My Train Recollections: Mike Harrison – Best Train Trip Ever – Part I

“Sunday afternoon, June 12, 2005, at 5 pm my father, Joe Harrison, retired FBI Identification Division Supervisor of La Plata, MD, and his oldest son Michael, pulled into Union Station Washington, DC on Amtrak’s Capital Limited having just completed THE BEST TRAIN TRIP EVER!!! Of course for a true rail fan, the best trip is always the longest, and this one, the scenic route from Manassas, VA to DC’s Union Station, was 17 days, 7,000 miles, including some brief stops for layovers and sightseeing (and more train-riding) in Chicago, Denver/Colorado Springs, Sacramento, Seattle, and Glacier Park, MT. My 84-year-old Dad loved it, and I didn’t wear him out any worse than I did my 58-year-old self. 

The best train trip ever started 2 pm Friday afternoon, 27 May 2005 when we boarded Amtrak’s west bound Cardinal at Manassas, VA instead of Washington’s Union Station, to avoid the worst of the deplorable DC traffic. My brother Kevin and his wife Sherrie took us to the restored and fully operational Manassas depot about an hour early so we could look around and get some depot souvenirs. The Cardinal arrived on time. Our car was brand new, the nicest one of the whole trip. The little sleeping compartment, a two-person roomette, had its own well-disguised toilet and windows for both the lower berth and for the short-straw-drawing-loser who had to climb into the upper berth at night (which occurred near Huntington, WV). Because I was slightly more limber than Dad, I always drew the short straw, which turned out to be a good thing. Around Portsmouth, OH our Car Attendant came through to make up the berths (think narrow bunk beds). I climbed up and explored the small upper berth storage spaces intended for books, undies etc., and joyously discovered a nasty cereal-encrusted bowl and spoon, that looked like they’d been there for years. I asked the Steward if I could clean them up and keep them, but he said nothing; just took them. I was excessively peeved at his clear violation of the ‘finders-keepers’ law but minutes later he was back with the cereal bowl now spotless, the matching coffee cup and saucer, and a full set of Amtrak monogrammed silverware, all now reposing on the dedicated Amtrak shelf in my RR collection room and office. Thank GOD for the short straw and our patient, understanding Car Attendant, whose very jeopardized tip was not only restored, but augmented.

After passing through Culpepper and Orange, VA, we took an almost never used old C&O/Southern bridge line to Gordonsville, then on to Charlottesville where CSX and NS have a grade-crossing at the station. Meaningless, except we both expected to take the Southern Ry double-tracked main line through Barboursville where my Mom grew up and go right past (within 100 ft) her childhood home. No lasting disappointment though – we knew every inch of that part of the line, since her dad, Jesse Strickland, ran Southern’s Weyburn coaling tower halfway between the homestead and Somerset, VA, and we had explored it all as kids. We were pleasantly surprised to take the C&O branch that no one had used in years. The track was in bad shape, and we had a 20-mph slow order for the nine miles to Gordonsville before rejoining the C&O (CSX) main from Richmond. After quick stops in Charlottesville and Crozet, we climbed to the Afton Mountain tunnel and crossed the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley where we stopped briefly at the restored Staunton, VA station/Pullman restaurant. We had a tolerable airline-style microwaved chicken cacciatore dinner in the diner while passing through the vast but hauntingly, depressingly empty Clifton Forge coal yards, and after we left White Sulphur Springs in WV, home of C&O’s $500/night Greenbriar Hotel, I was on brand new, never before explored (by me) track. 

All meals on the train for the whole trip were included in the price of our “first class” sleeper tickets and the prepared food turned out to be very good. We ate steak most nights since it was the most expensive thing on the menu, $22, and we figured we had to get our money’s worth. Omelets or RR French toast for breakfast, Reubens or burgers for lunch. (The hoi polloi in Coach have to pay extra for everything – but they get to see out of both sides of the train. In the roomette section of sleepers, unless your across-the-aisle car-mate leaves their curtain open, you only see out one side.) We took turns saying grace before each meal. There was much to be thankful for. GOD really outdid Himself in the mountains. 

