“Trains tap into some deep American collective memory.”

I always think May is the sweetest month. The gardens have come to life, the days are warm and the air smells of flowers and of grass mowed for the first time. I can hear neighbors working outside on their yards. Winter hibernation is finally over.

Saturday was the best day, a whole day to be outside, to ride my bike or just walk around town to explore. We’d walk the tracks to the old depot. The depot is red brick, has granite window sills on the outside and a neat overhanging roof. It was never open, but we used to peek into the windows. The depot was built in 1895 and was part of the Boston and Maine Railroad. In front of it were a series of tracks which went across the road and down a bit further where they ended. I used to figure that’s where the trains would turn around to begin their journeys back. Across from the depot were a couple of cars just sitting on the outside track. We’d climb the stairs to try to find a way inside but we never did.

Until I was around 8 or 9, there was a freight six days a week and two passenger trains to Boston. A couple of factories were right beside the tracks. The one I can still remember was a tall wooden building painted grey. Around the top painted in black was the name: E.L.Patch. It was a company which made chemicals and pharmaceuticals. I also remember when the trains would cross the road near my grandparents’ house not far from E.L. Patch. I’d hear the bells and run to the front door to see the train pass. There were no gates, just the signal which flashed red, sounded the bells and had a warning waving back and forth. The sound of those bells is one of my favorite train memories.

Years later the depot became a gift shop, and I finally got inside. It had a ticket window with bars like the ones in the movies. I wished I could buy a ticket and board a train to Boston right outside. Now the depot is a credit union, designated a historic building. The tracks are long gone, replaced by a road. I’m thankful for my memories of walking the tracks, of jumping to the side when the train went by and of hoping it would flatten my penny.

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25 Comments on ““Trains tap into some deep American collective memory.””

  1. olof1 Says:

    We had no trains close to where I grew up but every time we went to our summer cottage we drove along the tracks and passed them shortly before we came to the village where the cottage were.

    One time we came just after a train had derailed, I don’t think anyone died but I think I rememberewd someone saying there were a few injured. I can still see the train wreck in my mind, that was probably the most exiting thing I’ve ever seen.

    I’ve always loved traveling by train, if I don’t look out the window I always look at the other passengers imagening what they might do for a living and where they are travelling 🙂

    They day could have been just wonderful, it’s so far the warmest but a strong and rather cold wind destroyed it totally.

    Have a great day!

    • katry Says:

      Having been on a derailed train, I thought it was pretty exciting too. Luckily no one was hurt. At the trestle bridge we had to hand kids across from one trestle to the other as they were so far apart the little ones couldn’t jump from one to the other.

      I like to look into windows as we go by on a train and see the people. Usually I am in a compartment with only a few people so I talk to them and get to know them.

      It is cloudy and cold right now.

      Have a wonderful evening.

  2. Bob Says:

    I always loved trains and as a kid spent many happy hours playing with my Lionel electric trains. You and I grew up during the end of the great railroad era. Steam Locomotives were being replaced by diesel ones and the passenger trains were soon to be replaced by the introduction of jet airplanes in 1958. In 1956 my family traveled from Dallas to New York by train to visit relatives during our Christmas vacation. I remember the small sleeping compartment we rode in on the KATY (Kansas and Texas) railroad. Sleeping cars were all owned by the Pullman company even through they were painted in the railroads logo. I remember the African American porters who took care of Pullman passengers. The porters carried your luggage onto and off the cars, cleaned your compartment, made up your beds at night and would shine your shoes if you left them outside your compartment door while you slept.

    We boarded the train at the Highland Park station so we didn’t have to go downtown to the Union depot. The first couple of cars were an older rickety coach and dining car which was only for African American passengers during the over night trip to St. Louis. During segregation Blacks were not allowed in the white only coach cars, dining car or Pullman cars, except for the cooks, waiters and porters. I remember how the food was served on fine china and crystal with table cloths and cloth napkins. It was very special eating while watching the world pass by outside the window of the dining car. All the food was prepared and served by African American men.

    In St. Louis our Pullman car was attached to a Pennsylvania Railroad train, not segregated, which took us to Penn Station in New York after another night in the cramped sleeping compartment.

