My Train Recollections: Mary McPherson

June’s train recollections come to us from Ms. Mary McPherson. Thanks for sharing your fond memories, Mary!

Mary PI’ve been asked how I got interested in railroads. Fair enough question, I suppose. The railfan community is, after all, mostly a male domain.

Mostly, but not exclusively.

In many, if not most, instances, the interest is something passed down from generation to generation. A father, grandfather, uncle or cousin worked for the railroad and the interest was handed off through the experience of being trackside. Not so, in my case. If asked how I came to my interest in railroading, I blame Captain Kangaroo.

“What?” you may ask, “Captain Kangaroo?!?!”

Yup. I got it from a seventies kids’ T.V. show featuring the guy with the big pockets on his jacket. My attention was grabbed by a segment featuring film of a steam locomotive with the musical accompaniment of Albert Hammond’s “I’m A Train.” That was it; the ground zero that planted a seed which quickly sprouted.

Trips to the public library found a supply of railroad photography books. The works or Lucius Beebe and Charles Clegg were in abundance; “Trains In Transition” and “Highball” were frequently checked out. My favorite title was Don Ball Jr.’s classic “Portrait Of The Rails.” His writing of days spent alongside the Kansas Division of the Union Pacific around Lawrence were particularly evocative to me.

The subject matter of the books I read gave me my particular preference for steam power. By the time I was in fourth grade, I could draw up a diagram of just how a steam locomotive functioned. By the time I was in junior high school, terms such as Stephenson, Walschaert, superheater, staybolt and crown sheet were cemented in my vocabulary.

I was lucky enough to grow up near Carbondale, Illinois. Carbondale was split by the mainline of the Illinois Central Gulf, and was only twenty miles from the Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad, which at the time was the only steam powered common carrier in the United States. Six Amtrak trains a day called on Carbondale and when Amtrak hired its own operating crews in 1987, Carbondale became home to Amtrak crews.

I became a common sight around downtown Carbondale, pedaling about on a red ten-speed and hanging out along the tracks with a camera and tape recorder. I was ten when I took my first real train ride, and got my first cab ride on a freight hauling 2-8-0 when I was 12.

If one were to ask me why I am interested in trains, I frankly couldn’t say. There is not any way for me to break it down and quantify just what it is about the railroad that is so appealing. Why does anyone do or like the things they do? Stamp collecting, fishing, whatever it is; either you get it, or you don’t. The why, I suppose, isn’t all that important anyway.

The sound of locomotive prime movers shouting in the night as they climb the grade near my home, with the metallic screech of flanges biting into the rail and echoing through the hills brings a smile to my face every time I hear it. The scent of coal smoke from a locomotive stack, mixed with the smell of hot valve oil, smells just as good to me as a hamburger broiling on the grill. The why isn’t important. The thrill of the moment is what it’s all about.

That fourth grader drawing steam locomotives on homework pages has long ago grown up. Since then, I’ve ridden aboard and behind steam locomotives large and small. I’ve paced Union Pacific hotshots along U.S. 30 in Nebraska. I’ve shot BNSF coal trains fighting the grade of Nebraska’s Crawford Hill. I’ve shot a 2-8-4 blasting around Horseshoe Curve, and chased F-Units trundling along a Nebraska short line. I’ve shot the Southwest Chief climbing the grade Raton pass on the Colorado/New Mexico border. I’ve slept on the ground beside my car to be in position to catch a Frisco 4-8-2 or a N&W 2-6-6-4 the next morning, and I’ve slept on the floor of a church rectory when the person working the gift counter at a depot offered the space to a nearly broke college student toting a camera and a couple of microphones.

They are all singular moments; accumulated over the years into a life well spent.

Those moments are best when shared; whether through bringing a friend along on the adventure or through sharing the documentation of the experience through the media of photography, sound and video.

There is such an abundance of things to experience and places to visit along the high iron, that it is plenty to fill a life’s work. I’ve only now begun to scratch the surface.

And those Amtrak crews that watched that kid riding around on the bike way back when? Some of them were the ones that said “they’re hiring; you’d better put in for it!” as I was graduating from college. Glad I did, for it has now been fifteen years and counting since I donned the conductor’s hat myself.


Mary McPherson
Dongola, Illinois

Rock on Trains © 2016, 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, Saturday 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!

mikeharrisonI 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 © 2014, 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.

New blog feature: “Close Calls”

Operation Lifesaver

Operation Lifesaver

Operation Lifesaver, the largest and most-influential rail safety organization in the United States, has inspired me to create a new post category here at Rock on Trains. Operation Lifesaver was founded by the Union Pacific Railroad in the early 70’s; its mission is to end collisions, deaths and injuries at highway grade crossings and on rail properties.

“Close Calls” is the name of the blog post category I’m introducing today. Close Calls has been created to make the general public more aware of railroad-related accidents as viewed through actual near-fatal video at grade crossings. These video clips will hopefully show viewer(s) how complete disregard for safety could cost one his/her life.

Safety first,

Close Call #1 — Man jumps barriers at train crossing

Close Call #2 — People inches from getting hit by an Amtrak train

Close Call #3 — CSX train nearly hits inattentive guy

Rock on Trains © 2014, 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.

Depot Doings: Birmingham, MI / New Haven, MI / Richmond, MI / Clarkston, MI

Today’s featured depots are on the Grand Trunk Western Railway in Southeastern Michigan.  The Birmingham station (1979) has been restored and now houses a beautiful restaurant.  Amtrak still services Birmingham in a building adjacent to the station.  The New Haven station (1979) has been restored and currently houses a museum.  The Richmond station (1979) has been removed and I’m not quite sure if it has been moved to a new location or razed. The Clarkston station (1979) was vacated by the railroad in 1959. It is currently being used as a theater for a local acting group.

Rock on Trains © 2012, 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.