Sometimes a childhood memory will flare so brightly it feels like it happened yesterday.
That’s what occurred recently as I perused passenger train photos mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. Seeing pictures of Santa Fe trains I rode on as a kid took me back to those times when we traveled by train to visit loved ones.
I love trains. That love was instilled in me by my father, who passed away in January just a few months short of his 88th birthday. He made sure I realized I was born into a railroading family. Dad worked summers in Northeast Ohio fixing track. His dad Bud and his Grandpa Louis oversaw depot operations in Indiana and Ohio towns back when rail travel was the bomb.
Dad bought me a kid’s telegraph to teach me Morse code. My grandpa and great-grandpa relied on depot telegraph signalers. I never quite mastered it. I preferred HO scale trains dad bought for me in the early ‘60s, a modern train and a 19th century locomotive and coal car. Dad helped me design a layout, building a tabletop tableau that included a tunnel, town with a church, school and a gas station, painted-on roads, railroad crossing signals, telegraph poles, trees and tiny people. Every birthday and Christmas for several years I’d open a present and it’d be a new railcar or a building. I’ve thought about taking up my HO train hobby once more, but I lack space for the elaborate layout I’d want to build. So my dreams remain caged in my head.
The family took train journeys from San Bernardino, California, to Akron, Ohio in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the Santa Fe Chief in 1958 and the El Capitan in ‘60. The short motor trip from our St. Elmo Drive house to the Santa Fe depot in San Bernardino couldn’t end fast enough for me. I loved stepping into the grand depot. I’m including a photo of the domed depot to give you an idea of its architecture and just how striking it was in its heyday. For a boy under ten, nothing under the sun could outshine it.
I remember walking with dad to a big counter where he’d check in with the ticket agent. At the counter was a gigantic sign showing the arrival and departure times for the day’s trains. Then we’d sit on one of the benches and wait for the train from Los Angeles. I recall short walks to vending machines where dad or my Grandpa Frog would buy me a candy bar. Grandpa Frog and Grandma Mid took train trips to California to visit us, so that’s why I remember him in the depot. I’m not sure if we kept our luggage with us and handed it to a baggage handler out on the boarding platform or turned the luggage over when we checked in.
The San Bernardino depot was once the largest train depot west of the Mississippi, employing 5,000 people and serving 26 trains per day in its heyday. When mom and I returned to Southern California in ‘99 to see the changes time wrought to our houses, the depot was a shadow of what it once had been. It looked dingy, needing not just a paint job but renovation. I was surprised the city hadn’t restored it to its former glory, since it played such a major role in San Bernardino’s history, along with Highway 66. Nowadays the depot serves one Amtrak and two Metrolink lines.
Our voices echoed inside it, but that changed in 2008 when it became the home of the San Bernardino History and Railroad Museum. The museum houses an array of rail exhibits and attractions and is the site of the annual Rail Days Festival. Hopefully establishing the museum in the depot included renovating the Mission Revival-style building, built in 1918.
Memories dim after nearly sixty years, but think a stationmaster announced the arrival of the Chief or El Capitan on loudspeaker. I have a distinct memory: Standing on the boarding platform as the train wheeled by us, all the while braking to a slow stop. Dad would check the passenger car number on the ticket and then lead mom, me and my sister Jody from coach to coach until he located ours. Railroad men like Grandpa Bud referred to passenger trains as ‘varnish.’ By the time seven-year-old ‘Little Mike’ got to ride the train to Northeast Ohio, sleepers generally were no longer in use. We slept in our chairs, which could be lowered into sleeping position.
Little Mike got to meet and play with other kids in the coach. Trains feel different from a passenger jet. The jerky movement never goes away as the train rolls along the rails. The juddering and swaying are especially rough and tumble in the coupler tunnels between the cars. Little Mike wanted to get into the next car as soon as possible.
The ‘extras’ remain vivid images in my mind decades later – eating in the diner, sitting in an observation car and watching the Southwest Desert scenery. In curves, you could look back and see the rear cars. For adults, the observations with their lounges were an opportunity to gulp down the views without worrying about speeding automobiles in front and behind you. Amazingly, all the cars on the El Capitan were observations. In ‘58 and ‘60, Santa Fe chefs still cooked meals that were served in the diners. Waiters in white suit coats took orders and served the meals. A song just popped into my mind: ‘Don’t Know What You Got ‘Til It’s Gone.”
The Albuquerque, New Mexico, stop lasted long enough to allow passengers to detrain to browse or purchase handmade Native American jewelry and rugs made by Navaho artisans. The Indians’ stalls were set up on the depot platform. My mom held my hand as she cruised the platform; dad held Jody in his arms during the short shopping expedition. I don’t remember my parents actually buying anything. The California Mission-style depot, built in 1902, was destroyed by fire in January 1993. Remember ‘Harvey Girls,’ the movie starring Judy Garland? Many of these Santa Fe depots had Harvey restaurants and hotels; most are gone.
I looked it up on Wikipedia… 40 hours to Chicago. The Interstate Highway System had just been proposed by President Eisenhower in the late ‘50s. In those days, Route 66 still was still the route of choice for transcontiental automobile travel. The Interstate System – especially Interstate 40 – would not offer real competition until the mid-1960s. And ultimately, rail travel still provided a comfortable way to travel to Chicago. Forty hours… less than two days’ travel – and your dad didn’t need to get behind the wheel or worry about running out of gas in the Mohave Desert.
The Romanesque Revival Dearborn Station in Chicago scared me. Chicago’s oldest station with its twelve-story clock tower could easily swallow a boy not even 10 years old. Its platforms and countless tracks of trains dropping off or loading passengers left me not wanting to release my dad’s hand. If I let my fingers slip away from his, I knew I’d lose track of my family among the multitudes and never find them. Obviously, I boarded the train to Akron on both occasions we traveled by rail. The rides disappointed me. The Chicago-to-Akron train was drab next to the Santa Fe’s Chief and El Capitan. Still, the train – I don’t even recall its name – was taking me into the arms of my Grandma Mid, whose kisses always slobbered saliva over my face.
It’s more than half a century from those days. My grandparents and parents have passed away. My sister was born in March 1957; I doubt she has memories of those train rides. The passenger trains are just a shadow of what they once were. The legendary railroad companies have disappeared, replaced by Amtrak. I’d love to see rail passenger service flower into a new age, give folks another option besides their cars and jet service. Been in an airport lately? Been a human sardine shoehorned into a seat aboard a passenger aircraft? We’re told high-speed rail service isn’t economical. All we get is talk of high-speed rail between LA and Las Vegas. I’ll tell you what… I’d use it. A quick trip to LA for a Dodger game, then back to Vegas the next day. What’s there not to like?