family of four boys – he and I are the bookends, with me as the oldest and him as the youngest. Our mom’s parents lived in the small Hardin County town of Grayburg, between Beaumont and Houston.

The old Missouri Pacific RR main line ran right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad sidetrack where they used to load freshly cut pine logs onto flatcars, destined to be turned into paper at one of the mills in East Texas.

(Yes, I know we shouldn’t have been playing there, and that it probably wasn’t safe. Get over it. We never wore bicycle helmets, either.)

How we loved to see freight trains coming through! The big blue and white MP engines, the long trains, and the red caboose at the end. The box cars with names of faraway places – Bangor and Aroostook, Atlantic Coast Line, the New York Central and Central of Georgia, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and the Santa Fe, the Denver & Rio Grande and the Illinois Central, just to name a few. And when they came roaring through, it was all noise and power, sound and fury, speed and excitement. We knew to get well off the tracks and wave from a safe distance. And as Johnny Cash once observed, it was always very important that the conductor in the caboose waved back.

Somewhere I still have some flattened pennies that we made, and I remember running back to the tracks after the train had passed, to find those little squished pieces of copper, still hot from the friction of the wheels that ran over them.

And the smells on those hot afternoons – the oily odor of the creosote from the ties, and the zingy smell of hot steel in the Texas sun. We would walk along the rails and practice our balancing skills and watch the distant signal lights, hoping they would turn red, heralding the approach of another train. I have a very sweet memory of sitting on the freight platform with my dad, next to the tiny beige and brown depot, absolutely enthralled as the massive trains roared past, and watching the rail joints move up and down as the car wheels went across them.

Anyway, our grandparents have long since passed away, but the little town is still there, and so are the freight trains, now operated by Union Pacific. And when you take Amtrak heading east towards Beaumont, you go roaring right through there.

So David & I climbed aboard in downtown Houston, checked in with the conductor, and headed for the dining car and lunch. We both had a pretty good Angus beef hamburger and enjoyed a nice visit with an older lady and her niece who were returning to Florida after a trip to California. After lunch, we walked to the observation car as the train rolled through the Southeast Texas countryside and past the little towns.

Grayburg is literally just a blur when you go through there on a fast train.

The Grayburg depot is long gone, but the siding is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. As we went through there and saw where we used to play, I looked over and saw my brother wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking.

He said he thought he saw four little boys running over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.

A Visit to Jefferson

Jefferson, Texas, is a beautiful, historic community in Northeast Texas, between Marshall and Texarkana. I had the chance this past weekend to go over there, to indulge a totally frivolous hobby of mine – model railroading.

You see, I still play with trains.

Like many little boys who grew up in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, one of the earliest toys I can remember playing with was an electric train. Unlike many others, I never outgrew the fascination. Other kids might have received a train by Lionel or American Flyer; in my case, it was made by Marx. I don’t remember much about the actual train, other than playing with it until it absolutely fell apart. Marx Toys was the same company who would later make the “Rock ’Em, Sock ’Em Robots” and the “Big Wheel” tricycles, but to me, they will always be a maker of trains.

So, back to Jefferson – it’s a very picturesque small town that celebrates its heritage of historic homes, railroads, old-fashioned paddle-wheel steamships, lumber and oil industries, and more. Over fifty buildings are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and there are numerous good places to stay, from beautiful and historic hotels to quaint and comfortable bed-and-breakfasts, along with good restaurants and interesting little museums and antique shops.

And every year, they host a big model RR show where hobbyists from across Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas come together to watch and run trains and visit with their fellow enthusiasts. A model train club from Orange, of which I was an active member when we lived down there, goes to Jefferson every year with their portable layout, so I went last weekend to see my old friends from that club, and enjoy some time running and playing with the trains.




Hundreds of hobbyists and spectators, drawn together by their shared passion of model railroading, gathered this past weekend in Jefferson for that city’s annual train show.

Like many hobbies, model trains have their own jargon. One of the first things you learn is about scale – how large or how small are the models? The classic Lionel trains (and my original Marx trains) are known as “O” scale – pronounced, “oh scale.” O scale operates on the ratio of 1 to 48; that is, one inch on a model equals 48 inches in real life. A man six feet tall in the real world would be a model an inch and a half tall. O scale models are big and impressive to watch as they go by, but they can also be expensive, and they can take up a LOT of room for a layout.

