Railroading Across The Great Divide

“Pufferbellies” was my teacher’s name for the little trains. They were cute and winsome as the wooden ducks and chickens we pulled along behind us on strings.  Day by day they traveled through my imagination until one day, while the world’s back was turned, they broke free and chugged off into reality. No longer arrayed in neat little rows, no longer subject to station masters and drivers, no longer dependent on children to pull them along, the Pufferbellies began to roam the world.

I was certain they were roaming my neighborhood, and I knew I ought to be able to catch one, like a firefly or a grasshopper. One Sunday afternoon I headed off toward my school, thinking perhaps I could find one in the schoolyard.

It didn’t take long for my dad to catch up with me. “Just where do you think you’re going?”  “To find the Pufferbellies.”  Silence wafted between us like steam. “The what?” ”The Pufferbellies. We learned a song about them in school. I want to see them.”  Dad thought it over for a minute. ”Can you sing me the song?”  Of course I could. I remembered every word, and sang the first verse twice.

When he finished laughing he said, “I know where the Pufferbellies live. Want to go see?”  Later that afternoon we bundled into the car and drove to a place I’d never been. He called it The Depot. It was a place where people became passengers, boarding trains for such far-flung destinations as Des Moines, Omaha and Iowa City.

While we sat outside on a bench, waiting for something to happen, I learned that the name “Rock Island” had been applied to far more than the city where my aunt and uncle lived. It also was a railroad, with its own symbol and its own song

Pufferbellies were cute, but the Rock Island line was exciting.  Hearing the low moan of the whistle, feeling the vibration of the tracks with my hand and covering my ears against the sharp, steam-shrouded screech of the brakes  that stopped the engine in front of me, I knew I wanted to be a passenger, too.

My first trip came some years later.  After weeks of wheedling and whining, my parents decided to allow me to accompany my dad to a football game in Iowa City.  Today’s Steampunk afficionados would have loved it.  The open windows, the flying cinders, the rough, bristling seat fabric and burgundy upholstered walls seemed to call for waistcoats, high-button shoes and bustles. 

Like everyone else, we carried our lunch in boxes. We peeled hard-boiled eggs and gnawed on chicken legs, and I giggled at the men pulling flasks from their vests pockets and jackets. While they enjoyed their little nips, I fell into sleep, lulled by the rhythmic clacking of steel on steel.

Today, we speak of dog people or cat people.  In the 1950s, there were train people and airplane people. Our town lacked an airport but it had a lot of tracks, and I was a train person. The Rock Island became my favorite line mostly because of familiarity,, but it wasn’t the only line that crossed our state.  Freight cars at crossings bore exotic, memorable names – Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe; Burlington; Great Northern; Illinois Central; Cottonbelt; Wabash.  

No longer content to sing about Pufferbellies, I learned a clutch of new tunes. Many, like the Wabash Cannonball, were sung by men with names like Boxcar Willie.  The Wreck of Old 97 was grounded in railroading as a way of life and served as an over-the-top celebration of the engineers, boomers and brakemen, switchmen, conductors and engineers who worked the yards.  The hobos rode for free, and sang their own songs.

As my increasing years brought greater independence, I walked the trestles with friends, shivering with anticipation and fear as we dared the clunky afternoon freights to arrive ahead of schedule.  Visiting a roundhouse with my grandfather, I was awed by the engines and their turntable. On road trips, I begged my dad to race the Streamliners highballing along their glistening, parallel tracks, and in the rich, jasmine-scented nights of summer I lodged myself between crickets and stars to hear the mournful whistle dissolve away into the dark.

Eventually,  I began to ride trains. Strangely, the more often I traveled on trains, the less I traveled to trains – to look, to listen and to experience the poignant longing they evoke. Yet if the romance faded, it never entirely disappeared. A fragment of song, a 3 a.m. whistle, the sound of switching cars carried south on a perfect wind could make me pause, shifting about like a placid housecat who suddenly remembers her lineage and sniffs the freedom of the wild.

Decades later, photographer Tom Parker posted a remarkable image on his blog, Dispatches from Kansas.  He’d captured UP844, the last steam locomotive built for Union Pacific, rolling through Frankfort, Kansas on her journey south from Cheyenne, Wyoming to Harlingen Texas.  Her Valley Eagle Heritage Tour, named for a popular Missouri Pacific passenger train which operated between Houston and Brownsville from 1948 to 1962, was a railfan’s dream.

Like a giant Pufferbelly escaped from bonds of inattention and neglect, UP844 was riding the rails of imagination as surely as her rails of steel.  From the moment I learned she’d roll through Houston before heading southwest, there was no question I’d be at the stations, whistlestops and country crossings to witness the historic journey and wave to the crew who made it possible.

Listening again to my favorite railroad song, Sara Carter Bayes’ Railroadin’ on the Great Divide, I pondered anew the world of divides in which we live.  Beyond the divides of politics, race, gender and economics running through our social and cultural landscape, an even greater divide appears to exist, one separating the world in which I grew up from the quite different world emerging today

In that older world, the metaphor of the well-oiled machine still had force. In most occupations, skill and perseverance were more important than connections. Deals were sealed with handshakes, and a man’s word was his bond rather than a contemptuous and cynical attempt to manipulate others.

For many railroaders, the only divide that counted was the Continental Divide, a divide overcome by a Golden Spike of vision, foresight and ingenuity. Certainly there was manipulation in that spike as well,  and not a little greed. Nevertheless, five days after the spike was driven in 1869, passenger train service was instituted. Pulled by the astounding ”iron horses”, people journeyed from places like Omaha to Sacramento in four days rather than four months, and they fell in love with their trains.

Today we travel faster, but I’m not sure we travel better. I suspect others share my view. When those engines from an earlier time begin to move, people gather. They stand at crossings and linger at whistlestops, traveling miles beyond good sense to see a highballing steamer race across the prairie or idle at a switch. 

Beyond the charms of retro technology, there’s a palpable sense of people wanting to move, to meet people, to hear the whistle and feel the vibration, reaching across the years that divide us from our past in order to touch the steam, steel and grit that made this country work.

