Saturday, August 8, 2009

I Like Trains

My most memorable railroad experience was when my stepfather, at times a machinist by trade decided to build a 1.5 scale live-steam Union Pacific "Big Boy" locomotive in the basement. It was going to be BIG. It was going to be real steam, I mean that for real... hot steam. Just think of that. It would whistle and chug and have all sorts of amazing mountain-climbing power, and weight, and we could ride behind it.

He built a jig table for it with 2 x 8s running on edge distanced just right to accommodate the proper width of the scale track rail.

We owned five acres of woods with trees with dips and rises and rocks and all sorts of amazing terrain. I knew my way around that five acres pretty good as it was our land. Our land! So we walked it and put out small stakes with colored cloth to identify particular features. We knew where the trestle bridge was going to go. We knew where he would build the pond with the cascading water falls. We knew there would be lights, he was an electrician. We knew where, and exactly how large of a diameter would be allocated for the round table. A round table, such magic!

We wore black and white striped engineer’s caps. We listened to a Live Steam record on the stereo phonograph. It was exciting!

He poured a wheel out of concrete with a piece of pipe in the center of it and attached the handles from a dead lawn mower, the mower part having long been discarded, it was a neat use for handles. I helped him make this amazing tool. It was like having Popular Mechanics in the back yard. We now had a very nice roller, and we used it to roll the crushed stone roadbed, all eight feet of it that was our mock-up.

Then he went and had another idea.

The table lasted many years, too cumbersome for me and my brother to lift. Eventually it got knocked down and morphed into debris.

The eight foot of roadbed lasted longer as it was not particularly in the way. I missed the round table, I really had my heart set on it.

Too many years later I lugged the roller off to the county dump.

And the woods was, well, woods until it got sold and parceled out for house development.


My stepfather, who in his waning years insisted to be called Sante Fe, was born on the Seneca reservation at Salamanca in the Western area of New York State. In the photo of the camelback here the man standing 2nd over from the left with the Frenchie hat cocked on his head is his grandfather Joseph Follett. Joseph was a fire man, meaning he kept the locomotive in fuel. Joseph was married to a Seneca woman, and her father was a chief, though that has little to do with railroads. Salamanca, though, was a hub for a whole lot of railroad activity connected with the oil industry. There is an entire history to that in Sinclair Oil and associated with JD Rockefeller. [So that the few times I have worked on a historic preservation project associated with the Rockefellers I have felt that it is my history that I am engaged with... the most striking being work at JD Rockefeller’s boardroom in lower Manhattan. That is another story.]


Sante Fe in Korea got an assignment to run an industrial engine from one place across the country to another and for whatever reason it broke down and he and the two other soldiers that were with him refused to abandon the engine. They slept in the freezing cold and as a result my stepfather got frostbite to his feet, a problem that plagued him for the remainder of his life. He also got some bronze stars. Though he never told me about this incident, I learned it only a year ago from my mother, I do remember from when I was a kid black n’ white photos of him standing proudly, and handsome in front of a small steam locomotive. The engine looked something close to the one in this photo.


When we bought our house and my son was younger I had an idea that finally I could build an HO scale model railroad. Living in apartments had always made this desire seem temporary. I made a table for it in our front room. It was a large table and made moving around in the room difficult. I bought stuff, switches, lights, locomotives, neat railroad cars. I had an idea to expand on the White Mountain Central Railroad and to incorporate a cog rail system, an expansion of railroad as historic theme park. I meticulously assembled a few buildings and made them look old and weathered. I am proud of my ability to make model buildings look old and weathered. I laid track. We are near the Atlantic ocean and I learned that some kinds of track simply corrode in the salt air all by themselves. In the honorable tradition of our family, and seeing as my son did not seem to be equally infected with the railroading bug, and my working long hours, I stopped in mid stride.

I took up reading books about the demise of the American railroad system, quite an interesting story, actually. Books have beginnings and thankfully endings. When you end a book not many people take notice. When you do not quite end a model railroad layout it tends to linger. We continue to have remnants of that model project waiting in our background.


Steam Town is very kool, something of a large layout, but Railroad Tycoon, the computer game, taught me so much. It provided a simulation of ever increasing complexity of supply-demand pressures that build up to a point that suddenly everything collapses in a cascade of chaotic confusion. It gave me the idea to monitor our historic restoration business with real-time progress graphs -- up until 9/11 at least when all the emphasis seemed to switch over to airplanes. It also made the current economic recession seem fairly apparent as it approached, and the cascading collapse of our business and personal economic situation seems so, well, easily anticipated. We need to quit the game and start over fresh. I think next time I will concentrate on the lumber trade up near Montreal.

I met an old feller in a railroad museum in Altoona one day and when he inquired about my wandering around railroad experience I wanted to be more brief in a few words than here... he was a bit nonplussed that I got my railroading off a computer screen.


My second most memorable railroad experience was when I took the train from Chicago to New York expressly so that I could ride through Horseshoe Curve. I had been to visit the curve via automobile in the past, and my wife and son seemed a bit sleepy while I wanted to see one more train, just one more, please? So, though the trip was a long one and I had to sleep in my seat the penultimate experience was a very short one. I do remember looking out the window with my eyes and mouth open as we went around.


My least favorite railroad experience was on a cold and snowy winter day when a LIRR (Long Island Rail Road) train that I was a passenger on hit a car stopped at a crossing and killed all five family members in it. I have only been on a few trains that have ran into people [and when I am told that nuclear power is safe then I always wonder when the trains will stop hitting each other in the news]. We had to sit there for three hours and did not even get to see anything.

But I am also reminded of the celebratory drunk fellow on one pre-Christmas ride on the LIRR who when he realized he was on his way to Montauk lamented that he had meant to go to Philadelphia.