A Romance of the Rails

This post is by Mike Staton. This is Mike back in the late '50s, much as he looked like aboard the Santa Fe trains.

This post is by Mike Staton. This is Mike back in the late ’50s, much as he looked like aboard the Santa Fe trains.

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.

This is the San Bernardino train depot, the one we used for our train journeys to Ohio. For a boy under 10, it was the start of grand adventures.

This is the San Bernardino train depot, the one we used for our train journeys to Ohio. For a boy under 10, it was the start of grand adventures.

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.

This photo captures the size of the San Bernardino rail yard during its heyday.

This photo captures the size of the San Bernardino rail yard during its heyday.

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.

I had a HO train set much like this back in the early '60s. Dad helped me building a tabletop layout for it.

I had a HO train set much like this back in the early ’60s. Dad helped me build a tabletop layout for it.

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.

Magazine ads like this one do a good job of capturing the passenger train era of private train companies toward the end of the glory years. Soon it'd be Amtrak.

Magazine ads like this one do a good job of capturing the passenger train era of private train companies toward the end of the glory years. Soon it’d be Amtrak.

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.

Santa Fe liked to brag about how fast their passenger trains could run from Chicago to LA. I think we spent two nights sleeping in our passenger car on both trips.

Santa Fe liked to brag about how fast their passenger trains could run from Chicago to LA. I think we spent two nights sleeping in our passenger car on both trips.

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?

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23 Responses to A Romance of the Rails

  1. Joe Stephens says:

    Sadly, all the passenger trains that went through my little West Virginia town were long gone by the time I was old enough to ride. I got my fascination with trains from the Cass Scenic Railroad. Interestingly enough, the first model train I ever owned had an HO scale replica of the Santa Fe engine that pulled the train you used to ride.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Staton says:

      Model train layouts fascinate me. A few years back friends bought me some hobby books on train layouts as a Christmas present. I was thinking about building a large layout, but never had the space for it, so it remains an idea stored in my head. There are track spurs somewhat near me. They’re used for warehouse loading and unloading of freight cars. The main road near us — Gibson — has a RR crossing and we’ve had to stop on several occasions and wait for freight trains to pass. About ten years ago when I worked for a training company, we investigated taking an Amtrak passenger train from Fayetteville, NC, to Jacksonville, Fla. Never did it; rough hours and a bit on the costly side compared to driving, I believe (but I no longer remember the details).

      Like

  2. Anonymous says:

    Mike, I still travel by train whenever I can. I like that mode, unfortunately the motion sickness that bothered me as a child still inflicts me today. But on the memories. Doris

    Like

    • Mike Staton says:

      Funny. I’ve never had motion sickness. I have friends who do suffer from it, including Sharon. My mom and grandmother did as well. While never getting sick aboard rollercoasters, I never particularly liked them, though.

      Like

  3. Doris says:

    Mike, I still travel by train even today. Unfortunately, the motions sickness that plagued me back then still rears its ugly head. Still the memories. Doris

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Staton says:

      Luckily, I’ve never had motion sickness. One time, back in the late ’70s, I was traveling on a prop aircraft over West Virginia. It was quite turbulent. The young woman next to me — on her way to basic training — had her head buried in the barf bag. I’d like to take one of those excursion trains someday and enjoy a trip where I could see picturesque countryside.

      Like

  4. Mike,
    I lived outside of Philadelphia as a child and the big treat each year would be when my grandmother would take us three kids into Philadelphia by train to see a show or a movie. She would dress up with a fancy dress, pearls and white gloves. Of course my brother and I wore a tie and jacket. The train ride was an integral part of the whole magical experience. We would fight over who would give the conductor our tickets to be punched. One time my older brother tried to convince me that there had been train robbers the day before and they might try again. btw, we weren’t robbed.
    Thanks for bringing up some wonderful memories.
    – Stephen

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Staton says:

      Wow! What wonderful memories, Stephen. Thank you for sharing. As I reread folks’ comments, I’m starting to think I should write next on my memories riding rollercoasters.