As long as UP 844 and her kind keep rolling, as long as the people who love and sustain her survive, as long as the whistle sounds and the firebox glows, there’s railroading to be done.  There are prairies to cross, and foothills to climb. There are mountainsides where the great, vertiginous sky reaches off to infinity, high plateaus where the winds blow free and a person can breathe in the air of acomplishment and history.

Children will love their Pufferbellies, but railroading’s for grownups – for people willing to pick up and roam, to work beyond exhaustion, to trade security for freedom and speak with integrity.

Of course there will be difficulties.  No one wants to face the broken tie, the washed-out bridge, the screaming  downgrade acceleration or the jumped tracks.  But ask any old-timer from Old Cheyenne – or anywhere else for that matter – and he’ll tell you it’s worth the ride. There’s always the chance we’ll get lucky, and land on the Great Divide.

Comments are welcome.  To leave a comment or respond, just click below – and please, no Reblogging. Thanks!  
NOTE: I’m still traveling, and heading west. I’m looking forward to spending time in a rennovated Burlington, Northern & Santa Fe railroad bunkhouse this week. It’s about fifty feet from the tracks, and I’m told sixty or so trains pass by every day. I anticipate enjoying myself.
Special thanks to photographer Tom Parker, who allowed use of several of his photos in the blog and video.  Hal Cannon of the Deseret String Band and Okehdokee Records ranted permission for use of  the group’s version of “Railroading on the Great Divide”.  Photographer Aaron B. Hockley of Hockley Photography (Vancouver and Portland) provided many of the train shots and Daniel Lipinski, a Montana rancher, provided some of the scenic shots.

87 thoughts on “Railroading Across The Great Divide

  1. Linda, this was very nostalgic for me. I remember when I was 7 seeing a ‘pufferbelly’ down in a valley. I have loved the old trains ever since. I remember my first field trip/train ride and being so disappointed when we had to ride the buses back home!

    I also remember my cousin Bruce and I hiding in the drainage culverts under the train tracks in Barstow, CA. We lay there side by side, waiting for them to pass over us, and held our hands over our ears… then screaming while the train rumbled over us. The vibration and fear just couldn’t be beat! We were such thrill seekers as children, and although we caught [heck] for doing it (we made the mistake of telling what we’d done) it didn’t stop us from doing it again. ;)

    Riding the old trains again is on my bucket list.

    1. Lynda,

      My goodness. You and your cousin probably got more of a thrill than we did – I can only imagine the racket a train passing overhead would cause. That pipe must have functioned like an echo chamber.

      I had to smile at you being given the business for your shenanigans. Wasn’t it just like that when we were kids – so much of what we did was so exciting we just had to talk about it. On the other hand, I never did tell Mom about the trestle-walking until decades later. I wish now I’d told my dad, though. I have a suspicion he would have been down there with us.

      A friend and I started exploring train-riding options a couple of years ago. We discovered some of these steam trains do excursions, but it takes planning and early reservations. There are a lot of us out here wanting to ride the rails!


  2. Sigh. Trains- you feel the vibration and the travel – stay connected to the world as you transport. Planes? They “instantly” surge you to destinations. One minute here. One minute there.

    We always saw/heard trains growing up: going down the tracks in Bellaire (“don’t go near the tracks – there are hobos”) And we’ve run down to the tracks when at the farm and wave and thrill to the jumping ground as it passed (“Never put a penny on the track – could cause the train to jump off”) We marveled at the train yard in Palestine – a real RR town in the day with all sorts of tracks and trains.

    I’ve only ridden the narrow gage train near Silverton. We just didn’t travel distances except by car due to costs. All those old movies with trains in them looked so inviting and elegant. May be time to take that trip through the Rockies?

    There’s a post today about the RR museum in AR. Great pix of the big engines…will try to find that one again and send link over
    Enjoy your travels – we love coming along

      1. Oh, that is wonderful. Being able to get close to those old engines is such a delight. When UP844 was in Houston, people could be Right There, watching the guys do this and that as they readied the train to move on. There were some big eyes among the kids – of every age.

    1. Phil,

      That’s right. Air travel is convenient (or at least it used to be), and often necessary. But train travel has a different feel to it. The travel itself becomes an experience. And the trains have a romantic feel to them. I mean – who wouldn’t want to travel the Blue Train or the Orient Express? Remember “train cases”, with their little trays and compartments for lipsticks and potions? How many years has it been since the train case disappeared?

      One of my best friends lives right by the tracks in Bellaire. I asked her once if she was on the right or wrong side of the tracks. She wasn’t sure, but she did know the tracks were protection against another tear-down-rebuild popping up next to her. She loves it – and it’s amazing how the sound of the passing trains is no more intrusive than that of the birds chirping in the trees.

      When I go through the postcards and letters from my grandmother’s time, it’s amazing how much they traveled by train. For them, it was purely transportation from one small Iowa town to another. They didn’t have a car for years (this, in the 20s and 30s) so the trains were a necessity. It’s amazing to think of it now – they would send one another postcards, telling which train they would be arriving on so someone could meet them at the station.

      A train trip would be wonderful, and having real train service again would be wonderful. We’ve been such a foolish nation, tearing up so much track and rendering so much of the system useless.


      1. My dad often traveled around East TX by train to visit relative and “go to town”. He wanted us to experience it before it disappeared (trains had started to carry mostly cargo by then)
        I can tell you the trains going through Bellaire now are much quieter – the ground does shake when they come by, but you get used to it – we lived 3 blocks from the tracks – but my neighbor bought a little pre-WWII house 1 block from the tracks when she married – we used to laugh at how a block or two made a difference in the shaking.
        Stupid not to update the tracks for passenger train – especially between Galveston and Houston – an evacuation route….would make more sense than flashing signs and those small signs with the whirl saying “hurricane evacuation route” DUH like it’s not obvious…how much money wasted when the people and towns have tried for years to get that train route…and the RR will give the track rightaways. Oh, the big city of Houston wants other projects on the N and NW side of town for developers there and they have too much of decision making power…maybe eventually. Waves cheering you on your travels!