We began using the bunks in earnest after midnight somewhere between Ashland, KY and Portsmouth, OH, and totally missed the beautifully restored Cincinnati Union Terminal (CUT), passing through around 2:30am. Saturday morning, 5/28 came well before Indianapolis but I was up, showered and shaved by 4 am. (I was always up early (3:30 – 4:30 am) to beat the sunrise and the crowd to the communal showers on the lower level.  Coffee was available in our car shortly thereafter, and breakfast in the diner from 6 am on. Coming into Chicago was glorious for a railfan. I have never seen so many RR yards, locomotives, cars, trains, crossings, facilities, in one spot ever, and it’s now only a small percent of what it was during the 1880’s-‘1940’s rail heyday. The old Union Station, one of 11 major class I RR stations in Chicago and the only one still standing, has been restored and is beautiful. We had a 2-hr layover until boarding the famous Genesis-drawn California Zephyr. The Zephyr’s bi-level Superliner cars were great, with higher elevated viewing, but not as well appointed as the Cardinal’s new single decked eastern corridor cars – no window for the upper-berth straw loser, no personal privy, and slightly less storage space, though we were traveling pretty light and didn’t need too much. We were outbound for Denver and Bob exactly on the advertised.

We stopped briefly at the restored CB&Q depot/museum in Galesburg, IL, crossed the Mississippi at Burlington, IA and made it well past the crew-change/smoke stop at Ottumwa, IA before dark. We deliberately picked this time of year to travel for maximum daylight for maximum sightseeing. From my quite limited perspective, Iowa is the neatest State in the Union. Every single house/yard we saw appeared to be not just clean and well-kept, but manicured. It’s just like River City in the Music Man. Wouldn’t mind having a house overlooking the little Burlington RR yard at all. And it seemed as though every RR station we passed had an old CB&Q 2-8-4 Berkshire superpower steam locomotive on display.

We crossed the wide Missouri at historic Council Bluffs, IA in the dark and had an extended crew-change stop at the once magnificent now abjectly deteriorating union station in Omaha, NE before midnight. Crossing NE/CO plains in the dark was spooky. I could tell we were flying but could only see a light outside every 5 – 10 minutes and probably went for 1 – 1.5 hours before seeing a car’s headlights. Lots and lots of not much on the Great Plains. The Zephyr got into Denver an hour early, but my brother, Robert, was already there waiting for us. He took us to our cousin Elizabeth’s new condo in Littleton, where we visited, had lunch and visited some more. Then we drove on south to Colorado Springs in a sporadic drizzle on I-25, paralleling the old D&RGW line. We toured the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Hall of Fame on the outskirts of Colorado Springs, got some souvenirs, took photos and left a major credit card (later returned by a gracious clerk) before finding our motel, where I’ll pick up on the next installment.”


Rock on Trains © 2023, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

My Train Recollections: John Uhelski

Mr. John Uhelski, my friend and fellow train buff, shares his train recollections with us this month. Thanks for your memories, John!


johnuhelskiMy train watching addiction began at and early age; I, too, remember the trains at the Detroit Zoo, but also grew up with Grand Trunk Western steam at places like Brush Street Station and Eastern Market in Detroit. I also recall freight and passenger trains at the classic Birmingham Station with the high platforms.

My dad was a salaried Ford Motor Company employee, so he took my brother and me on a GTW steam-powered trip from Detroit to Pontiac in the late 1950s. Years later, I was at one of the meetings of the AATTW when Emery Gulash was showing his GTW steam slides and I saw the photos he’d taken. I mentioned that I was on this trip, and he replied, “This was a private Ford employees special; how did you get to ride on it?” I told him about my dad and it all made sense. Mr. Gulash and I remained friends for many years and stood side by side along the ROW in future train journeys over the years before his passing.