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  5. erinfarwell says:

    Wonderful post, Mike. I know exactly what you mean when you say that some memories are like they happened yesterday. Great train stories and how fun to have them as part of your life. I have few train experiences in my life, though my husband, Mike, wants to install is garden-gauge train to run above the cabinets in the kitchen. He’s has gotten too far, yet but I look forward to it. Thanks for sharing your memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Staton says:

      Mentioning the garden-gauge train reminds me of something I’d forgotten… some trips to the NC State Vet School’s hospital in Raleigh. While I waited to pick up my cat Bobby (being treated for cancer), I’d peruse a nearby double-decker mall. One store had model trains that ran along the walls near the ceiling. One summer when my mom visited, I took her on the 2-hour drive to the mall to show her the trains.

      Like

  6. Wranglers says:

    Mike, you were so lucky to have parents and grandparents that steeped you in history. Cher’ley

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Staton says:

      Thanks, Cherley. I now I’m lucky. People who don’t love reading books… I mourn for them. First, you hear stories from older relatives, and then you read to learn more about what they’re telling you.

      Like

  7. Neva Bodin says:

    My husband had a model railroad, N guage, during our early marriage. He sold it when we moved to a farm, rightfully supposing he wouldn’t have time for it between farming and running a construction business with his brother-in-aw. He still likes trains though. My mother and family emigrated to North Dakota in 1906 on an “emigrant train.” I traveled from Fargo ND to Minneapolis MN by train when a nursing student, around 1965, to visit a friend for a weekend. There is something magical about a train. Enjoyed your post and history.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Staton says:

      Something magical? You’re darn tootin’, as in a train whistle tooting. About 13 years ago I bought dad a HO model train — the first train in America. After he recently died, I told the kids to keep it for his grandkids for when they get old and can appreciate it. Saw it in a Smithsonian catalogue. Knowing his love of railroading, I couldn’t resist getting it for him.

      Like

  8. Nancy Jardine says:

    Great reminiscences, Mike. Those trains travelled vast distances. I loved a train ride when I was a kid even though they were stinky, smelly old steam engines with jagged horsehair seats on the carriages and were quite ‘shoogly’. The longest ride I remember when a child was on a steam train from Glasgow to London -upwards of 400 miles and maybe about 12 hours (during the 1960s)- but that distance must have been tiny compared to what you travelled. As it happens i’m taking a train ride next week – and have mentioned it in my post for the 4th July. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This reminded me of the time my late husband and I took an early honeymoon in California. We took a train from Santa Barbara to Huntington Beach, and those three hours were the most pleasant hours of travel I ever spent. The ride was smooth, and the engine wasn’t noisy. The bathroom was easy to get to, and we didn’t have to mess with seat belts. The down side is that Amtrak isn’t as diligent as the airlines about assisting those with disabilities. It was a good thing we had friends at both ends.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Travis says:

    Great post Mike. I took a train ride from Kansas City to Oceanside, CA when I was a kid. I loved that experience. Met so many people. A few years ago I took a train from LA to Portland, OR. While I liked it, especially waking up in the middle of the snow covered Cascades, the trip was infuriatingly longer than it should have been. Driving from LA to Oakland takes 6 hours. I took something around 15 hours to get there. They need to be faster to be competitive. Most people don’t have the time and the prices are not competitive. I really would like to ride across America on the rails. I hope it will be around for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mike Staton says:

      I agree, Travis. Noncompetitive right now. And like fusion power, high-speed rail always seems to be on the horizon. Well, let’s rephrase that. On the horizon in the U.S. Japan and the Europeans seem to have high speed rail along with good airports and Airbus jets. We have high-tech cellphones and related gadgetry but not much in the way of new infrastructure technology. We do have a fabulous unmanned space program with rovers on Mars, a probes orbiting Saturn and the mini-planet Ceres, and a probe about to do a flyby of Pluto and its big moon Charon. But with our dysfunctional government we may throw that away too (notice how I didn’t mention the manned space program? That’s on life support).

      Like

  11. wyoauthor1 says:

    Wonderful post, Mike! I’ve considered taking a train to various parts of the country, but I’d have to drive to Denver to catch Amtrak and since that’s nearly 6 hours away, I figure I might as well just keep driving! LOL My mother took the train a few times from our Iowa town to Nashville back in the 50s before I was born; she’s often told me how enjoyable the rides were. We have lots of trains in Wyoming … but they haul coal and other freight, not people. Thanks for sharing your memories!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. S. J. Brown says:

    Mike, Thanks for sharing your memories. I have never done much train travel and now I feel like I missed something amazing. I have done a few scenic train rides here in WV. I totally enjoyed those.

    Like

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