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Train Travels with Myself
Part One

I have always loved trains. They have intrigued and excited me since the little boy years, watching western movies with the steam locomotives and their inverted conical smoke stacks. About that time “Streamliners” were making their appearance, but they did not offer the visceral thrill of seeing a puffer belly belching smoke and steam going down the tracks. Recently, we watched a documentary by Michael Palin, former Monte Python member, about train travel in Great Britain, predominantly with steam trains.

My first experience as a passenger was when I was ten or eleven. World War II had just ended and we had moved from Maryland to the New Jersey shore. My mother took me along on a shopping trip to New York City. This involved my dad driving us to the train station in Red Bank, and nervous parental scans of the printed timetable during the five-mile journey in our ’39 Chev from our home in Rumson.

We were early. I think that even today the propensity for always being early for public transportation is still adhered to my brain like cerebral duct tape.

While mother read the Daily News, I ventured to the tracks (never daring to cross the painted yellow line between them and the platform) and leaned out watching for the train of the Jersey Central Railroad. Then in the distance, the unforgettable whistle, lonely but demanding. Soon puffs of smoke and finally the black hulk of the engine came into view, steam erupting from its flanks in intermittent blasts and a bronze bell now visibly ringing from behind the stack.

In those days, one could open the windows, but having done so I was rightfully admonished to close it immediately as we gained speed and ashes and dust were sucked into the car and onto our velveteen covered seats.

We stopped at a place called South Amboy, about 30 miles from home, where the steam engine was detached and replaced by an silent electric counterpart. The short ride to the Big Apple was less jerky and more quiet.

It was explained that in the New York metro area, steam engines were not allowed.

I had several rides on that train in my youth, but the biggie came in 1952 when I was off to Missoula to college. The steam engines were gone by then and a diesel took my father and me to the big station in Newark. There I boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad “Trailblazer” to Chicago. Pretty fancy digs. After a layover, including change of stations, I got the Milwaukee RR’s “Olympian Hiawatha” direct to Missoula. Oh, how posh! I rode coach class which made the old Pennsy of my youth a thatch hut in comparison. Dinner in the diner included fresh flowers in a vase, linen tablecloth and napkins, heavy silverware that probably was not silver but looked that way. Crystal glassware, and strangers as dining partners. One filled out the menu du jour with check marks choosing things like prime rib, chicken a la something, salad with many choices of dressing, scrumptious desserts.

The Hiawatha was diesel-driven all the way across the nation until it got to the mountains. At Harlotown, Montana, there was an engine change to electric, for more efficient and cheaper (said the porter) operation through the Rockies. Until then, the biggest mountains I had ever seen were the Poconos in Pennsylvania—from a bus. I was awed by the terrain we went over, under and through. I was impressed by there being only a single track out west compared to multiples between New York and Chicago.

It was probably the golden age of rail transport. I was able the following year to ride Great Northern’s “Empire Builder” back to Chicago. An equally quality ride with extravagant accommodations and service. Not only that, but “Stewardess Sue” was aboard, in a uniform to answer any questions. It was on this journey that an experienced train traveler gave me advice that was to be of value in the years to come. “Most people,” he said, “Leave or give a tip to the porter at the end of the ride. Don’t do that. Tip him, tip more than you can afford and then add a few dollars to that. It’s a long trip and you’ll be rewarded for your generosity.”

I followed his advice when years later I boarded the Amtrak/Union Pacific from Los Angeles to New York.

Those episodes will be part two of Train Travels with Myself.


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Have a comment? >>

Thanks for sharing your railroad travel memories, Bob. I too love trains and not having a railroad nearby is something I miss living here. I drive to Tri-Cities periodically for work, and seeing a BNSF train on the Great Northern line is always a treat, as is the Milwaukee Road bridge over the Columbia R. at Beverly, one of Washington's engineering marvels, at least in the abandoned category. Perhaps you go that way sometimes for golf . . .

Scott Waichler


Bob: I'm a sucker for articles such as yours about trains! From late 1940s to mid-50s, I would travel on my own from Wenatchee to Spokane to spend two weeks in summer with one set of grandparents. Always depart Wenatchee at about 7:30 pm on the Empire Builder. One stop at Ephrata. Occasionally return on a "milk run" during the day which stopped for everything more important to pass us by. No fancy eatery on the low priority trains. Just seating at four bench compartments. Where I once bravely order a 10-cent glass of goat's milk. Came college days, it was the Empire Builder to/from Seattle (leave Wenatchee at 3:30 am if not late). When I moved to Western, then got off at Edmonds for the International to Vancouver BC. Came college breaks, unless on board at Seattle, it was usually standing room only to home. Steam engines were an entertainment into the late 40s in Wenatchee at the roundhouse. I was in the throng when the "new" Empire Builder with diesel engine pulled into Wenatchee on its inaugural trip from Seattle to Twin Cities. Wenatchee's elected and business leaders debarked to applause. The one comment most quoted, approximately? "I didn't know the train was moving out of the station; the coffee didn't spill, the ride was so smooth." My last train rides were between Washington, DC and Philadelphia in the mid-1990s on business. The speedy trains! Loved the space and comfort. I beat my colleagues who flew from Reagan Airport to Philly every time! I recently found my A. C. Gilbert American Flyer train set; a Christmas gift in the late 40s. My brother received a Lionel set. Haven't decided what to do with it yet in way of display.

Allen Gibbs

Mill Creek