Great American Railroad Stories

(Note – I am on my way to Guatemala this morning for a mission trip, and will be gone into next week. I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Meanwhile, here’s a book review that I wrote for our local model railroad club’s newsletter.)

GreatAmericanRailroadStoriesTrains magazine recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and to mark the occasion, Kalmbach Publishing has released a new book – Great American Railroad Stories: 75 Years of Trains Magazine. The book is available both as a softcover and hardcover.

As the name suggests, it features 51 stories chosen from across the magazine’s three-quarters of a century, including stories by some of the most famous railfans in the country: Lucius Beebe, A.C. Kalmbach, J. David Ingles, David P. Morgan, Jim Boyd, and many others. The stories include selections from the magazine’s first year of publication (1940), up through 2009, but many of the stories are historical pieces that document earlier railroad history – from the wild ride of “Death Valley Scotty,” to a firsthand account of taking a transcontinental train ride just weeks after it opened in 1869, and others.

There are stories about working on the railroad, whether as a fireman or a telegraph operator, and stories about riding trains; some pay tribute to a favorite locomotive or railroad, while others tell about memorable people encountered on the rails. One of my favorites is “Confessions of a Train Watcher,” from 1957, by David P. Morgan, where the then-editor of Trains magazine explains his fascination with railroading.

The book is beautifully produced, with 256 glossy pages and an easy-to-read typeface. The cover has only a single, small photograph of a stream locomotive pulling a passenger train – appropriate, since the emphasis is on the best stories from 75 years, and not necessarily the best pictures. But there are plenty of great pictures; the editor notes that they used the original photos to accompany the article whenever possible, but he acknowledges that there are fewer pictures, to keep the focus on the writing.

If you like reading great railroad stories, or have an interest in how trains shaped American life, you’re going to want this book. If you have a friend or family member who is a railfan, he or she will DEFINITELY enjoy it. It’s probably not the kind of book you would read from cover to cover, but more like a magazine, where you skip around and read the stories that really interest you. The softcover has a list price of $24.99, and is available both at local book stores and online. It’s a little cheaper on Amazon, but if you have to pay for shipping, it probably comes out about the same.

Great American Railroad Stories: 75 Years of Trains Magazine (Kalmbach Books, Waukesha, Wisconson) is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I highly recommend it.

 

History All Around

I love history. I love good stories, and history is all about the stories. Those stories are all around us, if we will just take the time to listen.

I don’t understand people who say they don’t like history. Undoubted, they had a poor history teacher somewhere back along the way – someone who thought you could teach history by making kids memorize dates from a calendar. But just as there is more to music than notes on a page, so also there is much more to history than dates on a calendar.

abilene stories coverA dear friend recently gave me a copy of a wonderful book, Abilene Stories: From Then to Now. It’s a collection of fascinating recollections and remembrances by and about people from Abilene. Most of the stories are no more than two or three pages long, and the book contains dozens of them. It was compiled by Glenn Dromgoole, Jay Moore, and Joe W. Specht, three guys who know something about Abilene and how to tell a good story.

I’m still reading through the book, enjoying the stories, intrigued by what I’m discovering about this town. That street corner on Chestnut and South First, where they’re putting in new sidewalks? That was the corner where Abilene’s first chief of police used to fire his gun on New Year’s Eve, to tell the bars it was time to close. That stretch of concrete across the north end of the airport, disconnected from everything and looking like it was put there at random? It’s actually a remnant of the Bankhead Highway, the first paved coast-to-coast, all-weather road in America. It came right through Abilene.

Camp Barkeley? It was named for a Texas soldier in WW I who died three days before the war ended, and was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions in the face of the enemy. And he is now recognized by the Army as the first Hispanic recipient of the nation’s highest honor for valor. The stories go on and on.

It’s a great book, but you don’t have to read a book to discover amazing stories – they are literally all around us. Even on the block where you live.

  • That sweet little old lady who hobbles around with a walker? She had polio as a little girl, spent a year and a half in an iron lung, and showed incredible determination in learning to walk again. She can tell you a thing or two about courage, for those who will listen.

  • The old man down the street who keeps to himself? He’s the last surviving member of his unit from WW II, that liberated a concentration camp. No one knows the nightmares he has endured for this country.

  • That quiet couple across the way? They spent 30 years overseas as missionaries before their retirement. Let them tell you about raising their kids in another culture, and what they learned together.

These are my neighbors. Your neighbors. When we take the time to get to know them, we discover they enrich our lives in ways we can’t even begin to expect. It’s history, not from a book, but from people who were there and who lived it. It’s a special wisdom that they will share for those who will turn off the TV long enough to listen.

It’s history all around us.