        1. Speaking of evacuations, somewhere online I came across a letter written by a woman whose husband was on the last train leaving Galveston during the 1900 storm. I need to try and find that again. The family lived on Todville. So many stories, so little time.

  3. I am almost in memories and what you pictured us in here… Maybe I am from a different culture, but I agree with you almost… so many things changed and being changed… What a beautiful song, right now I am listening too…. :)

    I love trains… I have a very special relation with them, maybe I traveled with them so many times in my childhood days. For example, we came back to my country by a train from Europe to Istanbul… or, I saw the sea at first time when we were travelling by train from mid Anatolia to Istanbul… and many of them… You can’t believe but in my home there are train toys still… I love to see them :) wooden and miniature ones… Thank you dear Linda, you almost took me a great journey. I enjoyed and I loved, love, nia

    1. nia,

      Isn’t it wonderful that we can share such memories, despite our different countries, our different cultures? I smiled and smiled to think of your toy trains. Children here still have wooden trains to play with, too, and there are books for children about trains.

      When I was a child, the stores would decorate their windows at Christmas time. One big store always had a scene filled with model trains running in great circles through the imaginary forests and towns. We’d stand and look as long as our parents allowed. It was magic!

      I was lucky to travel by train in Europe a few times. It was so pleasant and easy. It was wonderful to watch the passing scenery – I love thinking of you seeing the sea for the first time from a train.

      I’m happy you enjoyed my story and the song. Thank you for sharing your special memories!


      1. Dear Linda, when I was a little child, we were living in Germany and I can almost picture what you expressed… My dad took me to these big store or toy shops or train station to watch the trains… I think all my love comes from my childhood days… Once again Thank you and welcome dear Linda, you are so nice. Love, nia

  4. It was just this past weekend that I sat on the back porch enjoying the fall weather that I was noting the sound of the train whistles. We live a couple of miles from a branch off the tracks that travel Highway 6 from Galveston. Trains pass us quite often and listening to the wheels on the rails, even from a couple of miles away, is always a pleasant rumble.

    I was thinking back to my childhood visits to my grandparents house in the little town of Orchard. We would not only hear those trains but we could see them off on the horizon to the north. There were two road crossings within hearing and the whistles would always catch our attention.

    Your post had me pulling up Google Earth to see where it is those trains I hear are headed… I had never bothered to follow the rails before. So what I here heading off on that branch line is headed through Bay City and on west.

    One thing I noticed, there are a whole lot of abandoned rights of way out in the country. You can still see the scars from all those miles of rail where there is no longer any rail.

    Thanks for the memory jog on a rainy day…

    1. Gary,

      I rarely hear train whistles, but a good north wind will carry them down from Pasadena and LaPorte. I don’t often get to hear the clickety-clack unless I’m visiting my friend who lives next to the tracks in Bellaire. Even the line that runs along highway 3 and through League City doesn’t have much traffic – or I just never am around at the right time.

      Those tracks you found on Google Earth are the ones UP844 followed on its way out of Houston. I didn’t know how they were laid out, either, but I got educated by a couple of railfans who were kind enough to let me know where to do some spotting. Since I’d seen it up close in Houston, I chose a place where I could see it really rolling – such fun.

      I hate seeing those abandoned tracks. We’ve been so quick to tear up the old in favor of the new – but the truth is, there’s not an i-gadget in the world that can carry goods or people from point A to point B. If the government wants to worry about infrastructure, they might consider a little less highway building and a little more support for the railroads. Or, so it seems to me.


  5. Hi Linda:

    Your words reminded me when I was about six and rode the first train in the middle of nowhere. When my father worked for the then United Fruit Company, we lived in a small neighborhood called Farm #8 and our house was beside the railroad tracks.

    A speeding banana train would slide through the steel path to reach the port of Almirante where the bananas were loaded on board snow- white vessels destined to New Orleans.

    I’m well acquainted with trains, albeit they were diesel powered and didn’t make so much noise as your trains do.

    You mentioned, “Deals were sealed with handshakes, and a man’s word was his bond…” Those were the same words my father used to say. No lawyers or contracts were needed to seal a deal, only a warm and honest handshake. Those were the “good ole days”, I feel so sad that they are gone and that we need armies of lawyers to get just about anything done nowadays.

    I enjoyed your blog post very much. You have a way to weave those words to glue your eyeballs to the screen.

    Enjoy your trip to the open spaces of America,


    1. Omar,

      Diesel’s the usual now. The steam trains are fussed over and brought out for special occasions, but they wouldn’t do at all for today’s commerce and travel. Still, a train is a train,and it’s just as pleasurable to watch one of today’s trains passing by as it is to see one of the old ones.

      I live at the other end of the banana supply chain. Dole has banana docks in Freeport, just down the coast, and Del Monte comes into Galveston. It’s nearly as much fun to watch the ships being unloaded as to watch trains!

      Just so you know – there still are places where handshakes seal deals (even multi-million dollar deals). I just heard such a story on this trip. It’s amazing, but true. It’s also interesting that one of the parties to the deal wasn’t from the U.S. but from a country with somewhat different customs. We’re such a litigious society I can’t imagine that happening very often.

      Tonight I’ll be tucked in next to the tracks. It ought to be an interesting experience – not just the trains, but also the prairie. I’m at the edge of some of the most open spaces in the country.


  6. You talked about going to Iowa City to see the football game. Today, there is a special train that shuttles fans from Coralville to the stadium and back after the game. It makes a run about every 30 min. A ride costs $10 round trip. We’ve taken it. It relieves a lot of parking issues.

    When our son, now 25, was little, he loved steam trains. Two of note were in the Black Hills and west of Denver on the Georgetown Loop. He still likes trains. But, this week he starts to fly for the Air Force, another dream.

    Great story today. Thanks for the thoughts and words. You picked some good ones again.

    1. Jim,

      Yeah – but I’ll bet your train doesn’t have horsehair seats, cinders flying in the window and a vague resemblance to a New Orleans bordello! Of course, there are many more football fans to accomodate these days, and better roads to accomodate all those cars, so the modern version of the football train makes sense.