The most popular size is known as HO – you pronounce the letters separately: “aitch – oh.” The name comes from the fact that it is roughly half of the size of O scale models, or H-O. These models have a proportion of 1:87 – one foot of track equals 87 feet in real life. You can build a decent layout on a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, which is how a lot of hobbyists start out.

There are many other scales, each with their own devotees and specialties – Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29). Each has different advantages – you can build a nice Z scale layout in a suitcase, whereas G scale is often the choice for running outdoors on garden railroads. It all depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments in the last few years has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC; this enables you to control each locomotive separately, independent of any others, utilizing a miniature computer chip installed in each model. You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects. All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive? Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be. One of the great things about being in a modeling club is the ability to pool resources, share knowledge and expertise, and run on a club layout. (And, just in case you’re interested, there’s a great model train club based in Abilene.)

I had a great time seeing my friends and enjoying our shared love of the hobby with them again. And I’m more determined than ever to finish setting my home layout back up, to once again enjoy my own little empire in miniature. All aboard!

Taking a Bite Out of the Big Apple

Two summers ago, my wife and I took a belated 40th anniversary celebration trip to visit “The City So Nice They Named It Twice” – New York, New York. It was a great trip, and we had a wonderful time.

We took an Amtrak passenger train to get there, leaving from Beaumont on a Monday afternoon. (At the time, we were still living in Southeast Texas, where we had been taking care of my elderly father. He had passed away a few months earlier.) We changed trains in New Orleans and headed east into the early morning sunlight. Our first-class tickets included a roomette (it’s pretty cramped for two, but we managed) – and the roomette also included our meals in the dining car at no extra charge. And those were great!

I dozed off in our compartment, but a little while later, Kathy woke me up and said that we were in Laurel, Mississippi, featured in the HGTV program, “Home Town.” And yes – Ben’s shop really is right next to the train tracks, and we went right by it. We cruised along the smooth track, riding that “magic carpet made of steel,” and by suppertime, we were in Atlanta, where we turned north. Overnight through the Carolinas, breakfast in Virginia, and then DC, Baltimore, Wilmington, and lunch in Philadelphia. Then it was through New Jersey, under the Hudson River, and there we were, at the underground Penn Station, Manhattan, arriving on time a little before 2:00 that afternoon.

Being in New York was exciting, exhilarating, and a little bit scary, all at the same time. I absolutely loved it.

We came up on the Seventh Avenue side. Kathy had made us reservations at the historic Hotel Pennsylvania, and there it was, right across the street. We got checked in, went up to our room, and unpacked.

A dear friend of mine, a writer, had asked me to take a few pictures for him, and research a particular neighborhood that he was interested in for a novel he was writing. So, we headed for the old Irish part of the city known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” We continued west to the river, where we had reservations for an evening cruise on the Hudson, out to the Statue of Liberty, and up the East River. Sailing past Lady Liberty at sundown was a memory I will always cherish.

The next day, we took the subway and headed down to Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. We saw the World Trade Center memorial, went past Wall Street, Chinatown, and the Bowery. I learned that in New York, it’s pronounced “How-ston” Street (not the way we Texans normally pronounce “Houston”). We saw famous locations such as Washington Square Park and Tompkins Square Park. We visited the beautiful courthouse with the tall steps, featured in “12 Angry Men,” “The Godfather,” and dozens of episodes of “Law and Order.” We went by the police station where “NYPD Blue” was set – it’s an actual police station, and for fans of the show, yes, there really is a little park across the street with basketball courts, and off-duty cops really do shoot hoops with neighborhood kids.

We had tickets for a Broadway show that evening, where we saw “Beautiful – The Carole King Story;” you ladies of a certain generation probably owned her 1971 album “Tapestry.” We both thoroughly enjoyed the show and our walk across Times Square.

Kathy and I enjoying the lights of Times Square, New York, in 2019

On Saturday morning, we had reservations for a Turner Classic Movies bus tour of Manhattan. They drove us all over the borough, as the knowledgeable guide talked about movies that had been shot in various locations around the city and showed brief clips from those films. We had lunch at a little grocery store-deli featured in “You’ve Got Mail,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. That afternoon, we went up to the top of the Empire State Building.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip. We ate a hot dog from a street cart and had New York-style pizza from a little family-owned restaurant. We bought some souvenirs and took lots of pictures. WITHOUT EXCEPTION, the New Yorkers we met were smiling and friendly, and tolerant of this traveler’s questions. We never felt afraid, nervous or worried. The most annoying part? Learning to figure out which direction to walk when we came back up to street level after riding the subway.

