It was a long time ago when I saw my first big rumbling, black monster that steamed through town many times throughout each day. As I grew older I learned that they were hauling coal and other commodities endlessly up and down the tracks near my childhood home. Undoubtedly, I had felt the rumble and shaking even from my cradle but it wasn’t until I actually saw the billowing steam and grinding wheels, and smelled the burning cinder-filled smoke that left a slight burning sensation on my tender cheek, that I became fascinated by the very existence of these colossal giants.
During my earliest years we lived at the Louisa Inn which was just next to the tracks. That was a time when I struggled to even dress myself, or get down those high steps that led from the porch. I would run to see the heavy steel monsters as they roared by. It took several encounters before I noticed the engineer sitting in his window, peering out and watching the tracks ahead. When I saw mom wave at them on several of my trips outside, I mocked the action in hopes the engineer would spot me, too. I remember them making a courtesy return salute with their gloved hands. Over time I began to notice more of the details that drew me even further into the half-scary, half-striking world of the iron horse. I vividly remember the striped overalls and jacket that the engineers wore, always buttoned to the top to insure hot cinders would not go down their collar. The engineer’s cap was made of a ‘ticking’ material that looked much the same as common mattresses of the day. This outfit became an immediate badge of the railroader. You can still buy those hats at some stores and ‘on-line,’ but they never have become popular except for railroaders.
One day my Mom pointed out the big drive wheels and told me never to stand too close to the track because those wheels could suck a boy underneath to his end and destruction. My, I thought, how that would hurt! I envisioned being cut asunder with my young body parts flying in different directions. I determined right then that I would always stay well away from those thundering wheels. Like reverse psychology, it actually made me look at the wheels, as if hypnotized by their turning and their threat to reach out and pull this poor urchin to his death. Over time I took notice that some engines had more drive wheels. I began to count them and was thrilled when I’d see three or four of the larger wheels on each side. Many locomotives had only two large wheels. One day I saw one pulling coal cars with four drive wheels! I thought, what power this engine must have. I also wondered if I should stand even further away, but resolved to turn and run at the first sign of suction. Apparently I was already at a safe distance.
After moving to my Great-grandmother’s home on Clay Street, mom and I walked the two blocks to the depot to meet someone who was coming to town for a visit. I didn’t really know the people, so of course my focus was on the big train. When it pulled in front of the station the engine stopped very near to the intersection at Madison, rather than going down a half a block further and totally blocking the road. The passenger train that day only had one or two coaches along with the usual mail car. The steam rose all around the cars and surprised me with a sudden blast of white clouds of hot, moist air. Still holding my mother’s hand, I jumped as if ready to turn tail and lite out for home, but mom pulled me back. With tears running down my cheeks, I held to her skirted leg for protection.
With the train at a complete stop the conductor swung out from one of the greenish passenger cars wearing his navy-blue uniform with all the brass buttons. He placed a step on the concrete, and from there he disembarked and began to help passengers down on the platform. Still holding my hand tightly, mom took me toward a group of people that had just stepped off. She greeted them, gave hugs all around, and then pulled me back behind the depot where suitcases and tied boxes were collected to carry home.
I kept watching the train. I remember hearing the big brass bell ring out to warn everyone that the train was about to move out. Mom saw my interest and took me back onto the platform when she pointed out that the conductor was waving his lantern. I saw the engineer give a nod back and turn to drive the train away. The engine slowly began to move forward. It hadn’t gone far when the big wheels seemed to slip on the shiny rails and spin, only to catch hold and pick up speed. It wasn’t long before the train pulled out of the station and disappeared down the tracks. I guess the people we came to meet came along home with us, but that part of the trip is long forgotten.
My first actual trip in one of these ‘not so fancy’ passenger cars was a real education for this little tyke, I can tell you. I guess we traveled to Huntington, but I’m not sure except to say that we had little reason to go anywhere else. We lived with my uncle there for a few months during my third year in grade school, but it didn’t work out for us so I rejoined my classmates back in Louisa.
The long car wasn’t fancy. I don’t think the sides were wooden like the ones I saw in some of the cowboy movies I’d seen at the Garden. I think they were sheet metal, painted army green. The seats were hard, barely better than sitting on wooden benches. Some faced the front, but a couple faced the aisle with their backs to the windows. All the metal was painted olive drab, including the steel floors at the top of the entry. Some of the paint had worn off from the foot-traffic. I recall that the car was full of men, mostly blue-collar workers (I didn’t know what that was, of course), or farmers. They were friendly to me as well as to mom, a couple of them giving up their seat for us.