      Now that I think about it, the railfans have their counterparts in the auto and airplane communities. The antique car show in my community draws quite a crowd every year, and the air museum in Galveston is a crowd-pleaser, too. In fact, some of those old planes take to the air every year, especially those from the WWII era.

      Sometimes I think part of the appeal is being able to tinker with the things. I remember how frustrating it was to move into the modern era – the substitution of a computer for the simplicity of sparkplugs and such. I recently was informed that cars no longer are given a “tune-up”. They’re analyzed. Pfffft, I say. ;)


  7. Linda, I’ve been fortunate to have taken a few train trips — the Empire Builder to Minneapolis and the Cascades train to Portland and Vancouver B.C. In an enclosed rail car we become our own community for a while, and this always brings the possibility of connections. So much more so than airports and airplanes. I agree that faster travel in not necessarily better. How I wish the U.S. had a rail travel infrastructure like Europe’s.
    Happy rails to you!

    1. Rosemary,

      Having traveled by train in Europe, I completely agree. In Houston, developers are promoting their favorite, “light rail”, but it’s really nothing more than a boondoggle for investors and real estate sorts. It’s the suburbs that need to be connected to the urban centers, and towns and cities that need to be connected to one another – as they used to be, until a complex of circumstances led to the beginning of the great track pull-up.

      There are other problems that need to be addressed before people will make use of what services do exist.. I would no more go to the Houston Amtrak station by myself at night than I would fly to the moon. That sort of problem belongs to the city as well as to the railroad. Too much money is being wasted, while the infrastructure crumbles.


  8. Once again, Linda, you’ve stirred up some wonderful memories. When my son was little, he was fascinated by trains, and we spent hours reading about them, watching them on TV, going to the local depot to watch passengers load and unload, and even riding on them ourselves.
    It was a huge education for me, too. Despite growing up in a “railroad town,” I didn’t have a lot of contact with trains (unless you count the trip young Debbie took on the train south, even sleeping in a sleeping car!)

    You’ve captured the haunting siren’s call of a train whistle, how it draws us magically back to simpler times. How I wish I’d had the chance to see those old steam locomotives in action!

    For the record, one of my favorite songs remains Arlo Guthrie’s version of City of New Orleans. Maybe because that route is extra-familiar to me and runs right through Illinois!

    1. Debbie,

      I love “City of New Orleans”, too – although I confess to being partial to Willie Nelson’s version. The other train that captures my imagination is the California Zephyr. It goes through Iowa, and I think it ends in Chicago on the eastern end.

      One of the things that intrigues me is the way newer technologies try to tie themselves to the past. Trains were called “iron horses”. The wagons used to cross the plains sometimes were called “prairie schooners” and there even were “airships”. If someone ever invents something better than the automobile, I wonder if it will have a name that ties it to cars?

      It’s great to think of you and Domer following the trains together. He may not be reminiscing about those times yet, but the day will come when he’ll think of them as fondly as we do.


  9. ♪Down by the station early in the morning, hear the little pufferbellies all in a row♫ I can hear my 32 year old singing it to me when she was five or younger.

    Rick’s grandfather worked the railroad in Arkansas, and his dad learned telegraphy as a grade schooler since he had to help out his own father to record messages at the station while his dad was tending to the labor of arriving and departing trains. It was a wonderful life and a hard life filled with responsibilities at all hours of the day and night.

    1. Georgette,

      Songs that are classics will endure, won’t they? Last week I heard a youngster singing about the Itsy-bitsy Spider. I still know the hand motions.

      I didn’t realize you have railroading in your family. It was – is – a hard life, fillled with responsibiities that are fulfilled mostly without notice. I’m in my renovated bunkhouse now, with the trains rolling by more or less regularly – at least one an hour, although there were three in one hour. This is going on all over the country, day and night, and for every accident we hear about, there are hundreds of thousands of runs made without incident. It’s the people that make that happen, and they’re worthy of admiration for it.

      One thing I have noticed in the short time I’ve been here is that I can tell the difference between a train made up of empty shipping containers and one pulling tank cars and such. The sound is different, even before I see the train. The heavy trains always have more than one engine, and they travel more slowly. More vibration, too.

      The best part is that engineers still toot their whistle for someone who waves to them.


  10. As always, lots to capture the imagination– and nostalgia, Linda. We also had a tall trestle. Once, my brother and I took some old railroad spikes that had been removed from a logging line that had been closed down and threw them off the trestle to watch them fall in the creek, far below. Little boy stuff. Not too long after that, the Southern Pacific detective showed up at our house and accused us of tearing up the railroad track to cause a train accident. That was fun. –Curt

    1. Hey, Curt –

      I’ve seen those Railroad Detectives in the movies. You can mess with the Sheriff or the Precinct Captain, but those railroad dudes? Bad news! I presume you got the dreaded Talking To and that was the end of it.

      It can be fun to throw things into canyons, far-away water and such. Unfortunately, in Houston we don’t have much opportunity for that sort of thing, so there’s always a genius who decides dropping something off a freeway overpass would be just the ticket. With Halloween coming, it’s time to watch for falling pumpkins.

      (I was going to say I never participated in such activities, but there was that year a pumpkin or two rolled down Marin Avenue. No, I didn’t do the rolling, but I confess I laughed.)


      1. The detective took one look at my “rail” skinny 11 year old brother and decided there was no way he could have pulled the spikes out of the ties… as Marshall indignantly pointed out to him. Still, we got the lecture about staying off the trestle. There was a narrow, open walkway under the trestle we couldn’t resist, however. Plus we had a “certain” reputation to live up to.

        Throwing things off over passes is a definitely no, no.

        Now rolling pumpkins down a street is just fun, Linda. After all, it is Halloween. –Curt

        BTW… My next blog will be the introduction for the book I am writing on Liberia.

    1. becca,

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I hope that smile’s still on your face!

      By the way – I’ve seen some really interesting trees on this trip. They’re “Interesting” in the same way the post office oak is interesting – historical. General Custer, Zebulon Pike, George Sibley and a whole lot of anonymous trail bosses all were involved with trees in one way or another. I’m not going to get involved with Sunday Trees, but I’ll have a word or two about them for sure!