Sunday morning, it was Father’s Day. We packed up, went back across the street, and boarded the train for Baltimore, where our daughter Brittany lives. We spent a couple of days with her, then flew home. While we were there, she took us to an Orioles game at Camden Yards, and we visited some great museums, including Ft. McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote a poem during the War of 1812 known as “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” You probably know it better as, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

But that’s another story.

Dinner in the Diner

Back in the day when travel was an adventure and most people got from here to there by rail, one of the highlights of any trip was taking a meal in the dining car. For many, the amazing food and impeccable service was made even better by the pleasure of meeting new people and making new friends while sharing a delicious meal together in the rolling diner. The constantly changing view of “America the Beautiful,” going past the large panoramic windows as you roll along, always added to the experience.

The railroads would often specialize in serving regional favorites in their dining cars that represented the part of the country through which you were traveling. Thus, if you were on board the Union Pacific, you might have one of their famous Omaha “Prime Steaks.” If you were riding on the Northern Pacific, you could enjoy a “Great Big Baked Potato” from Idaho. Riders going through the Rockies on Missouri Pacific’s “Colorado Eagle” were served delicious rainbow trout. The Southern Pacific was known for the Cajun gumbo they featured on their trains in and out of New Orleans, and the Maryland Crab Cakes on the Baltimore & Ohio RR were the stuff of legend.

This charger plate was used on dining cars of the Missouri Pacific and Texas & Pacific lines.
It featured the official flowers of the states served by those railroads.

And the Texas & Pacific? Well, it seems that the railroad that founded Abilene and crossed West Texas was nationally famous for a dessert: Cantaloupe Pie.

Back in 1916, Mr. M.L. Todd and his business partner, Mr. D.T. McKee, began growing cantaloupes in Pecos, Texas. They contracted with the T&P and agreed to supply them with cantaloupes for their dining cars.  By the 1920s, they were shipping cases of melons via Railway Express all over the country. But of course, as with any perishable commodity, some of the fruit would become overripe on its way to market. That’s where Mr. Edward Pierce enters the picture. Mr. Pierce was a College Station native and a 42-year veteran of the T&P, and he couldn’t stand seeing the melons go to waste, overripe or not. He went to work and came up with a dessert that became a favorite on the T&P dining cars.

Happily, in 1992, a writer for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Anita Baker, tracked down Mr. Pierce, who shared his recipe, which we pass along to you below. Serve it to your guests to enjoy a taste of elegant travel from days gone by.

For what it’s worth, I have made this pie. It’s NOT terribly sweet, but personally, that’s okay with me. In some ways, it’s reminiscent of a sweet potato pie. You could also try baking the pie without adding the meringue, then covering it with a whipped cream topping, or even vanilla ice cream, if that’s more your style.

By the way, if you’re interested, there are several excellent books that feature compilations of the best dining car recipes. Two of my favorites are Dining By Rail by James D. Porterfield, and Dinner in the Diner by Will C. Holister. The cantaloupe pie recipe is included in both collections.

I have been fortunate enough to enjoy several meals on railroad dining cars, and the food has always been excellent – as also has been the pleasure of sharing a meal with friends, old or new. As we progress in putting the pandemic behind us, let’s continue to be safe, but let us also look for ways of rebuilding community and relationships; eating together is one of the best ways to make that happen. Like passengers on a train, we will find that our journey through life is more interesting and pleasant as we make friends along the way.

Cantaloupe Pie as served on the T&P Rwy

Ingredients

  • 1 very ripe cantaloupe (over ripe yields the most juice)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cups sugar
  • 3 tablespoons flour (more or less depending on how juicy your cantaloupe is)
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 9-inch prebaked pie crust
  • 3 egg whites
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

Directions

  1. Slice cantaloupe in half, de-seed and remove rind, reserving all juices. Cut into small pieces.
  2. Place melon with juice and water into a saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring often. Mash the cantaloupe as it heats.
  3. Mix sugar and flour and slowly add to hot mixture, stirring constantly.
  4. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks; add a little water to yolks. Add a little of the cantaloupe mixture to egg yolks in order to heat yolks gradually. Stir egg yolks mixture into cantaloupe mixture.
    Add butter and nutmeg, stir until butter melts. Continue cooking, stirring, until thick and creamy.
  5. Cool and pour into prebaked pie crust.
  6. To make meringue, beat egg whites until frothy. Gradually add sugar, continuing to beat until stiff peaks form. Add vanilla or other flavoring. Spoon onto pie, spreading to crust edge to seal filling in.
  7. Bake at 325° for 15 to 18 minutes, until nicely browned. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours before serving.