Not to dismiss the diesel engines that replaced the iron horses of my youth, my Dad often took us to the many junctions in the Detroit area. We spent much time at places like Wayne Jct, Romulus, Carleton, Milan and South Lyon, watching the growlers bounce over the diamonds in the 1960s. Great memories of climbing the tower steps to visit the operators, waiting for the bell announcing an upcoming train, throwing switch and semaphore levers to “help” the operator. All that’s left now are silver boxes trackside and memories.

In the late 50s and early 60s, we vacationed “up north” around the Petoskey, Michigan area of the northern lower peninsula. The C&O and EJ&S got the once-over by my family. I have vivid memories of C&O spotless E-Units on passenger trains and GP-30s on freights. Old #6 on the EJ&S was a treat for us steam-starved train nuts then.

My first real freight ride was in 1967 on the C&O from Petoskey to Central Lake, MI. We were at the Petoskey station and the train was about to depart southbound when a request was made to hitch a ride.  The friendly conductor told me, “You cannot ride in the caboose, but if you find an open box car, I will turn my head while you jump on.” To this day, I cannot believe that my parents allowed this trip. It was a perfect Michigan summer day with blue sky and lakeside breezes. The trip was magical for me and I only wish I had taken my Kodak Instamatic along for the ride. The crew dropped me off at the Drawbridge Road crossing, just north of Central Lake, MI, where I had a short walk back to my grandparents’ cabin on Benway Lake.  I was walking on air, a railfan for life!

I have countless more snapshot memories like this and could go on for days. My first ever train photo was of an eastbound NYC freight at the Henry Ruff Road crossing in Inkster, MI, led by a set of ALCO cab units. The B&W image is speed- and nerve-blurred , but I have it to this day. First color photos were of cigar band NYC E-Units on long passenger trains at the classic depot in Ann Arbor, MI. My aunt and uncle lived in this town , walking distance from the depot. Our tradition was as follows: visit with Ethyl and Rolland, eat dinner at the Old German Restaurant, then head to the depot in the late afternoon/evening for the passenger rush. I can remember the massive waiting room there, foot steps echoing on the tile floors. Then the show began, east and west bound varnish, pulled by sets of big E-Units. The spotless stainless steel cars hinted of exotic far away places and had to be documented with my trusty Instamatic camera — then, the wait for processing soon after.  All quaint memories in this digital age of instant gratification.


Rock on Trains © 2021, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

My Train Recollections: Richard Leonard

Thank you for sharing your fond memories with us, Richard!


My Railfan Story Richard C. Leonard, Ph.D.

I was born to be a railroad fan. My grandfather, Don M. Leonard, was an official of the Boston & Albany in the early twentieth century, and my father, Richard D. Leonard, grew up with a regular exposure to trains and railroads. It was inevitable that he should pass the interest along to me and my younger brother, David. While other dads took their sons camping, or to baseball games, our dad took us trackside to watch trains. I will never forget, for example, watching beside the busy New York Central main line west of Toledo and seeing the stream of high-speed limiteds hauled by the Central’s famous Hudsons – whistle wailing, rods flailing, smoke trailing as they rushed by our vantage point. Of course the New York Central, which leased the Boston & Albany, was my father’s favorite railroad. (He despised the rival Pennsylvania!)

But until I became a teenager, I was dependent on my father to take us to places where we could observe the world of railroading — for example, to the Michigan Central’s shops in Jackson, Michigan, where I had my first cab ride in a steam locomotive, the NYC’s class H-10 2-8-2 No. 2345. That changed in 1951, when my father transitioned from college teaching at Adrian, Michigan, to become pastor of the Methodist church in the small town of Bellevue, just northeast of Battle Creek on the Grand Trunk Western main line — at that time all steam-powered except for some EMD F7 “A” units on manifest freights. Dad had never been a regular photographer of rail subjects, but seizing the opportunity to record the passage of steam power through our village I borrowed his old Kodak folding cartridge camera that used size 116 film and spent many an hour at trackside. Other ventures through Michigan and environs permitted photography of GTW steam at Durand or Battle Creek, or of NYC locomotives in Detroit or elsewhere.