      1. I know I would enjoy seeing those wise guardians …

        I forgot to mention …we live a block from train track … as much as I love trains and sounds, it was a bit disconcerting when we first moved in our house … now, I no longer hear them in the middle of the night until I am reminded by company. :D

        When I was young, I traveled by train from New Orleans to North Carolina for 10 summers for summer camp. Loved it.

        1. Ten summers in NC? Lucky girl! I got to go about two hours away – though I confess I remember it all fondly, and had a good time. Now and then I read the few letters from camp that my mom had kept. Pretty funny stuff.

  11. Linda, you never cease to amuse and amaze me. This post had to have taken a LOT OF WORK. Writing it and then getting the music, the photos of the old trains, the scenes from the western countryside, and then putting it all into a slide show. THAT was some work. You have such a vast supply of people with whom you are connected. That speaks volumes of how much you mean to people. This is one of your best posts. The slide show is excellent as well as your choice of music. This is a really fine post. Travel on lady Linda and may you return home safe and sound.


    1. Yvonne,

      Oh, look at me, being so late with a response to your comment. I’ll just plead vacation – there’s way too much to enjoy around here and it tempts me away from the computer. There certainly are delights I never imagined. Buffalo, for example. And guys painting in the middle of the country – but more about all that later, once I’m home and have had time to sort it all out.

      This is one of my favorite posts, too. The hardest part was figuring out that darned video. It took a good while, but I enjoyed the process. I have another in mind, but I think it will be a winter project, when I have more time.

      As for being connected to people – sometimes, it just takes asking. I didn’t know Hal Cannon at all, but I emailed him, explained what I wanted to do, and asked permission to use the song. It was given, gladly. I used to be afraid to contact people like that, but one day I figured out the worst that could happen is that they would say “no”. That’s not the worst thing in the world.

      I’m really glad you enjoyed it.I’ve heard from the kitty sitter, by the way. Ms. Dixie isn’t happy, but she’s eating, drinking and being a tidy cat, so we’ll see what happens when I make an appearance again!


      1. Thanks Linda, for the lovely reply. I surely will look foward to another video since this one turned out so good. Actaully extremely good.

        About Ms Dixie. She is apparently very attached to you. Cats pout as I’ve noted that in my most favprite and spoiled ones. People think that animals have not much going on in those small brains but I know better and so do you. They can be just like a chlld acting out.

        May you have continued safe travels with lots to tell us in new posts.

        I’ll have to see if I can put together a dog and cat video one of these days. But I don’t expect I’ll have any luck but I’ll sure try. :-)

  12. Your wonderful post stirred up a lot of memories that go a long, long ways back, and ones that cannot be made today. Our more recent generations are missing a lot!

    1. montucky,

      Indeed, they are. One of the thoughts that’s been rattling around in my head is that for decades (even centuries?) technological advances made it possible for people to be more active, more in control of their lives. Now? It seems that technology is leading people to be increasingly passive.

      There’s no question active involvement in life can bring real rewards. For example – I’ve learned over the past couple of days that if I run outdoors when I hear another train coming, and wave to the engineer, he’ll toot his horn. What tv program can compete with that?


  13. My sister & I used to crawl under the freight train, sometimes while it was rolling slowly to a stop at the depot. This was to avoid the long, long walk around at the end of the train, just to get to the drug store for cherry cokes & funny books…

    1. Lindy Lee,

      Oh, gosh.I have a friend who used to do that, too. Now, she rolls her eyes and says, “We could have died!” But of course she didn’t, and you didn’t, and 99.9% of the kids who did that, didn’t.

      Besides, for cherry cokes and funny books? Clearly it was worth the risk!


  14. One of my earliest memories is riding the Santa Fe train to Houston with my dad. We rode in the Pullman car. My mom worked for a number of years as a secretary for the attorney who represents ATSF here. We used to have a train depot here, but it closed and was made into a restaurant. After the restaurant closed, it was made into the Buddy Holly Center.

    When I was in Germany in the 70’s I rode trains all over Europe and the UK. It is, to my mind, a much more civilized and rational way to travel, never mind less expensive. Unfortunately, the US was very short sighted to let its train infrastructure go to pot, particularly it’s passenger train service.

    1. WOL,

      I just hate seeing so many depots closed – the visible sign of the degradation of our train travel. You’re exactly right, about the short-sightedness of our policy re:rail transportation. I love a good road trip in the car, but I suspect I’d be on the train in a minute if we had a system even half as good as Europe’s.

      About twenty miles up the road, in a little town called Strong City, there’s a crumbling old depot. They do have a caboose in the city “park”, though. There were some kids there when I drove through the other night, and today when I passed by I saw ghosts and goblins and scarecrows all around the caboose. It was nice to see.

      Those kids may not travel by train, but they know trains. The same sixty or so freights that pass by my back door here roll through their town on the same tracks. I’ll bet they get to hear the whistles, too.


  15. I knew exactly which song to which you were referring about the puffer bellies. We had a collection of Wee Sing cassettes and songbooks when my children were little, and they memorized all those little old American ditties, including that one.

    I grew up with trains in Bossier City. One of my mom’s friends lived about two houses from the tracks and about two blocks from the crossing on the main boulevard, and I never understood how she could ignore those train whistles. How in the world could a baby take a nap? How can you sleep? Even though our home was in a newer subdivision, further from downtown, we could still hear the train whistles at the each crossing about six blocks away.

    In fifth grade band, the train whistle started blowing, only about a block away, and the instructor said, “Bring me that baritone, quick!” So the kid raced to the front, handed him the baritone, and the teacher said, “E flat”, and then proceeded to blow an E flat, perfectly matching the tone of the whistle. As fifth graders, new to the band, his perfect pitch was lost on us. I’m not even sure we thought that was cool, having grown up around train whistles, the sound was just, well, rather boring. But his quirky action made an impression on me, because now I can’t hear a train whistle without wondering if it’s E flat or not!!!! Great post, Linda! Happy train travels!

    1. Bayou Woman,

      You know, some things are regional, like gumbo or biscuits and gravy, but some things are American, and it seems as though kids’ songs belong in that category. The Pufferbelly song has been around for decades, in every part of the country. For some reason, that makes me happy.

