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  • July 24th, 2020


By Joel M. Vance


Karl Miller and I were returning from Chicago’s Loop when we missed our stop on an Illinois Central commuter train near our south side room in a threadbare apartment hotel where we would exit the train, eat a $0.95 dinner in a rundown restaurant virtually under the elevated rail track, then trek back to our shabby room where we would watch wrestling on a rented-for-the summer- black-and-white television set.


We were on a great adventure before returning to college at the University of Missouri, a couple of hicks adrift in the big city. Our stop was near the University of Chicago, but somehow we missed it and the train rocketed on East, drawing ever farther from our $0.95 dinner.


“This is an express and there ain’t no more stops till the end of the line,” the conductor told us. We passed through street numbers in the seventies, eighties, and on up seemingly into infinity. I began to suspect that we would exit Illinois into Indiana and on ever eastward until we reached the Atlantic Ocean and, for all I knew, would be impressed on a ship heading towards Europe, with a commander whose last name was Bligh, and who had a parrot perched on his shoulder  that squawked at us, “stupid Missouri hicks, didn’t your mama tell you there ain’t no more stops between here and hell?”


This was at a time when the Kingston Trio had a best-selling record about Charlie on the Boston Metropolitan Transit Authority being trapped forever on a commuter train: “Did he ever return?/ No he never returned/and his fate is still unlearned.” I could see us as the Chicago version of Charlie.


Ultimately, we reached the end of the line where the conductor muttered a hearty farewell which sounded like “stupid hicks!” Although I may have misunderstood and he was merely thanking us for brightening his day by riding his beautiful train all the way to the end.


Despite the trauma of this incident, I have been fascinated by trains since childhood. You remember trains? They were these enormous things that rode on rails and went “woo woo” at road crossings. The age of the train, alas, is no more. Grass grows between the ties and what few rails remain are rusty, unpolished by the steel wheels that used to buff them as they rolled past. Well, you probably don’t remember trains unless you are well past the half century mark.


Rail lines spiderwebbed the United States long before there were such things as automobiles and, certainly, long before there were any airplanes. There is a famous silent movie starring Buster Keaton as a Confederate train engineer during the Civil War (in itself, enough, these days to be politically incorrect) fleeing pursuing Union soldiers. Railroad trains were vital during the Civil War and among the first duties of a military campaign, was to capture or otherwise compromise the enemy’s rail system.


In addition to Keaton’s “The General” trains have been featured in a number of famous movies. Alfred Hitchcock created two of them—one where he had two guys plot to kill each other’s relatives in “Strangers On a Train” and another in the closing scene of “North by Northwest” which was Hitchcock’s idea of a dirty joke–the train being a phallic symbol as it enters a tunnel.


And who can forget Jack Lemmon partying in the upper bunk of a sleeper car with Marilyn Monroe and a bunch of girls in “Some Like It Hot”? Burt Lancaster was the engineer of “The Train” filled with Nazi looted art, not girls which he and French resistance fighters were trying to keep from being sent to Germany


The Great Depression was the heyday of the hobo, more glamorously called a “knight of the road”, a guy (and virtually all were male) who hopped a freight train from wherever he was, maybe in search of a more lucrative life, or because, like the earlier mountain men, he merely wanted to see what was on the other side of where he wasn’t.


One of them was an uncle, my mother’s brother, who vanished from his Northwest Wisconsin home and was never seen again. My father hired a private detective who found that a man with my uncle’s identification, had either fallen or been thrown from a train somewhere out West. That’s where the mystery ended for the family who never knew whether Myron Soper had become a victim of an accident or murder. 


(Here’s a frightening thought for you if you believed that the incidence of collisions between people and trains has almost vanished, given the decline of railroads in general, a website called Operation Lifesaver claims that about every three hours in the United dates a person or a vehicle is hit by a train.)


Apparently peripatetic uncles run in the family because one of my great uncles walked out of his Missouri farmhouse one day and didn’t return for a decade. At least he came home, and the way I heard it, he never told anyone where he had been or why he left in the first place.


How the mighty have fallen. Riding a passenger train in the old days was a transformative experience, like being Queen for a day.  Comfort was the name of the game. You ate in a dining car, attended by helpful waiters, eating excellent gourmet quality food with heavy silverware off real plates.  Fresh-brewed coffee came in a stainless pot, as much as you wanted. Real cloth napkins were freshly folded.


In a sleeper car you could clamber into an upper or lower bunk just about wide enough for a fairly small NBA point guard, stuff your shoes in a mesh sling and drift off to sleep, lulled there by the clickety clack of the wheels rolling over rail joints. Really rich folks opted for a compartment which, as I recall, featured a tiny bathroom and foldout bunks. It was in  one of those that Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint cavorted (theoretically) as Hitchcock’s phallic train plunged into a tunnel


The last time I rode on a train, from Jefferson City to St. Louis, transferring to a second train to Chicago, not from a cavernous and ornate railroad terminal, but from a sun struck, shabby, and dirty platform. The setting seemed symbolic of what has happened to train travel since I was a youngster.  Food service had become what you brought with you and the whole experience had the taint of riding in a third world Hooterville Trolly in company with livestock, people dining out of paper bags, and a pervasive locker room fug.


