My Train Recollections: Mike Harrison – Best Train Trip Ever – Part 1

“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.”

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