      I’m a little surprised myself at how quickly I’ve become accustomed to the sound of the train.It’s much like the grandmother clock I have. When I first had it fixed and it started chiming every quarter hour, I heard it all the time. Now? I walk over to it now and then to be sure it’s still running – I can go for hours without hearing it.

      That band instructor’s little lesson is really something. I’m impressed that he recognized it as E flat! I wonder if he did some experimenting ahead of time, just to impress you. It would have impressed me, for sure – and you still remember it, so he did a pretty good job of impressing you,. too!

      Tomorrow, I leave the trains behind and head west. I haven’t a clue what I’ll find – but I’ll let you know!


  16. My first train ride was just five years ago at the age of 57… I went from Southern, CA, to Chicago. That was a really big deal for myself. Since then we have been to Washington a few times and to New Mexico. It’s in my blood now…

    1. Roberta,

      Better late than never, as the saying goes. Did you happen to ride the California Zephyr? I love the name of that line – with all of its suggestions of breezy travel. The only downside I can think of when it comes to trains is the inability to poke around. When I traveled through New Mexico by car, there were so many experiences I would have missed if I’d been on a train.

      Still, if there’s a destination involved and not exploration, train is the best.


  17. Great post Linda. It brought back some childhood memories, too. Like the comment from Lynda, as kids we would hide in the culverts along the track, too. (Must have been some left there for later use, because they were not yet under the track, but rather in a row about 6′ from the tracks). The train yard used by the Rockville division of the Cold Spring Granite Company was “our backyard”, less than a block from our house. I remember getting to ride in the engine once when the train was switching flatcars for the granite. I also remember my mom having to run out sometimes to bring in the wash from the drying lines when the steamer was coming through. Depending on the wind, the “Puffer-belly” would put out a cloud that drifted our way and dotted the laundry with soot!

    1. Daniel,

      Love the story of your mom having to pull in the laundry. It was like having to beat the rain, with the big difference that washing and drying would be needed if she wasn’t quick enough, not just a second drying.

      I’m going to make a run through the train yards here in Dodge City before I leave town this morning. There’s something really compelling about all the activity, and not a little romance in thinking of those trains taking off for their destinations.

      No granite here, but plenty of grain, coal, tank cars with who-knows-what insside, and of course cattle. Driving west is so interesting. It’s a different world, for sure. Yucca’s starting to pop up, and I’m going to visit a very special town today – a prairie dog town down in the SW corner of Kansas.


  18. The I.C. was my teenage escape route to the “big city.” Now, the absolute best way to travel between NYC and where we are is the train–Metro-North’s Hudson Line, which has a commanding view of the big river all the way along. Yup, train travel is the best, and I wish we had more of it in the US.

    1. Susan,

      I was amazed on my first trip to NYC to discover how easy it was to get around on the subways – and trains to places like the Cloisters.
      You’re right – we need more trains, but of course in a corridor like yours they make sense. Out here in the middle of the country, things are more complex. Still, you would think connections between even middling towns would be more possible. I’ve seen too many falling-down depots.


  19. Boyfriend loves trains. We’ve ridden on the steam train from Los Angeles to San Diego, feeling its gears and muscles beneath, watching the smoke disappear down the track, listening to the bell. Everyone seems to know when the train will pass; we always saw them waiting with cameras – even tripods – ready and waiting.

    And no matter what kind of train it is, people will always wave – and what kind of rider doesn’t feel obligated to wave back?

    1. aubrey,

      It’s amazing to me, the strength of the connection between riders and watchers. The crews, too, seem to sense that they’re participating in something larger than themselves. They seem to love to wave, to sound the horn, to chat with bystanders when that’s possible. When UP844 stopped in Houston, one of the engineers talked a bit about the immense pleasure he gets introducing people to “his train” – especially the children.

      It’s wonderful that you have opportunity to ride – and that you’re sweet enough to wave back!


  20. I’m definitely with yvonne, this post was a lot of work well done!. I do like to hear about your childhood moments with your parents and particularly your dad, it does seem you had a special bond. And the way you weave them into a wider subject.

    I got very excited by all the trains in this post…one of the best ways to travel full stop. We were always fascinated by the slowness of trains in the US and the fact that you could actually jump on a moving one occasionally!

    It has sparked memories of some memorable journeys for me – one of the best being the working steam train which used to go across the Thar desert to Jaisalmer in Northern India. That was really exciting watching the dawn come up over the desert and coughing on the cinders! I wonder if it has been replaced by a diesel. I’ve recently been in France and travelled on a double decker TGV (the really fast ones) which was amazing, so civilised. In fact, near where my brother lives the TGV goes under a little bridge in the countryside. We like to stand and wave to the driver who usually sounds the trains whistle. The whoosh of that beast travelling at 180mph right underneath you is really something :)

    When we went to Poland in the late 90’s the trains were incredible, probably still are. I know they still have working steam trains, not just preserved ones. We were on a cycle tour and we were really impressed that there was space on every train to put your bicycle..never mind our total incomprehension of the language, I know a bike rack when I see one!

    It does seem a shame that the US has neglected the rail system, it seems like the most ideal place for high speed rail travel. Here the trains aren’t bad but it is very expensive unless you plan ages in advance. Sometimes when I go to London though I like to get the bus at the top of the road which takes me to Exeter then I catch the slow train to Waterloo (in a pre booked Ist class ticket, v cheap!) It takes the best part of a day but I always arrive unfrazzled and looking forward to an evening with friends.

    Hope your trip is going well.

    1. thinkingcowgirl,

      Ah, yes. Riding the rails. There still are people who hop freights, but it’s not as easy as it once was. It’s partly because of increased security, partly because of the disintegration of the rail system and partly because the divide between those who are in charge of the system and those who’d like to make use of it as part of their life-style has grown into a chasm. In my grandparents’ day (and even my folks’), hopping a freight was often just a good way to get to the Saturday night dance two towns over, and no one thought a thing of it.