When Dad became a professor at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington in 1954, our move brought exposure to the trains and facilities of other railroads. At first the Illinois Central was still steam-powered in the area, but when that faded away I was reduced to “fanning” the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio’s all-diesel operations in Bloomington, which featured an important terminal and shop. One trip to the Chicago area took us to the Nickel Plate’s Calumet Yard in Chicago during the last months of the NKP’s famous Berkshires. A family trip to New England via Canada yielded views of Canadian Pacific steam, while a visit to Galesburg with railfan friends permitted photography of some late Burlington Route steam. In 1957 a family trip to Colorado and Wyoming allowed us to see and photograph steam on the Colorado & Southern in Denver and the Union Pacific at Laramie, where we captured views of the earlier gas turbines and the famous “Big Boy” 4-8-8-4s. Returning to Illinois along the UP’s main line we photographed 4-6-6-4 Challengers and a few 4-8-4s as well. By that time I was using a 35mm camera for both black-and-white film and color transparencies, and my brother had a good-quality camera using larger film.

As you might guess, steam was my dominant interest. With the passing of steam my railfan activities waned, supplanted by the responsibilities of graduate study at Boston University (Ph.D. in Biblical Studies, 1972) followed by episodes of college teaching, theological writing, and serving various pastorates, along with a twenty-year career as a transportation data analyst with Rand McNally. I didn’t entirely drop rail photography, but it lacked the urgency of my efforts during the steam era. For almost four decades railfanning, for me, was generally on the “back burner,” although my rail background was put to good use at Rand McNally when I headed a group of analysts coding the entire U.S. rail network into the computer for a product called “Railroad MileMaker.” After a few years Rand McNally, not well positioned to market to the rail industry, leased the product to another firm and returned me to the highway side of transportation.

The rise of the Internet brought me back to serious railfan activities. In 1998, realizing there was an online interest in rail photography, I built the Steam Locomotive Archive web site based on the photos I had taken back in the 1950s, with pages for all the railroads mentioned above. This became the “flagship” site of “Richard Leonard’s Rail Archive” (www.railarchive.net), which eventually incorporated separate sections for my “New York Central Collection,” “GM&O Gallery,” “Random Steam Photo Collection,” “Vintage Diesel Miscellany,” and much more. The Rail Archive now includes photos contributed by many others, especially the work of my late brother David V. Leonard (some of his Canada images, and mine, are in the “Canadian Corner” section of this blog). But many others, including Tom Rock, have happily loaned images from their collections to the Rail Archive, for which I am thoroughly grateful. The Rail Archive now includes twenty-one sections comprising more than 1800 individual pages containing photos and commentary, or reproducing pages from vintage publications.

Today, in retirement, I am a director of the Keokuk Union Depot Foundation, which is restoring this historic 1891 structure. I maintain the Depot’s web site (www.keokukuniondepot.org) and Facebook page. And some years ago, fulfilling a desire to “own” a railroad, I purchased stock in Pioneer Railcorp, parent company of the Keokuk Junction Railway that operates through our town of Hamilton, Illinois.

As a final note, it’s striking how many steam locomotives I photographed in the 1950s still exist in various museums or displays, or even in operable condition. These include my very first steam photo, GTW Pacific 5030, but also GTW 0-8-0 8380, 2-8-2 3734 (renumbered to 4070), 4-8-4s 6323 and 6325; CPR 2-8-2 5361; CB&Q 4-6-4 4000; NKP 2-8-4 765; IC 2-8-2 1518; Rahway Valley 2-8-0 15; CNR 2-6-0 911; UP 4-8-4 814, 4-8-8-4 4023, and, amazingly, 4-6-6-4 (Challenger) 3985! (I also photographed the famous GTW Pacific 5629 and CB&Q 4-8-4 5632, which had careers in the post-steam era but were later scrapped.) If I really wanted to, I could take digital photos today of around fourteen steam locomotives I photographed in the 1950s on size 116 or 35mm film (and have done so in a few cases)!