    Today freight trains no longer have cabooses because they don’t have conductors or fireman. Am Track is a money losing operation trying to keep passenger train service going on a few selected routes. Their poor on time performance and fast food type of service can’t compete with low cost air travel. Except for the Northeast corridor between Washington and Boston passenger trains are just a skeleton of their former selves. Short tourist trains such as the ones in Colorado are fun and an educational reminder of the world of rail travel in the past. Today the great steam locomotives and passenger cars are relegated those few tourist trains and to museums.

    • katry Says:

      I had a set of trains but they were when I was older and were HO scale. I loved doing the tracks and the scenery. I had all sorts of mechanical stuff as part of the set.

      I never rode a sleeping car in this country but I did in Continental Europe, Finland and Ghana. It was after the times of china and silverware but they were still wonderful rides. I took the train from Boston to Washington in the 70’s and spent some of the ride in the club car. I loved it.

      I would love to take the Trans Canada train. It is supposed to have magnificent scenery. I have taken one of those tourist rides in Colorado and the cog railway up Mount Washington, but nothing beats a long train ride and falling asleep to the sounds of the train on the rails.

      • Bob Says:

        I rode on a train once from Sesto Calende to Milan and back a few years ago. European trains don’t seem to have the same panache as trains did here. They ride on narrower gauge rails than here, and their locomotives have wimpy sounding whistles. Of course the ones in the UK run on the wrong side. The Brits can’t conform to anything else in the world.

      • katry Says:

        I love the trains in England. You can get anywhere, all over the country. The compartments in first class always made me feel important. We should have been as attentive to our trains as the British have been; instead, we let the whole system fall apart and even took up the tracks so we can’t build the routes again.

        The side the tracks run on don’t make a difference to me. I took the train all over Ireland and they too have a similar rail system as England. I loved seeing so much of the countryside.

        What is it about England which gets your teeth grinding? Did you have a bad experience there?

  3. Morpfy Says:

    Beautiful sunny day today here in the NW. with temps. possibly in the low 70’s. Maybe I’ll hop a train and join the boys in a game of cards.

    • katry Says:

      I always thought train hopping exciting though I know I never could as it is so dangerous.

      Cool day here even though the sun still persists in staying around despite the clouds.

  4. How I long for the May that I know and love. Two days ago it was 80 and I was contemplating what color flowers to plant. Today, it’s 43, barely, and it rained all night. Spring is letting me down.

    • Morpfy Says:

      peacelove, don’t let that get ya down. Here in the NW ,why we call it “Licquid Sunshine-“just add water”

    • katry Says:

      The weather is decidedly quirky. My sister had 80+˚ then got 8 inches of snow. The spring we are having is about the same as usual. Mostly days in the 60’s and cold nights. The ocean keeps spring from coming too soon. We’ll jump into warmer days later this month.

      Don’t give up! Spring never fails to make a grand appearance!!

  5. Beto Says:

    Lonely Whistle

    When the rain’s just right and the wind blows hard
    From the south southeast you can hear her whistle
    Moanin’ low up Cypress Draw in the dusky air

    She’s movin’ on to places strange and far
    With a poundin’ diesel roar that shakes the earth
    Throbbin’ low up Cypress Draw in the dusky air

    I stop my toil for a brief sad moment
    Listenin’ hard till she’s gone again
    The mem’ry floats up Cypress Draw in the dusky air

    Some day when the rain and the wind’s just right
    I’ll make my way down to those tracks
    And lay in wait down Cypress Draw in the dusky air

    If I screw my courage up enough
    To grab that box car flyin’ by
    At a breakneck clip up Cypress Draw in the dusky air

    Then I’ll ne’er look back and ride that flyer
    Till the sky falls in and the mountains crash
    And just my ghost walks Cypress Draw in the dusky air

    • katry Says:

      You have so well written the way a train touches me: its sound fills the air and I want to run so as not to miss it. The train does sometimes moan as it makes it way.

      I love the click of its rails on the track. The sound is so rhythmic I follow the beat in my head.

      Thank you!

    • Birgit Says:

      Beto, sounds beautiful, but I don’t understand “Cypress Draw”.
      The dictionary is useless, so can anyone please help me?

      • katry Says:

        By the context I assumed it was a place.

      • Beto Says:

        Some of my ancestors were indentured servants in East Texas and the railroad runs along a cypress bottom near the plantation. I was visiting there and it was rainy and super cloudy. It was like dusk at noon. A draw of land led down to the tracks at the end of a big wood and I could hear the train. In the wet air the whistle was so mournful and the earth shook with its passing. I imagined I was one of my ancestors and heard the train on a similar day. Freedom for the courageous. Just down that draw.