Heaven on Wheels

Ever heard of a chapel car?

A Chapel Car missionary leads a worship service for a small gathering.

Well, neither had I, until I read the book, This Train is Bound for Glory. It tells the story of a fleet of special-purpose railroad cars that were essentially church buildings on wheels.

In the late 1800s, much of the American western frontier was still a wild and untamed land. In many towns, saloons, gambling dens, and “dance halls” (usually brothels) outnumbered all other establishments combined. Most towns did not have schools, nor a church of any denomination. As one wag put it, “This country is fine for men and cattle, but hell on women and horses.”

But there were many who wanted more than just a fast buck: they were looking for a place to put down roots, get married, raise a family and build a home. They knew that having a church in their community was essential. And so the chapel car was invented, and over the next few years, 13 were built – seven for the Baptists, three for the Episcopalians, and three for the Catholics.  They were in operation primarily in the Western U.S. between about 1890 and 1940.

Each of the cars was a little different, but they were all built along the same idea. Most of the car was a church building on wheels, with seating for 50-80 people, a small lectern, and an old-style pump organ. The rest of the car was a small private area where the missionary and his wife would live, and it included drop-down bunks that were mounted on the wall, a small kitchen/ living space, a water closet/ toilet, and a tiny office/ study area.

The railroads were big supporters of the concept, and for many years, provided free hauling and parking services for the cars, as well as free or reduced-cost maintenance. The usual pattern was to pull the car into a town and park it on a convenient siding. Sometimes it was parked near the railroad’s shops; often it would be parked near a town’s “red light” district, to counter the influence of the whiskey and women there.

Baptist Chapel Car #4, “Good Will,” was a frequent visitor to Abilene and this part of Texas. Its history shows several revivals between 1910 and 1930, held in association with Abilene’s First Baptist Church and other congregations.

The missionaries who served on board had to have a special calling. The men had to be open and welcoming to railroad men and others who would come to services on their lunch or dinner breaks, filthy from work. They had to be willing to visit the saloons and dance halls and hand out gospel tracts and Bibles to the “soiled doves” who worked there. They had to be people without judgmentalism, and willing to talk to everyone. And they had to be tireless: most of the time, they would hold services twice a day, at noon and again at midnight, for the men working the various shifts.

Their wives had to have a calling of their own. It was expected that they would play the organ and sing, hold Bible classes for the children of the town, and help their husbands counsel with the prostitutes and others who visited the car. They had to try and make a home in a cramped, tiny space that was brutally hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. And they had to put up with the noise, the soot, and the constant banging and shuffling of cars that was part of life in a railyard.

It was not an easy assignment. Most of the couples who served were young and newly married and had not yet started having children. Sometimes they were older couples whose children were grown. There are also records of young moms suspending a swing hammock in the corner of the living area, and letting their babies sleep, “rocking to the rhythm of the rails.”

There are many stories of the “rolling pastors” intentionally working among the newly arrived immigrants, the town drunks, the dance hall girls, and others “written off” by polite society. At the front of the partition of one chapel car was a glass transom with the message, “God is Love” written across it in gold leaf. It’s a message that was not lost on the thousands of lives touched by the chapel cars and those who served on board. They could read it in the Bibles they were given, they could hear it in the messages that were preached, and they could see it in the lives that were lived out in front of them.

It’s a message that is still worth sharing – and living – today.

No Matter Where It’s Going

I love trains.

I mean, I always have. My mother used to say that, as a child, I could say “choo choo” before I could say “Mama.” I love watching trains, hearing trains off in the distance, reading about trains. And I especially love riding on them.

Trains were a major part of my life growing up. We used to spend a lot of time at my maternal grandparents’ home in Grayburg, Texas, between Houston and Beaumont. It was right on the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and New Orleans. There was a long passing siding there, and also a small rail yard where pulpwood logs would be off-loaded from trucks onto flatcars for transit to the paper mills of East Texas. There was also a small passenger station and freight dock. The station was a two-tone beige and brown structure with the typical bay window that jutted out to give a clear view of the tracks in both directions. And of course, on both sides of the station, a large black and wide sign that read “Grayburg,” and the red and white Missouri Pacific “buzzsaw” logo.