      Your train stories are fabulous. I had a friend who was Peace Corps India, and he had a few stories himself. I’ve never thought for one second about the development of rail travel in Europe, but it would be interesting to compare the development of rail there and in this country. I’m sure both geography and culture played far greater roles than any differences in technology.

      From the evidence rolling along behind my lodging in Kansas, the rail freight business is doing just fine. Now, we need to find a way to provide useful transportation for people – and not just those silly light rail systems beloved of so many developers (who just happen to own the real estate where the tracks would be laid.)

      My trip has been as nearly perfect as a trip could be. I’m on my way home now, although that in itself is a bit of a journey. I’ve never driven from the top of the Texas panhandle south. It’s as much of a commitment as going across the state east to west – though there have been fabulous sights to see, and the need for photo-taking, hiking and general messing around does slow things down a bit!


  21. I’ve been ~~~whooshed~~~ back to my childhood, lying on the fold down couch in the living room at my grandmother’s and hearing the mournful wail of a train whistle in the small hours of the night. It would come closer and closer and then there’d be the rumble of the wheels on the track as it passed.

    Up until I was about 12 or so, Mama’s mama lived lived with her unmarried son and daughter in Greenville, SC, just around the corner from the Saco Lowell mill, where my aunt worked. There was a RR track behind the houses across the street. Gramma could judge about what time of day or night it was, from when the trains passed.

    I thought it was the biggest thrill to see and hear that train, when we were up for visits. I’d had no experience with trains, other than the occasional hold up of traffic to let a train pass, when we were on the road going out of town to visit family.

    The train at Gramma’s was probably not a steam powered train but I didn’t know any different. Nor did I care.

    1. Gué,

      The only – ONLY! – thing I might fault with the trains that passed by Matfield Station is that there weren’t any crossings nearby. There wasn’t any reason for them to slow down or sound their whistles, so I had to depend on the amount of rumble and the Doppler effect to figure out whether the trains were north-or-southbound, and what they were pulling. Even in the little villlage of Matfield Green, the tracks cross the highway on an old stone trestle, so it would take a strong south wind to blow sound up to town. All I got was northerlies.

      Your Gramma would have been kept busy at Matfield Station. There were so many trains I stopped trying to figure out whether the sixty per day they claim is right. It’s close, for sure. The ones I liked the best were the long, heavy ones that had engines on both ends. Whether the end engines were pushing, I can’t say. They may have been along for the ride. But those trains really shook things up!

      You’re right that it really doesn’t make any difference whether it’s steam of diesel. For a real treat, look at Aaron Hockley’s train sets on his Flickr page. He was kind enough to let me use a few steam train photos in the video, but his other work is splendid. Having tried to get a few photos of trains myself now, I know how hard it is – you not only need more than a point-and-shoot, you need a good bit of knowledge and enough patience to find a good location and wait. It’s rather like birding, now that I think of it.

      I’m drinking coffee in Abilene this morning, and hoping to be home tonight. Not being able to drive at night complicates things a bit in these shortening days, but I’ll give it a shot. Given the weather forecast for Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma, my impulse to turn and make a run for it was the right one!


  22. I grew up knowing a lot of “train collectors” or “he has trains” (Sort of like “Dances With Wolves”) and I’ve known some passionate train chasers, too! Given the opportunity I will stop to take photos of trains. There is a track close enough to me now that it can be very loud depending on the wind direction.

    I love the graffiti and the faded rusty colors of the cars and tanks. And I do miss riding them like we used to when we wanted to go to Chicago from downstate IL. That was magic time.

    1. Martha,

      It was interesting to me that the trains passing my place in Kansas had no graffiti. I might have missed a car or two, but they mostly were spic-and-span. On the other hand, the trains carried mostly shipping containers, which implies a more protected environment than for tank cars, coal cars and such that sit on sidings where artists can get to them.

      One of my mother’s great regrets in life is that she never let my dad buy me a model train set. That wasn’t something girls played with, you see. Girls play with dolls, etc. etc. She realized too late that (1) the train set would have been mostly for dad, and (2) I developed an affinity for trains anyway. As she told me decades later, if I’d had a model train set to play with at home, I might have stayed away from the trestles!


  23. Thanks Linda,

    I, too, am a train person. The rock of a train is so primal and relaxing. I find myself dreaming while on trains, sometimes while asleep. We are getting a light rail transit in our smallish city and I look forward to moving from bus to rail, although LRT is not yet the rail experience of which you write so eloquently.


    1. Allen,

      What a wonderful, truthful line: “I find myself dreaming while on trains, sometimes while asleep”. Some of that same half-hypnotic state can be induced by long distance auto travel, at least for me. Especially in places where there isn’t another car for twenty or thirty miles at a time, the mind wanders in interesting ways.

      On this trip, a fellow in a café asked me who I thought would be the perfect traveling companion. I pondered that in the days that followed, and one name that came to mind was Paul Tillich. What better example of “the eternal now” than an auto caught between past and future on an empty highway?


  24. I’ve always loved trains, not just for the opportunity to travel, and all that represents, but for the feel, the sound, and the soul of them. Sadly, in the 1970’s, the great majority of train lines were removed across the country (Australia) and now train travel is more restricted. Mind you, the memories are still there. One day, I’m promising myself, I’ll take a trip on the Ghan – http://www.greatsouthernrail.com.au/site/the_ghan.jsp
    I do remember seeing the original Ghan train when I first lived and worked in the Outback – if only I had some photos from that time.
    Good tidings on your trip, it’s sounding wonderful!

    1. eremophila,

      I’m home now – arrived last night. It’s time to start sorting through all of the experiences and impressions – and photos! – and find an interesting way to share a bit of it all.

      I’m a little surprised that you lost so much of your rail capacity, too. And I hadn’t heard of the Ghan train. What an experience working in the Outback must have been. Every time I hear the word Outback, I don’t think of our steakhouse chain, but of a chapter in Paul Theroux’s book about “The Happy Isles of Oceania” titled, “Walkabout in Woop-Woop”. That may be the best title ever, exotic and alliterative all at once.

      When you take that trip on the Ghan, we’ll be right here, ready to travel along with you!