As we traveled, I was surprised that the cars swayed so much making it impossible to stand without holding on. Later, as we traveled it seemed better with a few jerky exceptions. The sound of the steel wheels riding over the joints of the rails became a kind of music with its own tempo. The faster the train, the faster the clicking, but the sound was always there no matter what the speed. As I looked out the windows I saw roads, farms, creeks, and a few cars and trucks. On the right side I could sometimes see the Big Sandy. We went right past some little buildings that looked like miniature stations, but we stopped at other places to let someone on or off where there was no station house or depot at all. Throughout the trip I could barely hear the whistle because the engine was so far ahead. Once or twice I even wondered if I had really heard it, or just had imagined the lonesome sound. I also wondered what it would be like to ride in the engine. I guessed it would have been hot, smoky and dirty. Later I found out that this guess was very much on target.
Over time I would road the rails a few times, but the trains became more modern. It was a modern streamliner that took me away from the valley I called home after high school. First, I went to Detroit, there to be sworn into the Air Force. Then, a three day trip from Detroit would take me through Cincinnati, then St. Louis, on south through corn fields, then oil fields and finally to the middle of Texas. I had arrived at the station in famous San Antonio. I lived in luxury those three days on the train. I had full run of the various cars including some observation cars and a wonderful dining car. I had my own Pullman compartment, which was comfortable and had its own shower. I think the train had a name called ‘The Sportsman.’ After basic training, I took the same train back, but this time stopping and changing trains in Ashland so I could take a couple of weeks’ vacation at home. Finally, back on an older train I crossed West Virginia and finally arrived on the East coast where I still live.
I rode the train back to Kentucky a couple of times. Once I took one to Catlettsburg to visit the home of my old preacher who had a new assignment there. I confess it was really about one of his daughters. I remember him teasing Kaye at the church service. When I went to return to Virginia, a major snow storm actually held the train up, so I was AWOL. I called the First Sargent and told him of my dilemma. When I got back, I ran into the Captain who began to chew me out for not reporting. I told him that I had called the sergeant and couldn’t help the train having to stop. The Captain turned red and went off to see why he hadn’t been told I’d called. Uh, oh.
My first introduction to the train brings back many memories, mostly romantic and nostalgic, but a few were negative. I became aware that cars were often hit on the tracks and that people would die. Some were trapped on the tracks and killed, I remember the awful tragedy in Fort Gay when a car load of kids lost their lives. Oh, what a void I’m sure that made in lives of those affected. Even the men that had to work to clean up the site were surely traumatized. Both communities were saddened by this event. Of course the face of Louisa changed one day when a truck was hit sending petroleum all around. This resulted in the loss of several buildings, including the depot. Sadly, I understand one person died in the inferno.
The rails changed the face of America for a season. Just barely before the civil war steel tracks were being laid. Still, it took a few years standard gage were used and a network of standardized rails opened grand arteries of train travel, whether for commerce or access to places once far back in the boonies. Goods were shipped at many times the speed and a faction of the cost. When finally refrigeration was added, the gardens of the nation were shipped easily even to the backwoods of Kentucky.
Trains took solders off to war, hauled seed and grain to market, and sometimes cattle, too. Steel and oil were shipped all around this nation. Many workers would commute to larger populated centers. Jobs in faraway places like Columbus, Detroit, Cincinnati, or even Washington, could be taken so working fathers took an apartment for the work week and then came home on weekends. Trains made a difference in nearly everyone’s lives. Trains still matter today, especially for shipping coal and foodstuff, but they have had to compete with the improved highways that allow eighteen wheelers to haul the goods even where train tracks have not been laid. Trucks don’t have to go to railheads, depots, or whistle stops. They go nearly everywhere and can do it faster. While shipments are smaller, there are more of them working at competitive prices.
The shipping industry employs hundreds of thousands of people that make our lives easier. We can place an order on our hand devices, or PC’s and have many things delivered to our doors within a day or two. Goods are shipped to the market centers all over this nation, most produce and grain still arrive by train. Up and down the east coast many people use trains for commutes. A few take excursions to see the parks and sights our grand continent has to offer. Trains are very much alive, offering wonderful site-seeing trips across various parts of our great nation. They take people cross country in comfort, and show them things from the observation cars that they might otherwise never see. I have been lucky enough to have seen a lot of this piece of history and I am glad.
Many of our forefathers worked on the rails in one manner or another. They were a large employer in the Big Sandy valley and helped all of us with our material needs. They still run black lumps of coal from deep in the mountains to a port only a few miles from my home. In fact, the coal trains that passed my house in Louisa would dump their loads here at the port to load on ships. The piles of the black substance are then loaded on ships headed all around the globe. Trains continue to affect our lives through travel and commerce. Slow down and take a trip sometime, if for no other reason than just to have the experience. It could be fun and at least educational for those that have not ridden rails before, and would bring back memories to those of us who have. If you do, write me and tell me about it.