MoPac’s famous “Buzzsaw” Logo

When I was in about the 2nd grade, Mom dropped off my dad, my brother Buzzy and me at the train station in Beaumont, and we rode the train the 25 miles or so to Grayburg. It must have been around 1963. (Yes, I know, I’m old.) I remember the green tufted chenille upholstery on the seats, and the cheap black rubber floor mats over linoleum on the floor. I remember feeling really high up off the ground as I watched the train cars in the yard go by at eye level. And I remember the conductor hurrying us off the train when we got to Grayburg. He put the little stepstool on the ground, we stepped off, he waved to the engineer, and they were moving again. We stood there and waited for the train to finish going by before we could cross the tracks and walk the short distance to my grandmother’s house.

The station there was torn down in the late 60s, but I still remember it, inside and out. There were MoPac calendars hanging up inside, a couple of pews along the wall, and a restroom with a sign that said, “Whites Only.” But that’s a story for another day.

Thinking about Grayburg always makes me smile. I’m sure you have some favorite memories from your childhood that do that for you. But I remember hours of watching trains and playing with my brothers. Climbing all over the railcars (in hindsight, unsafe, I know), putting pennies on the track for the train to flatten, and waving to the train crews as they went by. Sweet times.

People have often asked me why I love trains so much. I guess partly it’s the sight of a powerful locomotive laboring to pull a long string of cars, the sounds of horns and steel on steel and brakes squealing, the smells of creosote and hot steel on a Texas summer day. Partly it’s the romance of travel, of passing countryside, of new places and new sights. A lot of it is the sweet memories of those days. I love it all.

I will give the American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay the last word, from her poem, “Travel.”

The railroad track is miles away,
And the day is loud with voices speaking,
Yet there isn’t a train goes by all day
But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn’t a train goes by,
Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming,
But I see its cinders red on the sky,
And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with friends I make,
And better friends I’ll not be knowing;
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take,
No matter where it’s going.

Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie

In a previous post, I described my trip on Amtrak from Ft. Worth to St. Louis – I guess you could call it a birthday present to myself. I had two reasons for choosing St. Louis as the destination. For one, it was the farthest point I could get to and still have enough free miles to get back home again (that’s important!). But beyond that, St. Louis is home to one of the finest collections of railroad equipment anywhere in the country, at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation.

From the downtown Amtrak station, I caught another Amtrak train, the Missouri River Runner, to the suburb of Kirkwood. From there, it was just a short Uber ride to the museum. It was lightly raining off and on throughout the morning, but not enough to dampen my plans.

A guided tour had just started when I arrived, but I was able to catch up with the volunteer and the handful of guests he was leading, and we began walking the grounds of the museum. We took advantage of a break in the rain to tour some of the exhibits that were out in the open, including a collection of unusual freight cars, a caboose or two, and a Texas & Pacific baggage car that has been converted into a classroom on wheels for school groups.

three-locomotivesWe also saw a beautiful, side by side display of three locomotives, headlined by a rare, stainless steel Burlington engine, the “Silver Charger,” #9908. This unusual diesel-electric was built by EMD in 1939 to pull the “General Pershing Zephyr” between St. Louis and Kansas City, and was the last of the “shovel nose” units in service. A Frisco RR 2-10-0 steam locomotive and an early diesel switcher from the Sabine River & Northern sat beside the shiny passenger engine.

mp_eagle_obsUnder their sprawling pavilion, the museum has a nice assortment of passenger equipment, locomotives and more, including a number of rare and one-of-a-kind items. One of the things I especially enjoy about passenger trains from the 1950s and 60s were all the bright colors, and the museum does not disappoint, with the blue and cream of the Missouri Pacific’s “Eagle,” the two-tone light and dark greens of the Northern Pacific, the shiny silver of the Burlington, the maroon and red of the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio, and more, all proudly on display.gmo_obsnp_passenger

gm_demonstrator

Scattered throughout the museum grounds are numerous other items of significance to any railfan, including a brown & yellow GM Demonstrator locomotive from 1939, part of the famous “Train of Tomorrow” that toured the country in the 1940s.frisco_1522

The famous Frisco locomotive #1522 is there, along with a UP 4-8-8-4 “Big Boy,” an enormous “Centennial” diesel, and much, MUCH, more, including an extremely rare “Aerotrain,” aerotraina futuristic train that looks like some- thing out of a science fiction movie, but actually saw service in the 50s and 60s on the Rock Island and other railroads.

st_louis_stationTime was beginning to get away from me, and I had more that I wanted to do before my train back to Texas left, so I caught a return ride on Amtrak to downtown. I went up to the top of the St. Louis Arch, saw venerable Busch Stadium (home of the Cardinals), and toured the famous (and historic) St. Louis Union Station (no longer used by Amtrak), built in 1904 for that year’s World’s Fair, as celebrated in the Judy Garland musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis.” I also had a fine seafood dinner before making my way back to the Amtrak station.