      • katry Says:

        Your description of your visit is beautiful. The rain, the clouds and darkness a;l combined to give the train a mournful sound, almost yeerie.


      • Caryn Says:

        Draw – a gully that is shallower than a ravine.
        Gully – deep ditch cut by running water (especially after a prolonged downpour)
        Out in the West of USA a draw is more like a small narrow valley. And Cypress is this draw’s name. Hope that helps a little. 🙂

      • Birgit Says:

        Thanks for help, Kat, Beto and Caryn!

  6. Caryn Says:

    Hi Kat,
    I love trains. In my teens I spent every Friday, Saturday and Sunday on the train into Boston to hang out at my favorite coffee house, The Turk’s Head on Charles St. I have fond memories of trains.
    Last fall a friend and I took the Acela to Washington DC just because. Yeah, it was more expensive than flying but, oh, so much more relaxing than either flying or driving. No security lines, no cranky people, no road rage. Throw your bag into the overhead, sit down in a comfy seat at a table, pull out the knitting, newspaper, Kindle, sip coffee and munch snacks and watch the backyards go by. Wonderful!
    There used to be freight tracks close to my house. Once or twice during the week, in the wee hours of the morning, the freight train would come through and sound its horn at every crossing. It was such a lovely, lonely sound to hear as I snuggled in my bed. It made me think of far away places. True, this line only went up to Portland ME, but I never let that stop my imagination. A friend and I once walked those tracks all the way out to Route 1 in Peabody. On our way back we got picked up by a State Trooper who was none too pleased about having to cruise around looking for us. Someone had phoned us in. We managed to convince him that we were not runaways and he dropped us off within walking distance of my house. The only time we ever got picked up for running away was the only time we were not acutally running away.
    The tracks have been pulled up and the right of way has gone over to Rails to Trails. Someday, I may be able to walk along the ghost of those tracks and be legal. Oh, the irony. 😀
    Enjoy the day.

    • katry Says:

      Hi Caryn,
      I always wished I could walk to the other end of my tracks. I know at some point they went on to Boston because of the passenger trains which used to run, but I wanted to see for myself.

      In Ghana I rode the trains a lot from Accra to Kumasi. I’d go first class and get one of those compartments with sliding doors. The seats were big, comfy chairs, 4 to a compartment. The overnight train was wonderful. I had a small berth and a table and a sink with running water. At each station, people would look through the windows. One of my disappointments when I returned to Ghana was there were no more trains. I would have thought them a great alternative to those horrid roads.

      The bike train was built on an old railway bed. So many people use it in the good weather that it was a good choice for the disused space. All of the tracks are finally gone from my area, but you can take a train from Hyannis. I do it every few years just for the ride.

      Have a great Sunday!!

  7. sprite Says:

    While I ride a subway train pretty much every day now, I grew up with much more ambivalent feelings about trains. Our town had a spate of train-car accidents, which meant that at one point in elementary school they showed us a movie of kids doing dumb things on trains/tracks and dying as a result. I was so traumatized that when I eventually learned to drive, instead of slowing down and going over railroad tracks slowly, the way that’s better for the car, I would speed over them as if a rogue train was waiting to mow us down.

    • katry Says:

      I wonder what caused all those accidents. Car-train accidents are pretty uncommon.

      That’s just what little kids needed: horrific accidents to scare the heck out of you!!

      • sprite Says:

        Our town has 18 railroad crossings, many of which didn’t have safety gates when I was really little. Some of them probably needed better sightlines; others probably needed less stupid drivers. They added gates and lights and bells to most of them after eight people died in four accidents over the course of seven years, and I believe that helped to cut down on such incidents.

        But I admit whenever I hear of such an accident, I do still look to see if it’s happened in my hometown. (A train did hit a truck there a couple years back, but no one was injured, thank heavens.)

      • katry Says:

        Wow, that is unbelievable.

        The crossings in my town didn’t have gates either. They had wig wag signals which are tall posts with an arm at the top which swings in and out and has the word stop accompanied by bells and two red lights beside each other which blinked. I figure it was so long ago drivers never went as fast as they do now and they had far fewer distractions.

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