Heaven on Wheels

Ever heard of a chapel car?
Well, neither had I, at least not until I coverwas lurking in the basement of the Abilene Public Library recently, browsing through their railroad section, and I came across a book entitled, This Train is Bound for Glory. The book 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 most towns, saloons, gambling dens and “dance halls” (brothels) outnumbered all other establishments put together. Many towns did not have a church of any denomination, and schools were a far-off dream. 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 chance to make a fast buck: they were looking for a place to put down roots, get married, raise a family and build a home. Some came from “back east,” looking to start over. Some came from overseas, from Ireland and Italy, from Bohemia and Norway and Poland.  All of them knew that having a church in their community was essential.

ChapelCar1922And 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.

interior2Each 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 Estey 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 beds that were mounted on the wall, a small kitchen/living space, a water closet/toilet, and a tiny office/study area.

rev._e.j._mcguinness._chapel_car._st._paul._a_church_on_wheels._come_in_and_see_it._1923_march_20The 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.  Some of the railroads helped the chapel cars because the rail owners were believers, and wanted to see the gospel advance.  Others supported them because they wanted to reduce alcoholism and violence among the rail workers, and saw the church as a great “civilizing influence.”  Whatever.

The usual pattern was for the railroad to pull the car into a town and park it on a convenient siding.  Sometimes it was parked in or near the railroad’s shops and offices, for the convenience of the people working there to attend services.  Often, it would be parked in proximity to the town’s “red light” district, to counter the influence of the whiskey and women that could be found there.

Railroad_workers_inside_the_railroad_chapel_car_Glad_TidingsThe missionaries who served on board these rolling churches had to have a special calling.  The men had to be willing 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.

History_chapelcarTheir 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 in the morning, 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 older couples whose children were already grown served.  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.”

book2-1In her book Gospel Tracks Through Texas, author Wilma Rugh Taylor tells the story of Chapel Car #4, named “Good Will,” which served many years all across Texas.  It was owned by the American Baptist Publication Society, based in Philadelphia.  But there was a problem.  Most Texas Baptists were affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and were very suspicious of the “northerners” building these cars.  In spite of initial misgivings, though, most of the towns where the chapel cars served eventually welcomed them with open arms, and were won over by the dedication and hard work of those who served on board.

The author, Mrs. Taylor, has shown some dedication herself.  She and her husband, the late Norman Taylor, also wrote the previously mentioned This Train is Bound for Glory, based on literally years of painstaking research and traveling across the country to document the nearly-forgotten story of the chapel cars.  Tragically, he died from a fall in 2007, when he was working to help restore one of the cars.  If you would like more information about the chapel cars, Mrs. Taylor has a website, chapelcars.com, that has all the details and floor plans.

My wife says it would have been my dream job, just a hundred years too late.  And I have to admit, there is some truth to that.  On the other hand, I like the concept of using whatever tools are available to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten.  Mrs. Taylor tells several stories of the missionaries intentionally working among the newly-arrived immigrants who didn’t speak the language, as well as the town drunks, the dance hall girls, and others “written off” by polite society.

At the front of the partition of the chapel car was a glass transom with the message, “God is Love” carefully 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.

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.

A Movie of Immense Power

Not that it needs anything from me, but I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of praise for Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

It is a movie of immense power.

First of all, a couple of notes.  This is NOT a movie for people who go to the show to see special effects, or to see stuff blown up.  There’s an actual story here.  Second, if you don’t like movies where you have to pay attention to dialogue, save yourself the $8 and stay home.  If you didn’t like “The West Wing” on TV, you almost certainly won’t like “Lincoln.”

But: if you enjoy history, if you like movies where words matter, if you enjoy seeing incredible actors at the top of their craft, then you owe it to yourself to go see this.

Here’s the story: It is January, 1865.  The American Civil War is in its fourth year, and Lincoln has just been reelected.  Two years earlier, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but now he is seeking to abolish slavery once and for all through the proposed 13th Amendment.  The amendment has passed the Senate, but does not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the evenly-divided House.

They say there two things you never want to watch: one is how sausage is made, and the other is how legislation gets passed.  Make an exception in this case.

Daniel Day Lewis is simply phenomenal to watch, and he is surrounded by incredible talent – Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommie Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, just to name a few.  When his advisers are whining because they’re still two votes down, Lincoln thunders,  “I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all … time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured.  I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done, but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes …”

It’s an actual quote, as cited by John B. Alley, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, ed., Rice, 1886 ed., p 585-6.

And then there’s Sally Field.  The fact is, Mary Todd Lincoln had battled mental illness for much of her life, and when their middle son died, she never fully recovered from the loss.  The scene in the privacy of their bedroom, when she and Mr. Lincoln have a screaming fight, is in my opinion, one of the most powerful ever put on film.  Watching her and Daniel Day Lewis go at each other is like watching Frazier and Ali trading punches.

And I don’t have time to tell you how amazing Tommie Lee Jones is here.

I love the way Spielberg structured the storytelling here.  The movie opens with remembrances of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and closes with his Second Inaugural.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I’m telling you, words matter, and they absolutely shine in the hands of this director, this script, and these actors.  “Lincoln” is a gem.