What Got You Interested?

I’m often asked what got me interested in trains and railroad history. The fact is that I can’t remember not being interested in them. Certainly, growing up within sight of an active rail line had some part in it. But if I had to point to just one thing, I would say it was a Lionel train set that I got as a Christmas present in 1954. Oh, what an amazing toy that was!

My dad helped me put together the track and attach the transformer. Then we placed the engine and cars on the track and let ‘em rip. Wow! The engine seemed to fairly fly as it tore around the loop, the side rod a-blur as it tried in vain to catch up to the caboose.

As far as I was concerned, there was only one throttle setting–full blast. But the engine, heavy as it was, couldn’t take the curves that fast. So after several re-railings I learned to slow it down a bit. We had placed the track on a linoleum floor, and it tended to scoot around with every circle of the train.

Over the next few Christmases I acquired some accessories to go with the train set. I recall getting a whistle house and a crossing gate and a helicopter that took off from a flatcar. And later still I received a second train set with a figure-eight track. So we mounted both layouts on a sheet of plywood.

Much later, when I had a family of my own, I began working on an HO-scale layout in my home, complete with scenery and buildings and the works. My present layout is my third revision of it.

A view of my current model railroad
So what about you? Chances are that you like trains as much as I do. How did you first get interested in them?

A 33-Hour Honeymoon Ride

On the surface, a train ride doesn’t seem an appropriate backdrop for a romantic story. Yet one of the yarns in Old Time Railroad Stories tells of a romance between a beau and his intended. And while it may have been a fictional account, I can assure you that romance does take place on the railroad.

I know because several years ago I worked as a redcap for Amtrak in Kansas City. At 11:30 each night train number 3, the Chicago to Los Angeles Southwestern Chief, made a twenty minute stop in KC. My job was to take the boarding passengers’ carry-on baggage to the train and make sure it was placed in the correct car.

On one particular evening, about an hour before train time, a large wedding party came into the station. This was something I had never seen before. The newlyweds had first class accomodation tickets to LA. I took their carry-ons and when the train arrived I put the pieces in their assigned room. On my next trip back to the waiting area, the best man handed me a bottle of champaign and asked it I could place it in the newlyweds’ room. I said that I could and for that he handed me a generous tip. I placed the bottle in the room and stood on the platform as the bride and groom boarded the train.

The conductor was standing next to me and gave me a wink and a nod as the couple boarded. “Not a bad idea,” he said. “Thirty-three hours to LA, locked in their private honeymoon suite, and no one to bother them.”

“Don’t you think you had better get their ticket first thing, as soon as the train leaves?” I asked, “I mean, they may be–you know–occupied before too long.”

“Yep,” he answered with a chuckle. “Timing is everything in this kind of deal.”

A few minutes later the train pulled out. And a 33-hour honeymoon ride had just begun. I imagine the conductor collected their tickets before the train cleared the station tracks.

Steam Engines on the Railroads

I am old enough to remember steam engines on the railroads–but just barely. The Missouri Pacific’s Sedalia subdivision ran near our house on the other side of a 40-acre field. I could see those engines clearly from our back yard. The westbound trains really slugged it out as they climbed a two-mile grade out of the Little Blue valley. Those big 2-4-2s put on quite a show as they worked their way to the summit. This was back in the early 50s.
Yet my most vivid memory of a steam engine at work was a close-up view of a 0-6-0 switch engine in Kansas City’s East Bottoms. I was about five years old. I was in our car with my folks and the switcher blocked the road as it spotted some boxcars at a siding. We were stopped right next to the tracks, and as the engine moved back and forth I stuck my head out the window and the fireman gave me a big wave. I was thrilled that he noticed me.
I was not so thrilled with the engine. It was big and ugly and stained gray from calcium deposits in the steam. Why did the railroad use such beat up relics, I wondered? Within a year that old tea kettle would be gone, along with all of her sisters. And if you had asked me at the time, I would have said good riddance to them.
But what I wouldn’t give to see that old puffer belly out there today.