“Jefferson Survives”

As we approach the Fourth of July, I want to tell you a true story of American history – one that is so remarkable, if some Hollywood scriptwriter came up with it, he or she would be laughed out of the room, for inventing such nonsense. Except that in this case, it’s really true. It’s a story that revolves around two of our nation’s Founding Fathers.

Over their lifetimes, Thomas Jefferson (left) and John Adams were co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, the best of friends, and the worst of enemies. They would eventually rebuild their relationship through a series of personal letters, before dying on the same day – July 4, 1826.

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were about as different as two people could be in the 1700s. Jefferson was tall and lanky; Adams was short and stocky. Jefferson was a slave-holding Virginian and a farmer; Adams was a Massachusetts abolitionist and successful lawyer and author. Jefferson believed in the supremacy of state’s rights and feared a strong central government; Adams thought that a strong central national government was essential, especially regarding the economy, trade, and foreign relations.

Yet despite these differences, the two men became fast friends and each of them held a deep and mutual respect for the other. They were co-signers of the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 1776. In fact, some historians believe it was Adams who insisted that Jefferson be the primary author of the final draft of the Declaration. Adams served as George Washington’s Vice President, while Jefferson became the young nation’s first Secretary of State. That was when the relationship began to fracture.

Divided over opposing views of the French Revolution and the future of American government, the two became bitter political enemies. Their feud was so bitter, so angry, that when Jefferson defeated Adams in 1800 – involving what some said was a corrupt vote in the House of Representatives. Adams left town and would not attend Jefferson’s inauguration. They would not speak for twelve years.

Finally, another of the nation’s founders, Benjamin Rush (also a signer of the Declaration), came up with a scheme to reunite the old friends. He wrote to each of them, claiming that he had been in touch with the other, and saying that the other man was wanting to rekindle the friendship. On January 1, 1812, Adams wrote a short note to Jefferson at Monticello. Over the next 14 years, the two would exchange 158 letters.

Adams tended to write longer letters and used a LOT more words (perhaps true to his background as an attorney and a writer). Those who have studied the correspondence note that Adams was more confrontational and aggressive, while Jefferson maintained the cool composure for which he was so well known.

They talked about their views on religion and philosophy, and they discussed the long-term effects of the French Revolution, which had been one of the main causes of their initial dispute. Jefferson acknowledged the unfairness of the name-calling done against Adams by some of Jefferson’s followers. Eventually, each had regained the trust of the other. In July 1813, Adams wrote, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.”

Their later letters continued to cover a wide range of topics and subjects – even anticipating the growing sectional differences that would eventually lead to the American Civil War. But what really comes through their notes to one other is the tender affection and abiding respect each had for the other. Even as the two elderly statesmen grew older and more infirm, they continued to correspond. In 1823, Jefferson wrote, “Crippled wrists and fingers make writing slow and laborious. But while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of ancient times, when youth and health made happiness out of every thing.”

Jefferson, 83, was suffering from an intestinal disorder on July 3, 1826. He lapsed into a coma that afternoon and lingered in a semi-conscious state before dying just after noon the next day. Five hundred miles away, John Adams, now 90, was dying from typhoid – the same disease that had claimed his beloved wife Abigail, in 1818. Historians note that his final words were, “Jefferson survives”– not knowing that his beloved friend, foe, correspondent, and fellow patriot, had in fact, died only hours earlier.

It was July 4, 1826 – exactly fifty years to the day since the Declaration of Independence.

Seven Score and 18 Years Ago…

It was on this date 158 years ago – November 19, 1863 – that Abraham Lincoln gave the most important speech in American history. Yes, I know there are plenty of other nominees for that honor, but as important as those speeches were, none have had the lasting impact on our national identity and purpose as the Gettysburg Address.

In this speech, President Lincoln redefined and refocused the reason for the Great Struggle, he provided comfort for a nation reeling from staggering losses; he took what had been a relatively obscure line from the Declaration of Independence and made it a national mantra, and once and for all seized the moral high ground in the war. And the fact that Lincoln did all this using only 272 words is a reminder that when it comes to words, it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

Like any great historical event, numerous myths surround the speech and its delivery. For one thing, Lincoln did NOT compose it on the back of an envelope on the train ride up from Washington, nor did he scribble down a few thoughts at the boarding house where he stayed the night before the speech. The historical evidence shows that he had already completed at least one or two rough drafts of the speech that he had shown to some of his friends and advisers before he ever left Washington.

This lithograph of Lincoln at Gettysburg was originally published in 1905.

Another enduring myth is that the speech was a flop when it was first delivered, and the crowd was visibly displeased with it. Not so. It’s true that newspaper editorials about the speech differed widely in their reviews of it, but generally broke along party lines – most Republican papers praised and endorsed it, while most Democratic papers dismissed it.

It’s also true that it was short, but it was supposed to be. Dedication of the new cemetery at Gettysburg was primarily a state function, and national involvement was not considered necessary or automatic. The main speaker at the dedication was Sen. Edward Everett of Massachusetts, perhaps the most skilled orator of the time, who spoke for over two hours, reviewing the battle, condemning the Rebels and praising the Union. President Lincoln had been invited only to give a few brief remarks, and nothing more was expected.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate what a different time it was, politically. But if you know our nation’s history, you know that the framers of the republic didn’t know what to do about slavery, and since they couldn’t agree on a solution, they basically just punted that particular ball to a future generation. The Constitution says that a black man counts as 3/5 of a person when it comes to the census. It’s not clear just what the framers originally meant when they wrote, “All men are created equal,” but to one extent or another, they were thinking educated, white, landowning males.

Authors use words to create the reality of other worlds in their books as they write. Good speakers do the same, helping their audience see things “as they could be.” In this speech, Lincoln took the Declaration’s words about equality and breathed new life into them. He redefined a war that had been about political theory, economics, and states’ rights, and turned it into a moral struggle for liberty for all. To this day, we’re still debating some of those issues.

There are five versions of the speech with slight variations. Here is best known version, which the President himself wrote out and signed.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

I would say the President was wrong about one thing: the world has indeed long noted what he said. And rightfully so.

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.

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.