The Romance of the Rails
I've been fascinated with trains since I was quite small. Some very early memories, dim and more simple vignettes, involve drives with my parents from
Arizona to Flagstaff
to meet a train bringing my maternal grandparents from Kentucky for a visit. I could not tell you
if the locomotives were steam or diesel, but retain the noise and the sense of
almost frightful power I felt as the trains pulled up. They stopped at the
Tudor style brick depot at Flagstaff.
That depot still stands, much the same in external appearance. It was almost an
anomaly since so many of the Santa Fe
depots were in the Spanish colonial style.
|Flagstaff Depot c: 1966|
Grandpa Witt I knew well as he did not die until 1998 at the age of 100 years and ten months! His work was on the administrative side—there was and still is a great deal of paperwork involved in operating a railroad—and his last job was chief clerk in a division office of the Louisville and Nashville, now absorbed into the CSX which along with the Norfolk & Southern comprise the two major eastern lines in the post merger era. At any rate, I’ve heard about trains all my life. Perhaps it is in the genes.
In the middle 1950s, after our family moved from Jerome down to Clarkdale, there were actual trains to watch. One did not come every day but “the local” came to town at least once or twice a week. At that time, a lot more goods were moved by rail, especially to areas like the
which was then
accessed only by narrow two lane mountain highways difficult for large semis to
travel. Most truck traffic was the shorter “bob tail” type with none of the
fifty footers or double trailers we often see now. There was also the Railway
Express Agency which brought packages to many folks before UPS and FEDEX were
It wasn’t long before both my kid brother and I were watching for the train’s arrival. As soon as my brother Charlie was allowed to leave the yard, he would run down to the edge of the hill overlooking the spur track just east of our part of town so he could watch the trains. The locomotives were definitely diesel by then, at first GP-9s adorned in the black and white “zebra stripe” paint scheme that ATSF (Santa Fe) used then on freight locos. A bit later they were redone into the blue and gold that became familiar to us in the sixties. Once the cement plant was built between Clarkdale and Jerome and began to ship material off for the building of the Glenn Canyon Dam, traffic picked up to a minimum of two trains a week and often more.
We became friends with the local track inspector, a grandfatherly old gentleman named Earl Ragsdale. Charlie, especially, made it a point to visit with him and learn the current railroad gossip and news. Earl always drove his motorcar, a small mechanized vehicle that ran on the tracks, to check the track for safety before the train traversed it. The line ran from Drake, where the branch line joined the main transcon line of
to Clarkdale. The “local” originated in
Prescott which is now totally cut off from the rails but then was a fairly busy
place with one of the iconic Spanish colonial style depots.
Charlie became a minor expert on the various types of cars, the locomotives and the specialized maintenance equipment which came in periodically with “work trains” which were crews with different specialties employed to do maintenance and repair of track, bridges, signals and other structures on which the trains depended. There were burro cranes and various surfacing machines, flat cars and box cars hauling supplies and materiel, and a few other machines. He created notebooks full of car numbers and sketches of various special or unusual equipment.
At that time, especially on a branch or spur line, a great deal of the work was manpower intensive. The men in the gangs lived in “camp cars” which were old box cars and sometimes passenger coaches converted to use as bunk houses and a kitchen. It was a step above tents but not a big one. Conditions were pretty primitive! Most of the workers were single although some did go home to families on weekends and holidays.
This practice is a thing of the past today, too. Such crews now stay in motels or use their own trailers or motor homes and get a per diem to cover—ostensibly—their away-from-home expenses. Much more work is done by a wide range of elaborate machines although there is still some manual labor, too. However, Charlie got to experience the traditional life first hand when he started work on the
Denver and Rio Grande in the early 1970s. He worked out
on the track for a few years and learned a lot. It was a good experience for a
single young man at that time.
Later he became a section foreman and held some other positions. Eventually he got involved in the union side of the business, representing the maintenance workers, and spent the last third of his thirty eight year career in that effort ending as General Chairman for the former D&RG BMWE people. I keep telling him he needs to write some stories or books because there are not too many folks around who got to see railroading as it once was in the latter phase of its glory days. Although he can write quite well, Charlie is more of a musician than a writer and can’t seem to find time to start on this. I am not sure if I could ghost write for him or not!
Back to the other part of the story. In 1964 we had a very wet summer. It was a big nuisance to the livestock business the family was involved in at that time We seemed to be fighting muck and mess for weeks and dealing with washed out roads, muddy corrals and trying to keep feed dry and healthy. The railroad had its own problems. One bridge in Clarkdale was washed out, repaired, and washed out again the day after the B&B (bridge and building—carpenters and heavy construction work) gang pulled out! The second time, they were in town from August into November. The foreman of that outfit became a friend of ours and eventually my first serious adult love affair.
Of course that link really solidified my interest in the railroad business. Charlie had a crush for awhile on the daughter of a machine operator who was in town for a number of weeks, long enough that his family came along and they lived in a big former coach car made into quarters for them. The girl enrolled in school for part of a semester and was Charlie’s first girl friend as a middle school student. So we both had a new motive to keep tabs on the railroads.
Still, I had never ridden on a train. That finally happened over the holiday season in 1965 when I “ran away” since I left home in a rather impromptu manner to spend time with my aunts in
. I rode the San Francisco
Chief from Sacramento,
CA Flagstaff to
and later back the same route. This train was the equivalent of the famed Super
Chief although it went north from Stockton, CA Barstow instead
of to Los Angeles.
I even got to ride through the infamous Tehachapi Loop and its tunnels.
I decided such travel was wonderful! A year or two later, while I was in college, I made that trip a couple more times and also went south to end up at San Bernardino where I visited a friend who lived in that area. I have only ridden on a couple of tourist excursions since those days but my love for rail travel has not ceased. To me, it is the ideal way to travel! I have yet to ride on Amtrak but I hope to do so before long.
I am still a
Santa Fe fan
although that railroad was merged with the Burlington Northern some years ago
now and became the BNSF. It’s been long enough that one seldom sees locomotives
in the old Santa Fe
livery now. A few now operate on various small lines such as the Southwest
Railroad that serves the Grant County, NM mines. I miss the “War Bonnets” and
always will. The Santa Fe and the Rio Grande were both
unique and special railroads. The Rio
Grande has been swallowed up by the UP (Union
Pacific), the other main western rail carrier.
These days Charlie and I both feed our habit as lifelong rail fans by watching trains when we can and taking pictures on various trips we make. A secondary main line traveled at times by both UP and BNSF trains runs through our current home town. We can hear the trains from home and enjoy the rumble of the powerful diesels, the strange song of steel wheels on steel rails and the lonely voice of the whistles. In fact I can hardly sleep if my subconscious does not hear trains. I lived just a block from the
Santa Fe mainline in
Flagstaff for two years and didn’t realize how
much I missed the sound until my last stay in Colorado from 2009 to 2011. The sound was
not quite as loud there as it is here, but similar. You do not advertise “no
railroad noise” to urge a lodging for me!
My most recent train ride was on the excursion train run by park concessionaire Xanterra from Williams, AZ to the
Grand Canyon and back.
That trip was just as wonderful as I recalled! My only complaint was it did not
last half as long as I would have wished! I may go back when I can. And I am
sure I will go to my final days as an avid rail fan so I will try to share some
of my other train related tales in time. Among my ambitions is to ride on the
Alaskan Railroad from Anchorage to Fairbanks with a stop at Denali.