Travel to my first job after college, Macon Missouri to Montgomery Alabama, involved a tinge of what has become modern train travel. I got on a train in La Plata, Missouri, a fly speck on the map, and transferred in the middle of the night to a train in Nashville heading farther south, befuddled, sleepy, exhausted and scared and wanting my mommy–actually, I wanted my fiancé, Marty, who, after we became a married couple, would join me in the last couple of train rides I have taken in the 64 years since.


After a short stint in Montgomery, it was time for me to enliven the United States Army with my presence at Fort Bliss, Texas. I hopped a different train in La Plata and as far as I remember there were no midnight hour transfers and the whole thing was an exercise in train travel right out of the glory years with dining car waiters, outstanding food, and first-class comfort.


I remember a good night sleep and early in the morning going to the dining car and sipping a cup of rich coffee somewhere in the Southwest and, as the train rocketed closer to El Paso, I saw paratroops landing on the sere plains we were bypassing. Either we were being invaded or I was closing in on my Army career. Apparently they were friendlies because I never heard anything about a surprise attack from the air.


The most memorable train trip I ever will take was from Sioux Falls South Dakota, to Spokane, Washington, on the Empire Builder. It was at the same time a mixture of the old and the new. Fortunately, it started with the new  and transitioned to the old. I boarded the Empire Builder in the middle of the night on a bare wooden platform in Sioux Falls. But after that the entire trip was glorious.


The Empire Builder is one of the gems of Amtrak and pays homage to the glory years of passenger railroading. From Sioux Falls, it plunges northward into North Dakota where it makes an abrupt left turn and heads across the endless Dakota wheatlands near the Canadian border until it reaches the incomparable Rocky  Mountains and Glacier National Park.


I sat in the domed observation car sipping a drink of scotch whiskey, lightly flavored with water and I could see through the window the front of the train curving around the shoulder of the mountain ahead of us and I could peer into the depths of a mountain gorge and pray that this was not the day the train decided to topple sideways into the abyss.


This was train travel from a dream and I hoped it would never end, but all train rides do eventually (except that damnable Illinois Central commuter train ride to the end of the line).


In 1948 we moved from Chicago to Dalton , Missouri, and  railroad trains became alarmingly part of our lives. We settled into a decrepit 17 room former railroad hotel that once had catered to traveling salesmen, overnighting in Dalton.


The decrepit hotel, bought by my father’s business partner in a moment of fiscal insanity, was our home because it was the only Missouri home we had a financial interest in. It also was directly across the dirt street from the town’s tiny depot and the rail tracks themselves, thus insuring a midnight interruption of sleep when a freight rolled through Dalton en route to who knows where?  The first night the sound of a rumbling freight was so close by that I thought the locomotive  might come through the window and get in bed with me.


You get used to it. After some time enduring nighttime visits from trains, sleep interruption became a distant memory. In my teen years I would sit at night on the crumbling deck and play my guitar and sing in pale imitation of my country music hero, Jimmie Rodgers, the father of country music who started his work life back in the nineteen twenties as a railroad brakeman until tuberculosis sidelined him and he turned to singing as The Yodeling Brakeman.


Rodgers died May 26, 1933 in New York City where he recorded his last several songs virtually from his deathbed. A train carried him home to Meridian, Mississippi, as mourning fans gathered along the tracks all the way through the South,  saying goodbye as they, in the words of a Hank Williams song heard “that lonesome whistle blow”.


Railroad songs have been a cornerstone of country music almost since there were trains and people to sing about them. A few of us remember famous major league pitcher Dizzy Dean bellowing “The Wabash Cannonball” on ballgame telecasts. Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” celebrates the successful trip, but sometimes the songs are about ones that didn’t turn out so well. Think of “The Wreck of the Old 97” as the anthem of ill-fated trips. Fortunately, all mine have been successful in getting from where I was to where I wanted to be, although these days the trip often is far from luxurious.


Some years ago Goodman, composed “The City of New Orleans” (a train song) and wrote for David Allen Coe what Coe considered the perfect country song. The last verse goes this way: 


“Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison/


And I went to pick her up in the rain./


But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck/


She got runned over by a damned old train.”


Most everything is gone now. The wandering uncles are gone, the old railroad hotel is gone, Dalton is almost totally gone, and the glory years of passenger railroading have nearly vanished into the memories of romantics like me. Now I ride my bicycle on what used to be the MKT, the Katy Trail, the nation’s longest rails to trails conversion. No more do glamorous passenger trains snake their way through the Missouri River Valley–just bicycles.


But I think the days when trains were more than dream vehicles need an elegy. A hundred and five years ago an eight-year-old African-American girl wrote a song that might be the anthem for those who love trains the way they used to be. Elizabeth Cotton was 90 years old before she introduced it to the public:




“Freight train freight train running so fast/

Freight train freight train running so fast/

 Please don’t tell what train I’m on/

So they won’t know what route I’ve gone.”





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