The southbound Texas Eagle was on time, and I boarded and found my way to my room. I deposited my gear and headed for the dining car, just in time for dessert and coffee. From there, I went back to my room and slipped between the sheets and was soon asleep, rocked by the gentle rhythm of the rails.

tp_400Epilogue: When I woke up the next morning, I wasn’t exactly sure where we were until I looked out the window. Even in the foggy, gray, half-light of that early fall dawn, I knew we were in Marshall, Texas, because right outside my window I saw the steam locomotive Texas & Pacific #400, which is parked beside the historic Marshall depot. I showered and dressed and headed for breakfast. Even though this train ride wasn’t yet over, I was already thinking about where I could go on my next #AmtrakAdventure.

The Train

First, the obvious – I like trains. I like riding on them, watching them, and reading about them. When I can’t do any of those things, I enjoy the hobby of model railroading. One of the great things about Christmas is that it’s the one time of the year when “playing with trains” is considered cool, rather than quirky. So the following piece is one of my favorites.

“The Train” is a dramatic reading by the late actor Geoffrey Lewis, performed with the musical and storytelling group, “Celestial Navigations.”  I first heard it a few years ago on a local radio station, who had it in their Christmas music mix.  I don’t think it’s too well known, so I wanted to share it with you and hope you will enjoy it.

You can buy a copy of it here, or see the YouTube video here.

The Train”
by Geoffrey Lewis

There was hardly anyone on the train, as it moved through the countryside. The snow-covered land slipped smoothly by. Way out there I could see a lonely house now and again, just turning on their lights against the cold, oncoming night. Two thick-coated horses in the almost-dark, steam coming out of their nostrils, eating hay, then they were gone. The sky was quickly dark; the stars were crisp through the chill air.

Wasn’t very warm on the train. A man was asleep at the other end of the car, his coat rolled up for a pillow and a Christmas present had fallen on the floor. A few seats away a young woman sat with her baby. She was staring out the window. She saw me looking at her, reflected in the window, and she half-smiled at my reflection and she stared beyond that out into the cold dark landscape that was slipping away. I turned and gazed back out my window, and then I heard a very soft, “Ohhh.” I turned and looked at the woman and I saw her hug her baby to her, very closely and very intently.

passenger-train-bald-man-thoughtfully-looking-out-window-moving-journey-rail-lonelinessSuddenly I felt very close, very close and warm, and a door appeared in the back of my mind. I opened it and light flooded in and I heard my father say, “Burrrr, burrrr, it’s cold outside. You can put those logs right on the fire,” and as I stepped in, he shut the door behind me. I was standing in my living room; the Christmas tree was all lit up over by the front windows.

I heard laughter upstairs, my mother came through the swinging kitchen door carrying a plate of red and green frosted cookies, and behind her came the smell of roasting turkey like a gauze that draped around my head, like the smell of earth that hangs out in the ocean and lets you know home is just over the horizon. Someone was stamping snow off their boots on the back porch and my little sister and two of her cousins were lying on their stomachs in front of the tree, starring at the presents like sharks at a man’s legs under water, hoping to see beyond the tinsel and pretty paper.

I put the logs down and took off my gloves to warm my frozen fingers. In the dining room my grandma was scolding my grandpa about the best way for him to crack the walnuts that he was already cracking. He looked at me through the doorway and shrugged his shoulders and continued shelling the walnuts. I took off my thick coat and threw it on the floor by the door and went to stand by my aunt who had just called me to come sing the tenor part at the piano. There was talk and loud laughter coming out of the kitchen where the windows were steamed. We were singing, sometimes forgetting the second verses, but sounding pretty good.

But suddenly, somewhere in all the warm and familiar sounds, I heard someone very quietly crying. I looked around trying to locate the person and then my eyes landed on the young woman in the train, a few seats away holding her baby. Her eyes with tears, hardly seeing the back of the seat in front of her. I got up and walked awkwardly up the aisle of the swaying car. I put my thick coat around her shoulders, then I sat down beside her. I held her hand in both of mine and we rode like that, not looking at each other…looking straight ahead and I head her whisper under her breath, “Merry Christmas.”

The train slipped away across the sleeping land, into the dark winter night.