  25. I enjoyed your reflections. I’ve traveled a lot in my life–way more than any person reasonably ought to–but I’ve never ridden a train. Well, other than a subway train or the train at Tweetsie Railroad, which is pulled by a steam engine and is robbed by outlaws and attacked by Indians on every trip.
    But I do love songs about trains. And the wreck of the Old ’97 happened in Danville, Virginia, my hometown. So I do have that I reckon. :)

    1. Bill,

      I didn’t realize these miniature/amusement park railroads were so common. Recently, there was a photo of one posted here. I noticed in the comments a reference to the Line Creek Railroad – turns out it’s in Kansas City, Missouri. I think that’s on the agenda for my next trip up to see my aunt.

      From what I can tell, none of these have outlaws and Indians, though. They don’t have such cool engines, and they don’t have acronyms nearly as amusing as the parody names for the ET&WNC!

      Neat that you’ve got that connection to the wreck of Old 97. That’s one of the greatest train songs ever, at least in my estimation.


        1. I can’t believe it. You woman-about-town, you. Well, kid-around-town, I suppose. I got entranced with the thing just looking at the page. What fun! If I ever get your direction, we’ll go ride the Tweetsie Railroad together!

          1. Good grief. Maggie Valley and the Tweetsie RR sure have changed a LOT since the last time Mama and Daddy took us up there. That was back in the mid to late 60’s. It was pretty basic back then. Just the train and the town. They’d have a shootout in the town streets a couple of times a day but there really wasn’t all that much going on.

  26. My wife, who is Irish, comes from a long line of railroad workers. It was a huge part of family history, pride, and personal identification. The Irish, and others, partially built this country, laying tracks, expanding civilization.

    I sometimes tease my wife that her family was partially responsible for my families demise, being of part Native American descent.

    1. WildBill,

      It’s marvelous to look back over the various groups who’ve come here and contributed so greatly, like your wife’s ancestors. Just as a note, I learned on my trip that the workers who lived in my bunkhouse while it still was railroad housing were Mexican. And many other workers in Texas were Italian, brought here specifically to work on the railroad. There were some Irish here, and also some Chinese. From what I’ve read, those two groups didn’t get along so well and the Chinese moved elsewhere.

      I learned a bit about the Kaw while I was in Kansas. So many tribes, and so much sad history. On the other hand, it seems to me that the values and insights of native cultures are gaining increased attention and respect. It’s about time.


  27. Quite a special post for me, Linda. I still remember as a very young child being taken by my mother to the station to see big black steam trains, when we still lived in England. Just a few years later, after arriving in Sydney, I rode the trams (streetcars) during their last year of service. I seek out steam trains and trams wherever I travel now.

    1. Andrew,

      It’s really fascinating for me to hear of people like you having similar experiences with trains as a child. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising at all, but it’s one of those things I just never have thought about. When we learned about other countries in school, our lessons tended toward geography and history, not transportation – although transportation systems were so key in opening nations for exploration and development.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I’m eager now to share what some of my roaming around opened up for me!


    1. Ellen,

      That’s so interesting. My father’s parents came to this country separately (though on the same ship!), met in Minneapolis, married and moved to Iowa. He was a miner rather than a railroad worker, but I suspect there were parallels in your grandparents’ story and mine.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Now I’m home, and it’s time to move on. It was such a delight to spend nearly half of October in places where autumn is so colorful. I have less leaf-envy this year!


    1. Tom,

      I have to confess the diesels at Matfield Station did well enough as a substitute, especially since the engineers seem inclined to sound the horn for the silly people out there waving madly at them.

      Besides, I discovered that “rocking along” takes on a whole new meaning in your state. It seemed everywhere I looked, rocks were important for one reason or another – as you so well know. I did enough clambering up embankments and rocks for better shots that I thought about you a lot – how in the world you photographers manage to get your equipment in those places is beyond me. I’ve a new appreciation for physical fitness as a requirement for your work!


  28. I love hearing about the music of your life, Linda. You have had a vivid history of them! I don’t have much experience with trains, though a little bit with short metro rides here and there.

    I did want to tell you that I met my new dental hygienist who, for some reason, reminds me of you. She looks a lot like you in that photo you’ve posted here or there. And something about her manner and turns of phrases made me want to call her Linda and not Lisa!

    I saw your comment on the Wimsey post about the tall tall grasses that you’ve waded through in the prairies. Oh, how he’d love that! And if there were lizards to chase, he’d be thrilled. May your journey be all that you’d hoped for and more.

    1. nikkipolani,

      I just love the story about your dental hygienist – not only for the lovely fact that you thought of me, but also because it’s one of those little vingiettes that puts the lie to the silly statement that blogging’s not “real”, and that we aren’t “real” to one another. As I was traveling, I was quite astonished by the number of times the thought, “She’d love to see this” or “He’d really be interested in this” crossed my mind, and in each instance I was thinking of one of my readers.

      I didn’t see a single lizard on my trip, but I did see grasshoppers and crickets galore, which might do equally well for Wimsey. I saw buffalo roaming, too, and deer and antelope playing. Quite comforting to know those bits from the old song still are alive and well.

      I’m home now, and trying desperately to sort through all of the photos, memories and impresions for a first post. The photos are done, so I suspect I’ll post today. I’m so eager to share, but don’t want to end up with nothing more than a blog version of “Hey! Wanna see these photos from my vacation?!” ;)


      1. Oh, I don’t know. Would it be so bad to throw a few photos on the blog and tell which ones reminded you of which friends? Either way, we’ll be waiting for you to share your vacation treasures.

  29. My, what an outpouring of feeling and memory this post has evoked! I am getting my husband to read and listen to it. He has been a steam train freak since boyhood – and still is….

    1. Anne,

      And I learned from my readers that the very first pufferbelly, “Puffer Billy” is in a London Museum. No doubt your husband has seen him. It’s really quite an attraction, half wonderful, steam-punkish machine and half toy. Trains do seem able to evoke feeling even in people who otherwise don’t give a thought to such machines. I think part of it is that they’re still so accessible. We may stand in awe of space launches, but we can ride on a train. ;)


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