Richard Leonard’s Rail Archivewww.railarchive.net Hamilton, Illinois – 800-440-4043


Rock on Trains © 2021, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

My Train Recollections: Mike Harrison

Mr. Mike Harrison, retired curator at the Little River Railroad and Lumber Co. Museum in Townsend, TN, shares his train recollections with us this month. Thanks for your memories, Mike!


mikeharrison“I never developed an interest in railroads or trains. I was happily and irrevocably born with one. Possibly my earliest recollection of self awareness was as a < 1 year old, traveling with my parents and hearing an N&W conductor on Southern’s Tennessean in 1947 announce our arrival at “Rat-fud! Rat-fud Vaginia!”, a stop on our way from Washington’s Union Station to my Dad’s parents’ home in Knoxville, TN.

Before he graduated Knoxville High School and took a job with the FBI in Washington, DC, my Dad, Joe Harrison, grew up in Knoxville in the 1920’s and ’30’s in a shotgun-style house that backed up to the Louisville & Nashville freight yard (now at the west end of the University of Tennessee campus). His parents’ home was so close to the little freight yard depot, my Dad said that on baseball game days, his Dad would turn their big Phillips console radio around, pointing toward the depot and crank up the volume so the appreciative yardmen could follow the ball game. Dad told us he sold the Sunday Knoxville Journal to train passengers at the depot while the Emmas coaled and took water and let a switcher push the train into the downtown L&N terminal. He said he invariably infuriated the traveling news butches on the train who could not get their copies of the paper to sell until the train reached the terminal.

We would visit Dad’s parents for a few weeks every summer and from the time I could walk, I spent every waking moment in that unfenced freight yard watching the yard steam switchers shuttle freight car cuts around, and occasionally being hoisted into the cab for a a few hours of up-close-and-personal switching. Unthinkable and possibly feloniously illegal today, in the 50’s I could freely roam the entirety of the yard from the wye at the Tennessee River bridge to the Cumberland Avenue overpass without parental or yard worker interference or challenge, other than an occasional, “be careful!” Learning early the key rule was, “you can go anywhere if you stay out of the way,” and occasionally running ice water to yardmen, I got into the roundhouse, rode the turntable, climbed all over bad order cars sidetracked nearest Dad’s house along with hundreds of spare parts and played with the very mobile wheel sets. Even bedtime was memorable. The diesel switchers (FM or ALCO?) had a soothing pitch rise when accelerating and anticipated lowing back to idle when drifting, to the inevitable jarring crash of knuckles reacquainting. With one possible exception, time at the end of Cornell Ave was the most joyful two weeks of the year, especially so if during the Christmas holiday.

The possible exception was equal time spent at my Mother’s parents’ house at Barboursville, VA. Her Dad and all three of her brothers and a cousin worked for Southern Railway in various capacities for varying durations. My grandad, Jessie Strickland, ran the coaling station at Weyburn, VA. I have his 30 year Southern Railway service pin, and one uncle’s Flagman hat badge. Another Uncle, Peyton Strickland, lost his right arm while working as brakeman, but SR took great care of him during his lifetime, and his children until they reached adulthood. Mom’s house was just two miles from the Weyburn coaling tower, but less than 100 feet from Southern’s double tracked main from Orange, VA, to Charlottesville. The outhouse would shake when the long freights passed pulling the grade from Weyburn to Barboursville, moving slowly enough that catching a ride to town was easy. We had standing excuse to leave the supper table to run trackside whenever the Tennessean, Southerner, or Crescent would fly by or even for a long freight. Steam was gone from SR in 1953, but I came to appreciate the EMD E and F’s almost as much, though it always bothered me when the A units all faced forward. Uncle Peyton had retired to Gordonsville, six miles away where SR and C&O met at the wye junction. I’d watch the C&O trains from Richmond to Charlottesville either stop or more often greatly slow for the sweeping wye curve through town.

Mom and Dad met and married in Washington, DC, during WWII and whenever they wanted a little alone time, Mom had only to take my brother and I to Union Station and hand us up to Uncle Lynn (actually Mom’s cousin), a Conductor on the Crescent. Two thrilling, memorable hours later, often having ridden the business/observation car platform, he would give to Aunt Opal in picturesque Orange, VA, for a week or two of continual SR dual main action at the family home in Barboursville. Too often, though at the time I had no idea of the ominous implications, it seemed we had the whole five or six car consist to ourselves, and whether true or not, we always explored the whole length of train at least once during the far too short trip.

Now, I love to get stopped at a grade crossing for a creeping CSX coal drag. Near ecstasy was the 7,000 mile Amtrak trip my Dad and I took in 2005 on the Cardinal, Zephyr, Coast Starlight, Empire Builder and Capitol Limited, and seeing the grandeur of our Creator’s creation from a Superliner’s wide stateroom window, or from the never-to-be-opened-during-motion open lower level Dutch door in the First Class Lounge car. I never got tired of watching or being in or around trains — still don’t; can’t. Like I said at the top, I didn’t become interested in trains. I was born that way, and remain eternally grateful to my parents and theirs for making it thus.”


Rock on Trains © 2021, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.

My Train Recollections: Jason Fields

This year’s first blog post and train recollections come to us from my buddy, Jason Fields. Thanks very much for sharing with us, Jason!

My first memory ever involving trains was when I was maybe a year old. We had a VHS tape called “Who Left the Juice in the Caboose?” aimed for preschool kids. My family often would tell me that I started watching that at nine months old, and that my first words were Woo-Woo! A lot of folks seem surprised to learn that Thomas the Tank Engine was not necessarily the jump-start into my passion of trains.

My name is Jason Fields, I’m an ammature railroad photographer and videographer from Chattanooga, Tennessee and I run a YouTube channel called “The ‘Nooga Railfan.” The thrill of a chase and the sights and sounds of a roaring locomotive thundering through various landscapes keeps me going back for more. 

Mom and Dad did the typical Day Out With Thomas things with me, as any young child would have loved to have done, and rode behind many trains at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, mostly the Missionary Ridge Local behind steam engine #610. I had a few picture books here and there, but I wasn’t as deep into the history of trains at the time.

My mother purchased a book for me when I was around 11 years old, Steam in the Valley: A History of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, written and photographed by John W. Coniglio, as well as tickets for the Summerville Steam Special for October of 2011, which was hauled by the recently-restored Southern Railway 630. That was probably the moment my interest in trains really sparked. 

A few years went by, and I attended Railcamp, a week-long summer camp at the TVRM, where teenagers can get their hands dirty and get a feeling of what it’s like working on engines and cars. My first week there, we repainted the cab of NC&StL VO-1000 36 (originally a unit from the US Air Force). I continued to attend Railcamp from 2013 to 2016, and eventually met one of my best friends there. I’d still come and visit now and then, pre-covid, and would often chat with the kids and counselors. 

By that time, I’d really gotten pretty interested in doing railroad photography and videography. I didn’t have a whole lot, equipment wise, that was, per-say “good;” a fairly used point-and-shoot and a smartphone, but it did the trick for a few years until I got my first DSLR camera. As better quality equipment came along, so did my photography skills, having been published in two calendars and a magazine since 2016.

My main focus on my photos and videos is vintage railroad operations, concerning steam and old diesel locomotives. Traveling from state-to-state, meeting new people and experiencing new (to me) engines and railroads is a pure joy. I always plan for the year with at least five-to-seven railroads to visit and photograph. Naturally, I didn’t get to go to all of them when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, but I know I definitely wasn’t the only one yearning for more to do. 

Railfanning and the history and lore of railroads is a little bit more than a hobby to me, it’s become a part of me. I’ve met so many friends over the years, some of them I’d consider close brothers and sisters, and they are one of the defining reasons for my interest in the hobby. Without them, I would not enjoy this hobby as much as I do. Taking photos of trains by yourself gets boring pretty quickly. I thank them for always being there for me. 

May green signals continue to light your way!

Jason Fields

Chattanooga, Tennessee


Rock on Trains © 2021, Tom Rock + T.D.R. Productions. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from Tom Rock is strictly prohibited.